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Excerpts From a Dr. Gourmet Interview on Diet and Aging

Next week everyone will be working on their New Year’s resolutions. I have read estimates that as high as 75% of people will resolve to lose weight or eat better. Certainly changing the way you eat is a good way to lose weight but there’s other great reasons. Recently I was interviewed about the effects of diet on the ageing process. Some of this you may have read in past columns but when it is all taken together the research is pretty compelling.

Here’s some excerpts from that discussion.

1) In general, how can proper nutrition
affect the aging process?

There's no doubt that eating healthy can have a tremendous impact on how we age and the quality of our life as we do.  At every level we know that this is important.

For those who are overweight losing weight clearly leads to improvement in risk from a host of disease processes including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and Alzheimer's disease. For instance, in one study researchers showed that  it doesn't matter what level of risk of heart disease a person has their chance of hospitalization and death after age 65 increases as their Body Mass Index (BMI) increases.

A lot of research has been done regarding Metabolic Syndrome in those aging. Clearly we know that this leads to heart attack and stroke but in one great piece of research found that those with metabolic syndrome increased their risk of Alzheimer’s by three times over those without the syndrome. Three times! That's amazing.

2) What are some of the typical complications of aging that can be avoided or alleviated with a healthy diet?

There's just so much that this one is hard to answer. The best answers we have now center around eating a Mediterranean style diet. This doesn't just mean eating Greek Salads or Hummus. It is about eating more fruits and nuts; less red meat (and lean red meats); more fish; getting fats from healthy vegetable oils; less dairy products; more legumes like peanuts, beans, peas and lentils; more vegetables; more cereals and whole grains and alcohol in moderation.

Just changing two of these nine categories can lead to a 25% reduction in death from heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Eating a Mediterranean style diet doesn't end with that though. Those who do have a heart attack have a greater chance of survival. In one study the difference was dramatic -- up to a 23% reduction of risk in dying while in the hospital after a heart attack.

Here's some interesting research about each type of food:


Each additional serving of fruit and vegetables per day reduces your risk of CHD by 4% (J Nutr 2006;136:2588-2593)


In the Polyp Prevention Trial the top 25% eating the most beans had a 65% reduction in recurrence of colon polyps and almost a 50% reduction in more advanced colon tumors (J Nutr; 2006 136: 1896 - 2006)

Eating legumes 4 times or more per week reduces the risk of heart disease by as much as 22%. (Archives; 2001 161: 2573 -2578)

Fruits & Nuts:

Research in men between the ages of 60 and 79 (none had a previous diagnosis of heart attack, stroke or diabetes). They found a decrease in the inflammatory markers in those men with higher intakes of Vitamin C. The higher the Vitamin C in the bloodstream from fruit, the lower the markers in the blood. (AJCN: 83;567-574)

Whole Grains:

Among men, higher fiber intake meant a lower risk of weight gain: up to 48% for the highest intake of fiber. For women, those eating the most fiber had a decreased risk of weight gain of only 19%. (Nutrition 2006:22;504-511)

In a study that recruited 5,201 persons 65 years of age or older recruited from Medicare eligibility lists and looked at the difference in amount of cereal fiber between the highest-consuming group and the lowest-consuming group was modest: about 2 slices of whole grain bread per day. The reduction in risk of heart attack was over 20% (JAMA. 2003;289:1659-1666).


In 229 diabetic women with proven coronary disease researchers looked at the 1° question of whether they ate ≥ 2 servings of fish per week or ≥ 1 serving of tuna or dark fish. (Dark fish include salmon, mackerel, bluefish, sardines and swordfish.)  After 3 years repeat cardiac catheterization and those with ≥ 2 servings of fish had significantly less progression of disease. Take home message?  Fish prevents progression of heart disease. (AJCN 2004; 80: 626 - 632).


This one is controversial but the studies of Mediterranean diet show that the less whole milk and the more processed dairy (yogurt & cheese) the lower the risk.  Rather than losing weight, as the dairy council might have us believe, the men with the largest increase in total dairy intake actually gained slightly more weight over the course of the 12-year study than those who decreased their dairy intake the most. This may be due to an increase in high-fat dairy products; low-fat dairy intake was not associated with weight change. (AJCN 2006;83:559-66)


Even when using all the oil or nuts as they wanted those in another study didn’t gain any weight. During the research two groups received either as much extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) or nuts as they wished.  Interestingly, there was no weight gain with the users of nuts and EVOO.

One of my favorite studies came from Martha Morris and her colleagues. They studied 815 senior citizens to evaluate the role diet might play in Alzheimer’s Disease. They found a clear correlation between diets high in saturated fat and trans fats and the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.  The results showed almost double the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia in those eating the most of these types of fats.


In one study a diet high in fruit and low in meats was shown to reduce the risk of colorectal adenomas. (J Nutr 2007: 137; 999 -1004)

Intake of saturated fat and trans-fat associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease (Archives Neur 2003: 60; 1094 - 1072)


Those men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study who drank one-half to two drinks per day had the lowest risk for heart attack of all the participants. Drinking more than two drinks per day also showed a reduced risk of heart attack, but not as high a reduction as those who drank less than two drinks per day. (Arch Intern Med 2006;166:2145-2150)

3) What are some specific anti-aging benefits of the following foods: almonds, turmeric, berries, salmon, olive oil, and chocolate?

I really don't focus much on such things. The idea that one food is a "superfood" is just silly in my opinion. We know that there are a lot of great ingredients that are great for us and fortunately taste great.  None of these mentioned is going to "cure" anything or offer any more anti-aging than focusing on the total package -- great quality food, calorie control and exercise.


 I love almonds and snack on them all the time.  Even though a lot of the studies have been funded by the growers the conclusions are particularly compelling. Everything from walnuts to almonds to pistachios.

We know that berries are good but all fruit is good so to single out one over the other is a bit of hype (and usually propaganda on the part of the nut growers).


As noted above it's about eating great food and a good variety.  Salmon, tuna, halibut, shrimp, mussels, redfish -- take your pick. We simply don't eat enough (step away from the burger and eat more fish).

Olive oil?

Whew! Quite simply I don't have the space to write on olive, grapeseed, canola or other nut/seed oils. These are my favorite three because they are available and reasonably priced.

Olive oil is the granddaddy of “healthy” fats and well established as being really good for you. I generally measure all my fats and oils and use them carefully (especially because a lot of folks using Dr. Gourmet recipes are working at losing weight). Get yourself a good quality extra virgin olive oil for making salads, dressings, sauces and the like. Use less expensive olive oils for cooking if you are on a budget. I like using an oil sprayer because it lets me easily coat a pan or food without using a lot of oil.

Grapeseed oil

This is as good and may actually be better for you than olive oil. In some studies it has been shown to improve cholesterol profiles better than olive oil. Not quite the same range of flavors that you might find in all of the different olive oils on the market but I love it because of this. I use it when I don’t want a lot of bright fruity flavors in a recipe but also it has a very high “smoke point.” This is the temperature where oil burns and this makes grapeseed oil a great choice for searing and other high temp cooking.

Canola oil

I don’t use canola oil  as much as I used to because of I like grapeseed oil so much. It is, however, a great choice for cooking and baking (and it’s less expensive).


I've written extensively on chocolate on the Dr. Gourmet web site and in my newsletters. There are great things about cocoa and chocolate but much of the great quality chocolate is so adulterated that having a Milky Way bar just won't do. Good, pure, dark chocolate in small amounts is the key. That's the tip from the French. They may eat rich food but their portions are small -- even chocolates (and pastries).

Tumeric and Cinnamon

There's a lot going on with spices and herbs and some recommend them. I think that this research on such things as cinnamon and turmeric is not conclusive enough to be recommending this at this time.

Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
Dr. Gourmet
December 29, 2008

Last updated: 12/29/08