5 Unexpected Ways Your Diet Is Aging You

Skipping seafood and sipping sugary soda can shave years off your life.

Medically reviewed in August 2020

Updated on January 1, 2021

man eating a cheeseburger
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Your diet can seriously help—or hurt—your health, depending on what you eat. A diet rich in trans and saturated fats may raise your stroke risk, and eating too much added sugar could increase your risk of death from heart disease, whether you’re overweight or not.

A lesser-known but equally important effect of a poor diet: aging. That’s right, your diet could make you feel and look older than you actually are.

Before you overhaul your eating habits, take the RealAge Test, which measures the age of your body based on a variety of lifestyle factors, including your diet. You’ll get personalized tips for lowering your RealAge, like increasing your daily activity and avoiding diet mistakes that could age you prematurely. 

Ready to switch up your dining routine?

woman drinking water
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You don’t drink enough water

The “right” amount of water varies from person to person depending on their activity level and medical conditions, as well as the air temperature and humidity. Skimping on water risks dehydration, which can cause dizziness, irritability and fatigue.

Dehydration can also cause the skin to temporarily lose its elasticity, which ages the look of your skin. While an extra glass of water won’t stave off wrinkles, it may increase skin density and thickness in the short term.

If you want to boost your water intake, try these tips:

  • Splurge on a cute water bottle.
  • Infuse your H2O with fresh fruit.
  • Set alarms to remind yourself to sip.
  • When you're watching TV, hydrate during commercial breaks.

Keep in mind: For some people, drinking too much can be dangerous. Speak with your healthcare provider before increasing your daily intake, especially if you have a medical condition like heart failure or kidney disease.

Steak ribeye with vegetables
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You eat the wrong kinds of fats

Our bodies need some fat to function properly, but it’s important to consume the right kinds. Trans and saturated fats increase levels of LDL (aka “bad” cholesterol). This can raise your risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death among American men and women. High cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup that narrows your arteries, increasing the likelihood of blood clots that may cause heart attack, stroke and premature death.

So what healthy fats should you eat? Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—found in foods like salmon, nuts, avocados, olive and canola oil—are part of a healthy diet and may help lower bad cholesterol.

What’s more, consumption of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, found in fish like sardines, salmon and tuna, is linked to healthy aging, according to an October 2018 study published in the BMJ. During the study’s 22-year follow-up period, those with the highest levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids had a lower risk of unhealthy aging, characterized by major chronic diseases and poor physical and mental function.

If saturated fat-laden butter, lard and red meats are part of your daily diet, start switching them out for foods rich in healthy fats. There’s no need to avoid all fats. Just make sure you’re getting the good ones in your diet in moderate amounts.

bacon and eggs
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Processed meats—those treated for preservation or flavor—are convenient and tasty, but they may shave years off your life. Foods like sausage, corned beef and hot dogs tend to be high in saturated fats. Too much of those fats can increase cholesterol levels and, in turn, your heart disease and stroke risks.

Processed meats may lead to cancer, too, according to the World Health Organization, which classifies them as carcinogens. For example, the risk of colorectal cancer grew 19 percent for each 0.9-ounce serving of processed meat folks ate daily, according to a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. And an October 2018 analysis of 15 studies published in International Journal of Cancer suggested that women who regularly consumed processed meats had a 9 percent greater risk of breast cancer, compared to those who ate the least.

Highly processed junk food and refined carbs aren’t doing you any favors, either. Refined carbohydrates, like white bread and pasta, are associated with increased rates of heart issues. A 2018 study in the journal Nutrients even suggests they may present a bigger risk for coronary heart disease than saturated fats. Build your meals instead around fresh produce, whole grains and plant-based proteins, like beans.

a box full of donuts
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You load up on sugar

Too much added sugar may wrinkle your skin. Collagen is the protein that keeps your skin looking young. Glycation, or the binding of sugar to proteins, alters the production and maintenance of collagen. Excess sugar can speed up glycation, aging your skin prematurely.

While no single food or food group is responsible for weight gain, too many high-calorie sweets may also lead to extra fat around your midsection. Regardless of your overall weight, having excess stomach fat raises your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, both of which may steal years from your life. Loading up on the sweet stuff can lead to tooth discoloration, as well.

So, instead of reaching for that doughnut, satiate your sweet tooth with a cup of mixed berries, or savor an ounce of dark chocolate, which tends to contain less sugar than milk- or white-chocolate varieties.

Glasses of red and white wine
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For years, studies suggested that moderate alcohol consumption, defined as one drink a day for women and two for men, may decrease risk of heart disease and boost longevity. More recently, research is questioning these benefits. What we do know for sure, though, is that having too many daily cocktails can shorten your life.

Excess drinking can increase the risk of cancer, liver damage and high blood pressure. The calorie content of your favorite wines, beers and spirits can also have an impact: Your daily happy hour habits may be responsible for weight gain. A few extra pounds may seem innocent enough, but overweight and obese individuals are at a higher risk for diabetes and heart disease.

If you choose to sip, do it responsibly. If you don’t drink now, know that there is no health reason to warrant adding a daily drink to your diet.


American Heart Association. “Trans Fats.” March 23, 2017. Accessed January 13, 2021.
American Heart Association. “Added Sugars.” April 17, 2018. Accessed January 13, 2021.
Mayo Clinic. “Nutrition and healthy eating.” October 14, 2020. Accessed January 13, 2021.
S Williams, N Kruger, et al. “Effect of fluid intake on skin physiology: distinct differences between drinking mineral water and tap water.” International Journal of Cosmetic Science. March 2007. Volume 29, Issue 2, Pages 131-138.
MedlinePlus. “Omega-3 fats - Good for your heart.” May 26, 2020. Accessed January 13, 2021.
American Heart Association. “Fats.” June 28, 2018. Accessed January 13, 2021.
American Heart Association. “Saturated Fat.” 2021. Accessed January 21, 2021.
Mayo Clinic. “Heart disease.” January 12, 2021. Accessed January 13, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Heart Disease Facts.” September 8, 2020. Accessed January 13, 2021.
American Heart Association. “What Is Cardiovascular Disease?” April 17, 2018. Accessed January 13, 2021.
X Wang, X Lin, et al. “Red and processed meat consumption and mortality: dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies.” Public Health Nutrition. 2016 Apr;19(5):893-905.
MS Farvid, MC Stern, et al. “Consumption of red and processed meat and breast cancer incidence: A systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies.” International Journal of Cancer. 2018 Dec 1;143(11):2787-2799.
FB Hu. “Are refined carbohydrates worse than saturated fat?” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. June 2010. 91(6), 1541–1542.
World Health Organization. “Cancer: Carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat.” October 26, 2015. Accessed January 13, 2021.
KE Bradbury, N Murphy, TJ Key, “Diet and Colorectal Cancer in UK Biobank: a Prospective Study.” International Journal of Epidemiology. Volume 49, Issue 1, February 2020, Pages 246–258.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Red and processed meats raise colorectal cancer risk.” July 2019. Accessed January 22, 2021.
MU Jakobsen, C Dethlefsen, et al. “Intake of carbohydrates compared with intake of saturated fatty acids and risk of myocardial infarction: importance of the glycemic index.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2010 Jun;91(6):1764-8. 
Kelly Bilodeau. “Belly fat linked with higher heart disease risk.” Harvard Health Publishing. July 26, 2018. Accessed January 21, 2021.
P Gkogkolou, & M Böhm, M. “Advanced glycation end products: Key players in skin aging?” Dermato-endocrinology. 4(3), 259–270.
RW Farndale, JJ Sixma, et al. “The role of collagen in thrombosis and hemostasis.” Journal of Thrombosis and Hemostasis. April 2004. Volume 4, Issue 2, pages 561-573.
Mayo Clinic. “Men’s health: Belly fat in men: Why weight loss matters.” June 13, 2019. Accessed January 13, 2021.
MG Marmot, MJ Shipley, et al. “Alcohol and Mortality: A U-Shaped Curve.” The Lancet. March 14, 1981. Volume 317, Issue 8220, pages 580-583.
EB Rimm. “Review of moderate alcohol consumption and reduced risk of coronary heart disease: is the effect due to beer, wine, or spirits?” BMJ. 1996;312:731.
NIH National Institute on Aging. “Facts About Aging and Alcohol.” May 16, 2017. Accessed January 13, 2021.
Nutrition Data. “Alcoholic beverage, wine, table, red.” 2021. Accessed January 13, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” January 14, 2021. Accessed January 21, 2021.
Harvard Health Publishing. “The Sweet Danger of Sugar.” November 5, 2019. Accessed January 26, 2021.
C Cao, Z Xiao, et al. “Diet and Skin Aging-From the Perspective of Food Nutrition.” Nutrients. March 2020. 12(3), 870.
American Heart Association. “Cooking to Lower Cholesterol.” November 11, 2020. Accessed January 26, 2021.
Mayo Clinic. “Nutrition and healthy eating: Alcohol use: Weighing risks and benefits.” October 14, 2020. Accessed January 13, 2021.
HT Lai, MC de Oliveira Otto, et al. “Serial circulating omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and healthy ageing among older adults in the Cardiovascular Health Study: prospective cohort study.” BMJ. 2018 Oct 17;363:k4067.
NJ Temple. “Fat, Sugar, Whole Grains and Heart Disease: 50 Years of Confusion.” Nutrients. January 2018. 10(1), 39.

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