There are many benefits of low-carb diets. Best known as a diet to produce rapid fat loss, low-carb diets are also effective for all of the following:
Lowering insulin levels and treating diabetes
Lowering triglycerides and preventing heart disease
Reducing appetite and allowing for less preoccupation with food
Improving fat burning and facilitating steady energy levels
One of the lesser-known but powerful benefits of low-carb nutrition is a decrease in aging. Not only can a low-carb diet slow the internal aging of cells that lead to everything from joint degeneration to cognitive decline to high blood pressure, but it’s also a way to prevent sagging and wrinkled skin.
How does it work?
Low-carb diets can be protective against aging because they lower insulin and blood sugar levels. When you eat a large portion of your diet from refined carbs and sugar, you are more likely to experience spikes and valleys in blood sugar. Combined with a lack of physical activity, this dietary profile encourages fat gain, while often leading to higher insulin levels.
You probably know that when blood sugar rises after a meal, the pancreas releases insulin to allow the body to use it for energy or store the sugar for later use (as fat or glycogen). There are two phases of insulin release. In phase 1 insulin release, the pancreas releases stored insulin. This allows for tight regulation of blood sugar so that levels don’t go too high.
However, in response to an unhealthy high-carb diet and lack of physical activity, phase 1 insulin release can become impaired. That’s where phase 2 comes in: The pancreas manufactures new insulin to further regulate blood sugar. This process takes time, which means that blood sugar levels often go unchecked while the pancreas is manufacturing insulin.
High blood sugar levels encourage the body to produce complex proteins fittingly called AGEs (an acronym for advanced glycation endproducts). In simple terms, glycation is browning, such as the yellowing that occurs when you cut an apple in half and let it sit. In this case, the injured plant tissue is exposed to oxygen, which reacts with the amino acids in the apple to cause oxidation and a change in color.
Glycated proteins act like free radicals, circulating in the body and damaging cells and DNA. They interfere with cell function, accumulate in skin, causing wrinkles, and damage blood vessels. AGEs are also implicated in the development of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and metabolic syndrome.
Although all tissues are harmed by high levels of AGEs, skin in particular takes a beating. Collagen, which is the protein that makes skin look taught and young, is impaired by glycation in multiple ways. AGEs break down collagen, distorting its ability to bounce back or retain its shape. Additionally, the ability to convert L-arginine to nitric oxide, a critical cofactor in the crosslinking of collagen fibers, is impaired. Saggy skin is a hallmark of high insulin and exposure to AGEs.
The key to slowing the aging process is to manage blood sugar within healthy ranges and optimize insulin sensitivity. Ideally, you want your fasting blood sugar level to be between 80 to 90 mg/dL. After eating, your blood sugar values should be less than 130 mg/dL. In general, the smaller the change in pre- to post-meal blood sugar, the better your insulin health is.
You may notice that these values are lower than recommended by the American Diabetes Association and other public health groups. Our goal is optimal health so that you can live your best life. In light of the fact that we have a diabetes epidemic on our hands in the U.S., with a third of the population being either diabetic or prediabetic, it’s probably wise to take a more rigorous approach to health. Lower carb diets are one way to do this.
Studies consistently show that reducing your carb intake will lower insulin and blood sugar levels, decreasing glycation and the number of AGEs doing damage to tissue in the body. Benefits to insulin and blood sugar have been observed for a wide range of different macronutrient concentrations, including very low-carb ketogenic diets of less than 30 grams of carbs a day (equaling roughly 10 percent of the diet) as well as moderate-carb diets that supply 40 percent of the calories from carbs.
To get anti-aging benefits, the key is to individualize your diet, taking into consideration exercise, stress, age, goals, etc. For example, if you need to lose body fat, you may get the best results from a ketogenic diet. On the other hand, if you train regularly and don’t need to lose body fat, focusing on a moderate-carb intake (30 to 40 percent of calories) from nutrient-rich whole foods may produce the best results.
Your overall diet is important for delaying aging too. Here are some anti-aging nutrition tips:
#1: Eat high-quality protein from fish, meat, eggs, or dairy at every meal to counteract the natural age-related muscle and bone loss.
#2: Eat a variety of healthy fats (nuts, avocado, olive oil, butter, fish, whole fat dairy) to ensure hormone balance.
#3: Include plenty of fiber-rich vegetables at every meal to maintain a healthy gut.
#4: Choose antioxidant-rich foods (berries, leafy greens, coffee, dark chocolate, sweet potatoes) to tamp down inflammation and slow aging.
#5: Avoid added sugar and processed foods by choosing whole foods and reading all food labels to identity sneaky added sugar.
#6: Supplement with colostrum to improve the protein matrix of skin and connective tissue.
#7: Cook with antioxidant spices such as cinnamon, ginger, garlic, allspice, cloves, and oregano.
#8: Supplement with nutrients that mimic insulin and protect against high glucose levels: Fenugreek, turmeric, and green tea catechins.
#9: Use anti-aging nutrients that reduce inflammation: Alpha lipoic acid, vitamin C, carnitine, taurine, magnesium, and zinc.
#10: When eating higher carb foods, pair them with foods that improve insulin sensitivity: Vinegars, lemon, lime, pickled foods, and nuts all help regulate blood sugar levels.
Nguyen, H., et al. Sugar Sag: Glycation and the Role of Diet in Aging Skin. Skin Therapy Letters. 2015. 20(6):1-5.