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Nutrition and longevity: Discover what these 3 leading scientists say and do

Est. Reading: 7 minutes

If you want to crack the longevity code, then one of the best places to start is exercise (see my post about exercise here) and nutrition. Here’s what research of some of the top longevity scientists reveals about nutrition and their own dietary habits.

Drs Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel

Dr Elizabeth Blackburn (with Carol Greider, and Jack Szostaks) won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2009  "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase."

Telomeres are the molecular caps that protect chromosomes – acid molecules containing the genetic material of our body.

Each time a cell divides and its DNA is copied, the telomere shortens. The shorter the telomere, the older you look and feel, and when they can’t divide any longer… well you die.

In her book (with Dr Elissa Epel, PhD) The Telomere Effect, Dr Blackburn explains the enemies of telomeres and cellular health. Inflammation, insulin resistance, and oxidative stress create an environment that is toxic for telomeres and cells. Think of these conditions as three sneaky villains that hide inside each of us.

How do you protect your telomeres and stimulate telomerase activity? Through a healthy lifestyle - managing chronic stress, exercising, eating better and getting enough sleep as well as telomere testing. Be wary of clinical pills claiming to lengthen the telomeres and protect the body from ageing (they have no scientific proof behind them).

You can eat foods that feed these three villains—or you can eat foods that fight them, shifting the cell environment to one that is healthier for telomere upkeep.

Telomeres and nutrition

Some foods and supplements promote healthy telomeres, while others don’t, according to Drs Blackburn and Epel:


Associated with Shorter Telomeres Associated with Longer Telomeres
Red meat, processed meat Fiber (whole grains)
White bread Vegetables
Sweetened drinks Nuts, legumes
Sweetened soda Seaweed
Saturated fat Fruits
Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (linoleic acid) Omega-3s (e.g., salmon, arctic char, mackerel, tuna, or sardines)
High alcohol consumption (more than 4 drinks per day) Dietary antioxidants, including fruits, vegetables, but also beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and green tea
Iron-only supplements (probably because they tend to be high doses) Vitamin D45 (mixed evidence)
Vitamin B (folate), C, and E
Multivitamin supplements (mixed evidence)

Blackburn and Epel’s Test

You can also do this simple test (taken from The Telomere Effect) to see whether your nutritional habits promote longer telomeres.

How often do you have the following? Circle 1 or 0 for each question.

1. Omega-3 supplements, seaweed, or fish that contains high omega-3 oils 3+ servings per week 1
Less than 3 per week 0
2. Fruits and vegetables At least daily 1
Not every day 0
3. Sugared sodas or sweetened beverages (not including when you add sugar to coffees or teas, which typically adds up to substantially less sugar than in commercially sweetened drinks) At least one 12-ounce drink on most days 0
Not regularly 1
4. Processed meat (sausage, lunch meats, hot dogs, ham, bacon, organ meats) Once a week or more 0
Less than once a week 1
5. Whole foods (whole grains, vegetables, eggs, unprocessed meats) vs processed food (packaged or processed with salts and preservatives) Mostly eat whole foods 1
Mostly eat processed foods 0


  • If you scored a 4 or 5, you have excellent telomere protection from diet.
  • If you scored a 2 or 3, you have average risk.
  • If you scored 0 or 1, you have high risk.
  • The frequencies are extrapolated from telomere studies.

James Clement and Dr George Church

James Clement, a lawyer and entrepreneur turned research scientist, co-author of The Switch, is best known for his Supercentenarian Research Study, which he started in 2010 with Professor George M. Church of Harvard Medical School. One of Clement’s main interests is autophagy, and this is how Dr Church explains it:

One of the most fascinating discoveries of late has been an intriguing process called autophagy. Although we in the scientific community have been studying this biological activity for decades, only in 2016 did the research finally culminate in a clear understanding about it and earn a Japanese cell biologist, Yoshinori Ohsumi, the Nobel Prize for his contributions. The word literally means “self-eating,” but as you’re about to read, it’s not as horrifying as it sounds. Autophagy is simply the body’s natural way of recycling and renewing its parts to avoid disease and dysfunction. It’s a process that has been conserved in the genetic code of life for billions of years, so yes, it even predates us humans.

Autophagy is how your body removes and recycles dangerous, damaged particles and pathogens from your cells. This boosts your immune system and significantly reduces your risk of developing cancer, heart disease, chronic inflammation, osteoarthritis and neurological disorders. Autophagy can be triggered when a certain complex, called mTOR, within cells is turned down. mTOR is the major nutrient-sensitive regulator of growth and plays a central role in physiology, metabolism, the aging process and common diseases.

When mTOR is activated, autophagy is suppressed, and when mTOR is silenced, autophagy is enhanced. This mechanism controls whether the cell is in an anabolic (growth) phase or in a catabolic (housecleaning) phase. Cycling back and forth between activating autophagy and mTOR is currently believed to be the best anti-ageing “switch” that we know of. It already exists within you. This metabolic switch seems to be activated by diet, particularly by calorie restriction, intermittent fasting, and very-low-carb (ketogenic) diets.  Clement, by his own account, took a deep dive into experimenting with these diets.

Activating the Switch

So what do you need to do to activate The Switch? According to Clement,

  • Consume less animal protein and dairy products to turn down mTOR. This is how you enter a catabolic state, in which autophagy turns up and your body cleans out the waste.
  • Consume fewer high-glycemic carbs (i.e., sugars, flours, easily digested starches, and many fruits) to lower your blood glucose level, turning down mTOR.
  • Ditch all refined carbs (cereal, chips, pasta, cookies, energy bars, sports drinks, etc. and all packaged foods, especially “low fat” or “fat-free”) and all natural (honey, brown sugar, agave, maple syrup and table sugar) and artificial sweeteners.
  • Consume a low enough level of carbohydrates (less than 20 grams a day), so that you continually produce ketones and are thus in a ketogenic state. Not only does this turn down mTOR, but can improve your brain function, enable you to fast more easily and help you to burn fat to improve your health and lose weight faster.
  • Choose foods that are anti-inflammatory and avoid those that are pro-inflammatory (e.g., avoid foods high in omega-6 fatty acids and increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids).

The key to long-term good health is cycling your diet so that you’re in a catabolic (housecleaning) state about eight months a year and an anabolic (growth) state the other four months. You can break it down whichever way you want – for example, two out of three months. This pattern will provide your body with periods of renewed growth of stem cells and a stronger immune system while replenishing muscle and some fat.

Autophagy is also induced by certain nutraceuticals (e.g., caffeine, turmeric, ginger, quercetin, resveratrol), pharmaceuticals (metformin and rapamycin) and exercise.

Dr David Sinclar

Dr David Sinclair is professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, one of the most influential people in the world (Times, 2014), an entrepreneur and an outspoken anti-ageing advocate. He’s also the author of Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don't Have To. As you can guess from the subtitle, Dr Sinclair is a big believer that ageing is a choice. You can read a plain language explanation of his work here.

Dr Sinclair and his lab colleagues study the malfunction of a family of proteins known as sirtuins as the single cause of ageing. Sirtuins are longevity genes controlling DNA reproduction and repair. As we get older, all the genetic information in our cells is still intact, but our body loses the ability to interpret it, because it starts to run low on NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleoticide) molecule that activates the sirtuins. We have twice as much NAD at 20 than we do at 50. Without NAD, the sirtuins can’t do their job, and the cells in our body “forget” what they’re supposed to be doing.

It’s not a surprise that Dr Sinclair receives multiple queries each day regarding what he does to keep himself healthy. He claims his heart’s biological age is 30 (Dr Sinclair is in his early 50s), and he hasn’t got a single gray hair. In his book he breaks down his own anti-ageing regimen (with the caveat that he’s not a medical doctor and can’t give advice). In addition to nutrition, it includes activities that are proven by science to extend our lifespan – such as certain types of exercise and extreme temperature stress – as well as regular blood tests for biomarkers.

Here is what Dr Sinclair says he does in terms of nutrition and supplementation in Lifespan:

  • I take 1 gram (1,000 mg) of NMN [nicotinamide mononucleotide, NAD booster] every morning, along with 1 gram of resveratrol (shaken into my homemade yogurt) and 1 gram of metformin.
  • I take a daily dose of vitamin D, vitamin K2 and 83 mg of aspirin.
  • I strive to keep my sugar, bread and pasta intake as low as possible. I gave up desserts at age 40, though I do steal tastes.
  • I try to skip one meal a day or at least make it really small. My busy schedule almost always means that I miss lunch most days of the week.
  • I eat a lot of plants and try to avoid eating other mammals, even though they do taste good. If I work out, I will eat meat.

As you can see, much of the nutritional recommendations from leading scientists is just straightforward common sense. You can decide for yourself which of these make most sense to you. I’m personally very skeptical about the dangers of red and organ meat (some very large-scale studies suggests otherwise) or that consuming whole grains for fiber is good for you. I’m a big fan of a plant-based diet, but can’t live without some meat, seafood or a glass of red vino (which is where you will find resveratrol naturally).

Disclaimer: Although I hold a PhD and understand how rigorous research should be done, I’m not a medical scientist or doctor, so nothing in this post should be taken as nutritional advice. Always DYOR and consult your medical practitioner.

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