The AGE Factor

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No, this week’s posting isn’t about growing old. Rather, it’s about yet another factor to consider when trying to eat healthfully. (I know, it seems like there’s always something to think about.) But the more you know about food and nutrition, the easier it can be to make healthier choices.

What Are AGEs?
That being said, what do I mean by AGE? AGE is an acronym that stands for “advanced glycation end-product.” This sounds like a term taken straight from a biochemistry book, and in some ways, it is.

AGEs are formed when sugars in food link up with protein or fat in the absence of water. This happens during cooking, particularly with methods that use very high heat or that do not use liquids, such as grilling or charbroiling. For example, let’s say you have the grill fired up, ready to cook up a few burgers or a piece of steak. And let’s also say that you like your meat on the well-done side (charbroiled, for instance). That burnt, crispy crust lends a savory flavor, but it’s not doing much good for your body.

Even making your morning toast or baking up a batch of golden chocolate chip cookies forms AGEs. And, unfortunately, AGEs make foods taste good, which means we tend to crave them even more.

What AGEs Do
AGEs can wreak havoc with the body. Basically, they can lead to inflammation, which, as you might remember, is not a desirable state. Inflammation in the body, especially when it’s chronic, increases the risk of heart disease, insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, and arthritis. AGEs can even affect the skin by damaging collagen.

While all of us would benefit from limiting our exposure to AGEs as much as possible, it’s perhaps more of an issue for people with diabetes. AGEs are more likely to form in the body when blood glucose levels are running high. In fact, AGEs can form simply from glucose in the blood, apart from any food that you eat. Studies have shown that AGEs are involved in the occurrence of diabetes complications, such as retinopathy (eye disease), neuropathy (nerve damage), and nephropathy (kidney damage). Also, AGEs are particularly linked to blood vessel damage, changing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol so that it’s more likely to be deposited within artery walls. AGEs are also more likely to cause stiffness in artery walls and that may lead to high blood pressure.

Where Else Are AGEs Found?
Most of the AGEs that we ingest come from food sources. As I mentioned earlier, high-temperature cooking methods, like grilling and frying, are culprits for AGE formation. But it doesn’t end there. High-fat and high-protein foods contain the highest amount of AGEs. Butter, margarine, mayonnaise, cheese, and red meat top off the list. Carbohydrate foods aren’t necessarily free from AGEs, either, however. The more processed or refined a carb food is, the higher the AGE content. So sweets and snack foods, for example, will have more AGEs than fruits, vegetables, and milk.

AGEs can also be found in tobacco smoke, by the way, which means stopping smoking (or better yet, never starting) is crucial.

Limiting AGE Exposure
It’s not possible to completely avoid AGEs. But there are steps that you can take to at least limit their formation in the body as much as you can. Here’s how:

• Work on keeping your blood glucose and A1C as close to your target as possible. (That goes for your LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, too.)

• Limit grilled, charbroiled, and fried foods. This doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a nice grilled piece of salmon, but perhaps not five times a week. Also, go easy on over-cooking grilled foods.

• Use moist cooking methods as much as possible, like poaching, stewing, and braising.

• Using a slow cooker is helpful, too.

• Go easy on your protein intake. Eating large servings of meat, especially red meat, means that the AGE level in your body will be higher. Poultry and seafood are generally better choices.

• Consider marinating your protein food before cooking. Doing so will lessen AGE formation.

• Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods, as these are the lowest in AGEs.

• Limit processed foods (cookies, chips, sugared cereals, etc.).

•Try drinking green tea. Green tea appears to block AGE formation.

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