I’ve been vegan for the past 13 years, and people often tell me I look young for my age. But is my vegan diet what’s kept me looking young? Or do I just have a “baby face”? I decided to research whether vegans usually age slower or faster than meat-eaters. Here’s what I found.
Vegans may age slower than meat-eaters on average. Studies show people eating more vegetables get fewer wrinkles. Antioxidants from plant foods also reduce oxidation and inflammation that cause aging. That said, vegans who eat a diet focused on refined carbohydrates may not experience these benefits.
In this article, I’ll cover what the science says about vegan aging. From antioxidants to advanced glycation end products (AGEs), I’ll explain in plain language the reasons why vegans often (but not always) look younger than meat-eaters.
What the Science Says About Vegan Aging
Based on the best information I could find, eating a vegan diet won’t inherently make you age faster or slower—but it’s more likely to make you age slower.
The actual speed of your aging will depend on the specific dietary decisions you make as a vegan.
If you eat a lot of refined sugar and flour, if you don’t eat many vegetables, and if you eat a poor ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, you’ll experience more inflammation, which will lead to quicker aging. And that’s true if you’re vegan or not. (That’s why you should supplement with omega-3s—here’s a post on what I personally take.)
On the other hand, if you eat a lot of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, as is common on a whole food plant-based diet, then you should fend off disease more effectively than average, have less inflammation, and age slower.
Now that you know the basic answer, let’s dive into some of the details and the science that backs it up!
To make sure you’ve got a healthy vegan diet that will reduce aging, you should consider Nutriciously’s Complete Vegan Starter Kit. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that teach the essentials of a healthy plant-based lifestyle.
The have a vegan weight-loss bundle, too. Both bundles come with print-outs and checklists that make it simple to implement the advice. Read my full review with 7 reasons I love Nutriciously’s e-book bundles here.
The Three Causes of Aging Skin
It is generally believed that the 3 causes of skin aging are (1) oxidative stress, largely caused by photodamage from the sun, (2) inflammation, and (3) ischemia.
Based on what we know, a plant-based diet should help with several of these factors and reduce signs of skin aging overall.
Oxidative Stress Causes Aging
Any exploration into the science of aging has to look at what aging really means and what causes it. Well, wrinkles are largely caused by oxidation in your skin.
A lot of people are familiar with the idea that UV damage from the sun can cause you to get wrinkles faster. Well, what is happening is that the UV radiation is causing oxidation.
Oxidation breaks down collagen in your skin and hinders your skin’s ability to heal itself.
Other parts of aging in your body are caused by oxidation, too. The little brown spots you get on your skin as you age are actually oxidized fat. And when you lose your memory, a lot of that is due to oxidation in your brain.
So keep in mind that anything we find in the science that decreases oxidation (such as antioxidants in food, wink wink) should help reduce skin aging. But what is oxidation, really?
Free Radicals Cause the Oxidative Damage Behind Aging
If you take a closer look at the damage done by oxidation, you’ll find that it’s due to particles called free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that have unpaired electrons. They’re highly reactive because they want to find a buddy for their unpaired electron.
In their quest to pair up this electron, free radicals can cause all kinds of reactions that can mess up your cells. Free radicals can actually cause chains of reactions because when they take an electron from another molecule, then that molecule is unstable and needs an electron.
Free radicals are produced from natural processes like breathing, but they also come from toxins we take in from our environment.
Antioxidants can stop the chain reaction caused by free radicals. Antioxidants are molecules that can give an electron to free radicals without becoming destabilized themselves.
Our body produces some antioxidants on its own—but not enough. We need to get more of them through our diet.
There are many antioxidants. Vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium are some more well-known ones. And there are many food sources of these antioxidants. But colorful whole plant foods tend to have the most.
Antioxidants Allow Plant Foods to Fight Aging
Plant foods on average have 64 times the antioxidant content of animal foods (source). So a vegan diet focused on whole foods is likely to have many more antioxidants than the Standard American Diet.
But not all plant foods are created equal with regard to antioxidants. Not even close.
Even when you rule out processed vegan foods like french fries, there are significant differences between the antioxidant content of similar whole foods: White potatoes vs sweet potatoes, for instance (sweet potatoes have more).
Which Foods Have the Most Wrinkle-Fighting Antioxidants?
The vegetables with the most antioxidants, generally, are dark leafy greens. Other powerhouses are garlic and onion, as well as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.
The fruits with the most antioxidants are berries: blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and cherries, as well as more rare finds like amla and barberries.
Another general principle to know is that the vivid colors found in fruits and vegetables are usually a sign of antioxidants. In fact, the pigments themselves are the antioxidants. The purple color in purple cabbage is the anthocyanin antioxidants.
Study: People Who Eat More Vegetables Have Fewer Wrinkles
A study of Japanese women found that those consuming more servings of green and yellow vegetables had a lower score on the “Daniell wrinkling scale.” That is, they had less pronounced wrinkling in the “crow’s foot” area (at the corner of their eyes).
This was after controlling for age, smoking status, BMI, and lifetime sun exposure.
Those eating less than 1 serving of green and yellow vegetables per day averaged a 3 on the Daniell wrinkling scale (see right). This score was higher than the average from participants eating 2 or more servings a day of green and yellow vegetables (they scored a 2).
In another study of how food affects skin wrinkling, which also found vegetables to be protective, it was noted that prunes, apples, and tea had an especially strong association with less wrinkling.
In a study on the effects of green tea, it was found that consuming green tea polyphenols (an antioxidant) for 12 weeks increased blood flow and oxygen delivery to the skin. It also decreased skin “roughness” and “scaling” and protected against harmful UV radiation to the skin.
So green tea may be particularly helpful in reducing wrinkles.
More Evidence That Fruits and Vegetables Prevent Wrinkles
This is an interesting study on a specific antioxidant (carotenoids) and wrinkles. Researchers tracked carotenoid antioxidant levels in peoples’ skin and how it was affected by diet and stress.
The researchers found that:
• Eating fruits and vegetables raised carotenoid levels in the skin.
• Stressful events could lead to a dramatic decrease in carotenoid levels as they are used up.
• Carotenoid levels were tightly correlated to the skin’s resistance to wrinkles.
How Eating Animal Products Affects Wrinkles
In the study of Japanese women mentioned above, it was found that higher saturated fat intake was also associated with fewer wrinkles. That would suggest that eating animal products could help reduce wrinkling, as animal foods tend to have more saturated fat.
However, the researchers also mentioned in their conclusion that this contradicted other studies.
In fact, in one of the other studies I mentioned above (this one), it was found that butter, meat, and milk consumption were associated with increased wrinkling.
In that study, Greek-born subjects living in Australia were tested for skin wrinkling. A high intake of vegetables, legumes, and olive oil (and to a lesser degree, fish) were associated with less wrinkling. Meanwhile, meat, dairy, and butter (and to a lesser degree, sugar) were associated with more wrinkling.
A possible explanation for the discrepancy between these two studies’ findings was that the studies were based on relative saturated fat intake, not total intake. And they were measuring subjects from different cultural regions.
Total saturated fat intake is significantly lower in Japan compared to a lot of Western countries. So it’s possible that the study of Japanese women was showing the benefit of increased saturated fat intake up to a certain level, while the Australian study was showing a benefit for limited saturated fat intake past a certain level… Or maybe it was some other kind of bad/incomplete data!
But at this point, we’re just seeing mixed data on the effect of saturated fat (from animal foods) on skin aging.
“Meat-Based Diets” Cause More Inflammation
As we covered above, one of the three major causes of skin damage is inflammation.
This study looked at biomarkers of chronic inflammation, predominantly C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, and their correlations to diet.
The study found that “meat-based or ‘Western-like’ [dietary] patterns tended to be positively associated with biomarkers of inflammation… while vegetable- and fruit-based or ‘healthy’ patterns tended to be inversely associated.”
Now, not all vegan diets actually contain a lot of vegetables and fruits. But the vegans who do eat their veggies should experience relatively low levels of inflammation, as they don’t have meat contributing to their inflammation levels.
So this is another point for vegans aging slower due to less inflammation.
Why Vegetarians Live Longer: Epigenetics!
The term “epigenetics” refers to changes in your gene expression. Although we’re born with a certain set of genes, the levels of expression of those genes can be impacted by lifestyle factors such as dietary changes.
It actually happens due to adjustments in how tightly coiled your DNA is in specific regions. If it’s more tightly coiled, the genes won’t all get fully expressed. And your diet can actually impact processes like methylation that affect how tightly your DNA is coiled.
This is very exciting because you can essentially upgrade your genes by changing your diet. The developing science of epigenetics is going to be exciting to watch.
One exciting epigenetic change that is relevant to vegans and aging is the documented effect of a vegetarian diet on superoxide dismutase expression.
“Superoxide Dismutase” and How It Affects Aging
Before we can answer this, we need to revisit the basic idea that aging is, in large part, oxidation. Oxidation causes wrinkles, memory loss—all kinds of bad stuff as we age.
So again, to slow down the aging process, we need to slow down oxidation. And we’ve covered above how antioxidants in foods can help slow down the oxidation.
But unfortunately, the antioxidants we eat can’t make it inside a specific and very important part of your body’s cells—the mitochondria.
You may have learned about mitochondria in a high school or college biology class as being “the powerhouse of the cell.” It’s where food molecules like glucose get turned into energy that the body can use.
Well, part of the byproduct of that process of turning food into usable energy for the body is oxidation. So we need some antioxidants inside of our mitochondria to help offset that oxidation. Enter superoxide dismutase.
Superoxide Dismutase and Aging in Vegetarians
So, mitochondrial superoxide dismutase (MnSOD) is the antioxidant your body uses inside the mitochondria. But levels of superoxide dismutase activity vary between different people.
This is actually thought to be one of the main reasons that women live longer than men. Women typically have higher levels of superoxide dismutase activity—so they have less oxidative aging inside of their mitochondria—so their mitochondria last longer.
But vegetarians have also been found to have significantly higher levels of mitochondrial superoxide dismutase activity.
Apparently, you can epigenetically increase your levels of MnSOD, and therefore decrease your oxidative aging, by adopting a vegetarian diet.
In case you got lost, here’s the takeaway: Eat a vegetarian diet and your mitochondria may last longer, allowing you to live longer, in better health.
Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) and Aging
Another dietary factor when it comes to aging is the consumption of dietary advanced glycation end products (dAGEs), also known as glycotoxins.
These advanced glycation end products are found in certain foods and are also formed by certain modes of cooking. When you eat more AGEs, they can contribute significantly to oxidant stress and inflammation, which can affect aging.
In fact, AGEs have been referred to as a “gerontotoxin,” meaning an “aging toxin.”
So where are dAGEs found, and how do you avoid them? Well, many of the biggest sources of dAGEs are animal-derived foods rich in protein and fat, especially meat. These fatty meats are also prone to forming more AGEs during cooking.
On the other hand, carbohydrate-rich foods like veggies, fruits, whole grains, and milk “contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking” (source).
An interesting detail about AGEs is that you can prevent their formation by how you cook the food. Cooking with moist heat at lower temperatures and for shorter cooking times has been found helpful. Also, adding lemon juice or vinegar can help.
Reducing Your Gerontotoxin Consumption to Slow Down Your Aging
Here’s a full peer-reviewed guide to reducing your intake of AGEs in your diet. But if you’re vegan, you’ve already removed most of the worst offenders.
Scrolling down the lists of foods and their corresponding AGE content, most of the worst offenders are meats. Oils and processed foods can also rank high.
The remaining vegan foods that do include a significant amount of AGEs appear to be mainly some of the fattier foods and more processed foods: Tofu, nuts and nut butters, french fries, chips, and certain cereals.
The closing advice in the guide says, “A significantly reduced intake of dAGEs can be achieved by increasing the consumption of fish, legumes, low-fat milk products, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and by reducing intake of solid fats, fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and highly processed foods.”
So a vegan diet may not be perfectly tailored along the lines of minimizing consumption of this gerontotoxin—but for the majority of vegans, our AGE consumption levels will be lower than most meat-eaters.
Being Lean Can Make You Look Older
Wrinkles become more pronounced if you are lean and don’t have much fat on your face. And vegans as a group tend to be leaner. So in this regard, vegans may actually be at risk of more visible wrinkles—but only due to being leaner.
I know for myself, I only noticed the first wrinkles in my face after I lost a bunch of weight and started getting a 6-pack. I guess I lost some of my facial fat that was preventing me from having visible wrinkles at all!
5 Tips to Minimize Wrinkles and Aging as a Vegan
Ok, so, a vegan diet won’t cause you to age faster—in fact, it will likely help you age slower. But there are still some guidelines you can follow to help sure that you minimize your wrinkles as a vegan:
- Protect your skin from the sun. What I found especially interesting is that chronic low-level sun exposure actually causes more wrinkles than intense sunburns that only happen a couple of times. So if you’re outside a lot, you should wear sunscreen. Building up dark tans will likely cause significantly more wrinkles in the long run.
- Moisturize your skin. Using a moisturizer each day will help make any wrinkles you have less noticeable. Dry skin just looks more wrinkly, even compared to an equally wrinkled but moisturized face. Here’s the green tea moisturizer I use (Amazon link)—I like it, and it doesn’t aggravate my acne!
- Eat a whole bunch of vegetables. Remember the multiple studies showing that vegetable consumption was associated with fewer wrinkles! Fruit, legumes, olive oil, and other whole foods shouldn’t hurt, either.
- Don’t eat too much refined sugar. Of all the “trouble foods” that vegans eat, sugar is the worst for your skin. I wrote more about this in my post on how to clear up acne as a vegan. (Which, by the way, if you struggle with acne, you need to go read that post! It took me years of studying and experimenting on myself to learn what I share in that post.)
- Get healthy fats. Nuts, avocado, and olive oil are some of the best sources of fat. Get some omega-3 fats, too—a DHA/EPA omega-3 supplement is a good idea (here’s my glowing review of the one I take—I love it because it also includes vitamin D and B12).
Follow these tips and you shouldn’t have to worry about aging quickly as a vegan!
Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey
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2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.
If you found this post helpful and don’t want to lose it, then save the Pin below to your Pinterest “Vegan” or “Plant-Based Diet” boards!