While it is important to be aware of the effects of individual foods, it is even more critical to assess the role of cumulative nutrients contained in specific diets on telomere length, which better reflects reality. In 2015, Lee et al. compared the influence of the dietary pattern on leukocyte telomere length [27
]. Dietary data were collected from a semi-quantitative food frequency questionnaire at baseline and leukocyte telomere length was assessed using qPCR 10 years later. A total of 1958 middle-aged and older Korean adults (40–69 years at baseline) were included in the study. The authors identified two major dietary patterns: “the prudent dietary pattern” was characterized by a high intake of whole grains, fish and seafood, legumes, vegetables, and seaweed, whereas the “western dietary pattern” included a high intake of refined grain, red meat or processed meat, and sweetened carbonated beverages. Using a multiple linear regression model adjusted for age, sex, body mass index, and other potential confounding variables, the “prudent dietary pattern” was found to be positively associated with leukocyte telomere length while an inverse trend was found in the “western dietary pattern”. These results suggest that diet in the remote past, that is, 10 years earlier, may affect the degree of biological aging in middle-aged and older adults [27
One of the best models of healthy eating is the Mediterranean diet which is characterized by a high intake of vegetables, legumes, nuts, fruits, and cereals (mainly unrefined); a moderate to high intake of fish; a low intake of saturated lipids but high intake of unsaturated lipids, particularly olive oil; a regular but moderate intake of alcohol, specifically wine [38
]. This diet has been shown to prevent age-associated telomere shortening [29
] and has been associated with reduced mortality risk in older people [40
]. The possible mechanisms for the protective effect of the Mediterranean diet on telomeres will be discussed in the next section. In 4676 healthy women (42–70 years), the higher scores on the Mediterranean diet, evaluated by food frequency questionnaires, were associated with longer leukocyte telomere length [30
]. In the same study, no association between prudent or western dietary patterns and telomere length was observed [30
], while a prudent diet was previously found to be positively and a western diet negatively associated with leukocyte telomere length in 1958 middle-aged and older women and men [27
]. Similarly, in 217 men and women aged 71–87 years, a greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with longer leukocyte telomere length and higher PBMC telomerase activity [29
]. However, a recent study in 679 Australian men and women (57–68 years) found no association between diet quality and whole blood telomere length, including the Mediterranean diet. In this study, the authors assessed the dietary intake by using a 111-item food frequency questionnaire, which assessed self-reported intake of foods and beverages over the last 6 months, and the diet quality by three indices: the Dietary Guideline Index (DGI), the Recommended Food Score (RFS), and the Mediterranean Diet Score (MDS) [41
]. Whole blood telomere length did not differ by age, smoking status, BMI, or physical activity but women had longer telomeres than men [41
]. The discrepant results between studies could be explained by the use of different questionnaires to assess the diet quality and/or the populations studied. Longitudinal studies may be more suitable to determine the potential positive influence of diet on telomere health.
Of note, in animal models, calorie restriction has been shown to have a positive effect on telomere length [42
] and to globally delay the onset of aging and age-related disease such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, various neurological disorders, cancer, and obesity [43
], possibly via a reduction in oxidative stress [45
]. In humans, the data are less convincing, probably because decreasing the caloric intake by a third or a half is very challenging in that population, certainly in the long-term.
Having presented which foods and diets were potentially beneficial for telomere health in general, the next section will attempt to summarize the mechanisms involved in those effects.