Do you have a friend who looks 25, even though she's well over 40? Or an 80-something aunt with more spunk than your 13-year-old? You probably chalk it up to good genes -- or, in the case of your age-immune pal, Botox. But, surprise, slowing down the aging process is something you have control over. It boils down to primarily one thing: your diet.
The foods you eat make a huge difference in how your body responds as you get older. Sure, consuming the right things can fend off ills like cancer and heart disease, but that's just the beginning. What you eat shapes all aspects of aging, including your strength and stamina, how quickly you finish that Sudoku puzzle, and the number of lines you see when you look in the mirror.
Now's the time to stock your fridge with the five foods guaranteed to turn back the clock.
How it keeps you young: When it comes to avoiding osteoporosis, calcium gets all the praise. But another major player is vitamin K. "New studies suggest K can improve bone density and lower the risk of hip fracture," says Katherine Tucker, PhD, director of nutritional epidemiology at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. Leafy greens are a prime source -- one cup of fresh spinach supplies more than one and a half times your daily requirement.
As well as safeguarding your skeleton, spinach keeps your eyes sparkling and clear. Years of exposure to sunlight can damage the center of your eye's retina, leading to macular degeneration and blindness. But spinach is the number one source of zeaxanthin and lutein, nutrients that make up part of the retina. There, they soak up harmful light before it can do cumulative damage.
For an additional anti-aging kick, top a spinach salad with strawberries. They are rich in plant chemicals, polyphenols, which keep you quick-witted. "When we start to get older, our brain cells become like an old married couple -- they don't talk to each other very much anymore," says James Joseph, PhD, director of the Neuroscience Lab at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, also at Tufts. "Polyphenols get the conversation flowing again by promoting signals between cells, encouraging them to communicate and enhancing memory."
Use it in: Zesty Strawberry Spinach Salad
Whisk together 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, and 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar. Drizzle over 4 cups raw baby spinach and 2 cups sliced strawberries. Toss and top with 2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese. Serves 4. 110 calories; 8g fat (2g sat.).
More spinach ideas:
* Swap spinach for lettuce on your next sandwich.
* Fold thawed, frozen spinach into low-fat ricotta, stuff into pasta shells, and bake.
* Add shredded spinach leaves to canned vegetable or lentil soup.
How it keeps you young: Dark chocolate doesn't just satisfy that intense craving that so many of us have, it also lowers blood pressure. That's heart-healthy news since blood pressure typically rises as you get older, increasing your risk for heart attack and stroke. Lucky for your waistline you don't need much chocolate to benefit from its blood pressure-lowering effects. German researchers recently found that just a quarter of an ounce of dark chocolate per day (the amount in one-seventh of most chocolate bars) trimmed two to three points off hypertensive patients' blood pressure. The reason? Cocoa is rich in flavonols, potent plant chemicals that encourage blood vessels to relax, keeping them youthful, supple and pliable.
Use it in: Peanutty Microwave S'mores
Break a graham cracker board in half and then spread one of the squares with 1 teaspoon smooth peanut butter. Top with 1 miniature dark chocolate bar and 10 mini marshmallows. Cover with the remaining graham cracker square and microwave the sandwich just until chocolate and marshmallows are melted (about 30 seconds in most microwaves). Serves 1. 151 calories; 6g fat (2g sat.).
More chocolate ideas:
* Stir a teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa powder into your morning coffee.
* Sprinkle mini chocolate chips into whole-grain pancake batter for a super Saturday morning treat.
* Top your enchilada, taco, or tamale with cocoa-rich mole sauce.
How it keeps you young: Curry helps maintain your mental muscle. In fact, some parts of India, where it's eaten daily, have one-fourth the U.S. rate for Alzheimer's. Curry is packed with turmeric, a spice that's rich in the antioxidant curcumin. Researchers at UCLA believe that curcumin wards off Alzheimer's by preventing the growth of amyloid plaques, sticky proteins that are toxic to brain cells. In addition, it shields us from harmful free radicals (formed when we metabolize oxygen), which attack our cells, damaging tissue and organs. Those strikes increase in frequency in the body as we get older, says Joseph. Curry prevents those assaults from happening in the brain, where they can impair thinking and memory.
Use it in: Sweet and Spicy Curried Rice
Bring 1 3/4 cups water to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon curry powder and 1/4 cup golden raisins. Stir in 1 cup instant brown rice and cook according to directions. Top with 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts. Serves 4. 142 calories; 4g fat (0g sat.).
More curry ideas:
* For a stir-fry, sprinkle white meat chicken with curry powder and saute in a bit of oil with fresh broccoli.
* Add a half-teaspoon to a box of couscous as it cooks.
* Fold a pinch into a tablespoon of low-fat mayonnaise for a spicy sandwich spread.
How they keep you young: Don't toss your sunscreen, but filling up on tomatoes may help protect your skin, according to German researchers. Volunteers swallowed a daily shot of tomato paste mixed with olive oil or just plain olive oil for 10 weeks. After daily exposure to UV light, the tomato group had 40 percent less sunburn than those who consumed only olive oil. The magic ingredient? Lycopene, which protects skin from the oxidation that results from sun damage and leads to wrinkles. Drizzling tomatoes with a little healthy fat like olive oil helps you better absorb the lycopene, as does cooking or chopping this red fruit.
Use them in: Speedy Gazpacho
In a food processor, chop 1 clove garlic, 1 cored, seeded, and chopped yellow bell pepper and 1/2 peeled and seeded cucumber. Add one 16-ounce can diced tomatoes. Stir in 2 cups low-sodium vegetable juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Season with Tabasco Sauce. Serves 4. 114 calories; 4g fat (1g sat.).
More tomato ideas:
* Toss heirloom tomatoes with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and basil for a salad.
* Sip a virgin Bloody Mary instead of your usual cocktail.
* Halve tomatoes, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and crumbled feta cheese. Broil and serve as a side.
How they keep you young: Almonds are packed with hard-to-get vitamin E (just one small handful delivers half your daily dose), a nutrient that keeps you agile and graceful. When researchers from several leading medical schools looked at the impact of different vitamins and minerals on speed, coordination, and balance in people over age 65, the only one that made a difference was vitamin E. Volunteers with the weakest physical performance had the lowest levels of E, whereas more agile participants had adequate amounts of the vitamin in their system. Researchers surmise this power vitamin keeps you coordinated by neutralizing those troublesome free radicals in both your muscles and nervous system.
Use them in: Almond-Shrimp Stir-Fry
Toast 1/4 cup slivered almonds for 2 minutes in the oven at 400 degrees F. In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil. Add 1 pound large, shelled and deveined shrimp and saute. When shrimp are nearly opaque, add 1 cup sliced snow peas and 1 tablespoon each minced garlic and ginger. Remove from heat when shrimp are white. Toss with almonds and 1 sliced green onion. Serves 4. 215 calories; 10g fat (1g sat.).
More almond ideas:
* Spread almond butter on a whole wheat English muffin. Top with sliced banana and a drizzle of honey.
* Sprinkle slivered almonds onto yogurt.
* Make your own trail mix with equal parts almonds and dried, chopped fruit.