Aging Starts At 30. Yes, 30. Here’s What to Do About it, According to a Biologist
You know how every decade your body loses muscle mass, and adds more fat, in what is considered an inevitable downward spiral into aging? This process is called sarcopenia and "sad to say, it starts in your ’30s," according to Susan Vannucci, RD, Ph.D. As your body's lean muscle mass decreases, "we not only lose strength but our basal metabolic rate or the amount of energy or calories your body needs every day becomes reduced." And that means weight gain! This process accelerates with age, making it more and more difficult to even maintain, much less lose, weight.
Well, there is a way you can fight it. But first, you have to acknowledge that the changes that happen over time don't just pop up one day, but rather are insipient and gradual, and they have everything to do with the choices you make at the table and in your workout routine. Here's the good news: You can control all that.
Just as the beauty industry has taught young people to wear sunscreen at the beach when they don't have a wrinkle in sight, so does the nutritionist savvy authorities (not the food industry, but the professionals who you pay to give you smart nutrition advice), want you to think about eating the healthiest foods and doing resistance training–like burpees, kettlebells, weights, and HIIT workouts) that put your muscles under stress–on a regular basis.
The only debate is: What are the right foods to eat? And how can you harness the powers of antioxidants to spring your cells into action, to fight off inflammation, repair their own cellular infrastructure, and function optimally, as they do in a young person, for decades to come?
"Aging is not a disease. There are diseases of aging, but it doesn't mean they are inevitable," says Vannucci, RD, Ph.D. a wellness expert in New York City who provides individual wellness counseling in-person and online for individuals age 45 and up nationwide. Su, as her patients call her, has a strong academic and medical background, having gotten her degree in cellular biology, as well as training in nutrition. She is currently working on a book, Age Strong, Live Long with her kick-ass trainer, Antoinette Vo, who has her doing 60-pound deadlifts at the age of 71.
"I ran my last marathon for my sixtieth birthday, and it was my fastest," Vannucci explains. She retired her running shoes to save her back, after a few issues, but her current workouts of strength training, Pilates and power walking, and what she calls "heavy lifting" have made her stronger than she was decades ago. "My attitude is that you can forestall aging, and by and large, unless you have a genetic condition, all of the diseases related to aging are not inevitable. Loss of muscle mass and body fat are not inevitable. You just have to work at it."
Because she started her career as a scientist her patients are likelier to listen to her. So when her patients ask her the mechanisms of how something works and why, if she doesn't know the answer she will find it out. The questions we asked her today are simple: How can you eat and workout to reverse the clock, or at least slow the hands of time, to make sure when you hit your 60th or 70th birthday your body is as fit or fitter than it was at half that age?
The Beet: What should you eat to stop aging? Can you stop aging? What is aging?
Susan Vannucci: The thing about food is it definitely impacts aging. If you want to forestall the process of aging, you need to reduce systemic inflammation. Because it's really the same thing. Inflammation causes aging, on a cellular level. So first you have to get everything out of your body that causes inflammation. That is red processed meat, chemicals, added sugar, and anything that is processed.
Years ago, Time magazine did a big cover story on inflammation, calling it the Silent Killer. Inside the writer calls it "Inflam-aging." It is such a great term! You think about inflammation, such as when you cut yourself or bruise yourself, but that is a momentary stream of helpful fluid to repair a site. The concept we are talking about is not that temporary state of cell repair. It's more like a flood-state that suppresses all cellular functions. When you have systemic inflammation in your body that is chronic, that is one of the biggest contributors to aging.
The Beet: So what's the biggest culprit when it comes to inflammation?
Susan Vannucci: I tell clients: The biggest problem is junk food and added sugar in the diet. The fact that people don't even know how big the basket of junk food is. They might think they are eating healthy but even if it is vegetarian or vegan, just because it is lacking animal product does not mean it's healthy! it may be so processed that it's junk food. Read the label. Most packages foods are so full of chemicals.
In the effort to lower inflammation, eat more plant-based foods. But eat them in their whole form. potato chips and corn chips are still plant-based.
The Beet: What do you say to someone who wants to go plant-based?
Susan Vannucci: When my daughter was a teenager, said she wanted to go vegetarian. I worried that to her, that meant a diet high in potato chips. I made a deal with her. She was a competitive athlete, a sprinter, and hurdler, a competitive horsewoman and I made a deal with her: You heed a healthy diet, and I will totally support you. You have to be able to eat all the beans and legumes and plant-based proteins that are whole foods and recognize what makes a complete protein.
She and I were always going to write this book together on what to do when your child announces they want to go vegetarian or vegan. She stuck with it until she married a guy who likes meat, then she got pregnant and so now the way she eats is that any meat in her diet is more of a condiment than the main part of the meal.
The Beet: What is the best advice you can give someone who wants to eat healthier?
Susan Vannucci: The first thing is we talk about what they are already doing to get a sense of where they are in this journey because I always say I don't put people in diets. We don't talk about being "good" or "bad," and I don't weigh anybody. I provide the information they need and assume we are all responsible adults and if you want to do this, you can.
The Beet. What is your one best piece of advice?
Susan Vannucci: Get rid of all the white stuff. Things that are processed. Most things that come in bags, boxes, or containers of any kind can sit on a truck or a shelf for a long time ... the chemicals in it are the problem. Get rid of that stuff. Flip to whole grains, whole foods, lots of water, and move more! That should not be so hard to do.
When people start to read the labels of boxes that hold the food they are about to eat, thinking they are healthy foods, like whole wheat crackers, they can be horrified. How many names do we have for sugar? Not uncommonly if you look on a label there will be three to five kinds of sugar in there.
The Beet: So if we get hungry? Crackers are out. What is a good snack?
Susan Vannucci: If someone is really hungry (not bored or in need of a diversion) cut-up vegetables. carrots, celery with a little bit of hummus, or some edamame is a really good snack. A lot people come to me with the same complaint. When they worked all day in an office and get to the end of the day, and leave to go home, by the time they get home, they are starving. They walk in the front door and eat everything in sight. While waiting for dinner. Usually, that sets their cravings up. Now when we work from home it's constant snacking.
If you know you're a snacker keep healthy ones on hand: Rice cakes, hummus, and make avocado slices. Rice cakes can be healthy but not the caramel corn ones loaded with sugar. Just basically talking about whole grain rice cakes. They keep! And also keep nuts around.
The Beet: What do you advise people who want to eat plant-based or vegan?
Susan Vannucci: As for eating plant-based, of course, most people should eat more vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. But that doesn't mean that just because you're vegan or avoiding animal products that you're eating healthy. You have to avoid all processed foods. I am an advocate for healthy foods and what works best for people is not all the same.
For the planet, and because I absolutely hate, loathe, and detest the food industry, I would say choosing a diet of mostly plant-based eating is smart. But I know people like my husband who especially don't do as well on a solely plant-based diet.
The Beet: Do people considering going plant-based ask: Where do I get my protein?
Susan Vannucci: Normally, people are worried about protein but unless you are over 80 a lack of protein is unlikely to be your biggest problem. People who are older can sometimes be deficient because they don't eat enough calories in general. But if you're not in that category it's not something to worry about.
The Beet: Let's talk about your workout advice. You are one strong lady!
Susan Vannucci: For keeping muscle mass and not gaining fat you need to put your muscles into a state of stress. I enjoy heavy lifting. As you get older and by that, I mean anyone over 30, with the awareness that this aging process of losing muscle mass starts in your 30s, you have to do resistance training, and it has to be heavy.
For the most part, women are not going to bulk up. The way I started this was when I stopped marathon running I just felt I was losing my strength, so I got a trainer who got me into kettlebells, and it's been fabulous. I am stronger than ever at 71, and I am pretty strong. I have my cadre of kettlebells and I can deadlift 100 pounds.
The idea is not to lose muscle mass, so you need to add in resistance training several days a week. and go heavy. I can swing a kettlebell that is 40 pounds, and lift 60, but not over my head (that's dangerous). I will lift 18 pounds over my head. This is how women, especially can maintain muscle mass. The reason we lose it is that the equilibrium in our body between muscle synthesis and muscle breakdown starts to shift as we get older. So you breakdown more than you build back up. And slowly over time, you lose your muscle mass. That's what causes aches, pains, falls, and lack of balance. The stronger the body, the less you age.
The Beet: What supplements do you recommend taking on a regular basis?
Susan Vannucci: Vitamin D3 is absolutely important. Almost no one gets enough D3 naturally. And Omega-3 is important, either from algae or fish oil. We have come to learn that vitamin D is essential in so many pathways. Way beyond just bone health. It's vital in fighting cancer, MS, and more. And because of sunscreen, and working indoors, staying out of the sun, people are vitamin D deficient. Yes, cases of COVID-19 have been worse for those who are D deficient, so taking D is a good idea to strengthen your ability to fight viruses.
Why Omega 3 because what's happened is we need all the omegas, the Omega-3s the Omega-6s, and the Omega-9s. But because of the food industry, our diets lack Omega-3. They have taken out the Omega-3 from foods, and increase the Omega-6 to increase things like shelf life. So for most people, the ratio is way out of balance. And what happens is our cell membranes are made of fat. They have a lipid bilayer and they are constantly turned over, like most things in the body, so if you have too much Omega-6 in your body, that gets overrepresented in your cell membranes, and then when anything happens, like internal stress and those Omega-6s get broken down, and they are pro-inflammatory. So you need to supplement with Omega-3 to keep your cell membranes healthy and intact.
The Beet: When you talk about inflammation, is there any way to see it? Diagnose it?
Susan Vannucci: So that is why people are living with this internal fire. Inflammation is a precursor of a lot of diseases, and this is inflammation is something you can't see because it's going on inside of you on a cellular level. You can see the effects, like high blood pressure or you can take a blood test and test for what's called C-reactive protein.
That can be tested for, and that's probably the easiest and most common marker for people. C-reactive protein is a marker that indicates there is inflammation in the body, and if yours is elevated it can be a sign that there's inflammation in the arteries of the heart, and that you are at risk for heart attack or stroke. High blood pressure is another sure sign of inflammation. If there should be an impetus to go to a plant-based diet it's hypertension. I tell people that the DASH. diet works which are mostly made up of plant foods.
To connect with Susan Vannucci, visit her website, Wellness with Susan Vannucci, Ph.D.
To measure inflammation risk, you can also take this interactive quiz, excerpted from The Inflammation Cure, Joel Meggs, MD, Ph.D.
Know Your Inflammation Risk
1. How old are you?
20 or less = 0; 21-30 = 1; 31-40 = 2; 41-50 = 3; 51-60 = 4, >60 = 5
2. Have you had a heart attack or stroke? Yes = 5; No = 0
3. Do you have high blood pressure (>140/90), or high cholesterol ( >220; HDL<35)? Yes = 5; No = 0
4. Do you currently smoke?
Yes = 5, go to question 5; No = 0, skip to 6
5. Do you smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day?
Yes = 5, go to question 7; No = 0, go to question 7
6. Have you ever smoked regularly?
No, never = 0; quit more than 10 years ago = 1; 5-10 years ago = 2; quit within the past 5 years = 3
7. Do you have diabetes- either type 1 or type 2? Yes = 5; No = 0
8. Do you have periodontitis (severe gum disease)? Yes = 3; No = 0
9. Do you have medical complaints but doctors can’t find anything wrong? Yes = 3; No = 0
10. Are you often fatigued, even after a good night sleep? Yes = 5; No = 0
11. Do you have trouble falling asleep and/or wake up too early and can’t go back to
Yes = 3; No = 0
12. What is your Body Mass Index (BMI)? Weight (lbs) x 704.5 / height (in)2 < 25 = 0; 25 – 29.9 = 3; >30 = 5
13. Do you feel depressed or sad most of the time? Yes = 3; No = 0
14. On an average day, how much pain do you have?
No pain = 0; minor aches, nothing serious = 1; “annoying” pain = 2; sometimes a lot of pain, depends on the day = 3; usually in pain = 4
15. How often do you eat fish/ take omega-3 supplements/week? None = 3; 1 or 2 = 0; >3 = -3
16. How many servings of fruits and vegetables do you eat/day? None = 5; 1-3 = 3; 3-7 = 0; >7 = -5
17. What is the population size of where you live?
> 1 million = 5; 500,000 – 1 million = 3; < 500,000 = 0
18. What fuel do you use for home heating?
Kerosene burner/wood stove = 5; oil or gas furnace = 3; heat pump or electric = 0
19. How often do you use heavy-duty cleaning products (bleach, ammonia, bath, and shower cleaners, mildew removers, etc) in your home?
Never, only use natural cleaners = 0; rarely = 1; often = 2; daily = 4 20. Do you regularly use air fresheners, either spray or plug in? Yes = 2; No = 0
21. How often do you feel stressed?
Rarely = 0; About average = 1; Often = 2; Always = 5
22. How often do you exercise?
Never = 5; rarely (1x week or less) = 4; 1-2/week = 1; regularly,
3 or more/week = -5
23. Do you regularly take steroids – either by prescription or performance- enhancing?
Yes = 5, No = 0
24. Do you take aspirin, ibuprofen, or other NSAIDs, or statin medication?
Yes = -5; No = 0
25. Are you exposed to pesticides?
Frequently = 5; Sometimes = 3; Never = 0 Total Inflammation Score =
Add up your numbers:
Max = 98, Lowest = 18
Your Score: 50- 98: High inflammation risk. Don’t panic!! This only means you have a higher than average risk of developing the disease- but there are things you can do! Talk to your doctor – ask about testing your C-reactive protein (CRP). And follow guidelines to reduce your risk score.
Your Score: 20-49: Moderate inflammation risk. Look for areas where you scored the highest and plan ways to change those risk factors, especially with increased age.
Your Score: < 20: Congratulations!! This is a great place to start towards a lifetime of wellness and disease prevention. Pay attention to areas that will increase risk in the future!