I’ve been vegan for the past 14 years, and people consistently tell me I look young for my age. But is my vegan diet what’s kept me looking young? Or is it a coincidence? Lately I’ve been researching that question a lot. Here’s what I found.
Vegans likely age slower than meat-eaters on average. Studies show people eating more vegetables get fewer wrinkles. Antioxidants from plant foods also reduce the oxidation and inflammation behind aging. However, vegans eating a diet high in refined carbs may not experience anti-aging benefits.
Below, 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.
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What 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, not many vegetables, and a poor ratio of omega fats, then you may age faster. 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.)
But if you eat a lot of whole plants foods—veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds—then you should have a stronger immune system, less inflammation, and slower aging.
The best anti-aging plant foods are likely colorful fruits and veggies—especially greens and berries. Green tea and other foods high in antioxidants also may help significantly.
Now that you know the basic answer… let’s dive into some of the details and the science that backs it up!
The 3 Causes of Aging Skin
It is generally believed that the 3 causes of skin aging are:
- Oxidative stress, largely caused by photodamage from the sun.
Based on what we know, a plant-based diet should help with several of these factors and reduce signs of skin aging overall.
Side Note: This is the best free video introduction I’ve found on adopting a plant-based diet—the right way. You’ll learn how to lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and obesity—all with plants. Watch the free Masterclass here.
How Oxidative Stress Causes Aging
What does aging really mean? And what causes it? Well, wrinkles are largely caused by oxidation in your skin.
Most people are familiar with the idea that UV damage from the sun can cause wrinkles. Well, what’s happening is that UV radiation from the sun is causing oxidation.
Oxidation breaks down collagen in your skin. It hinders your skin’s ability to heal itself.
Other aspects of aging 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 remember: Anything we find in the science that decreases oxidation (such as “anti-oxidants” in food) should reduce skin aging. But what is oxidation, really?
“Free Radicals” Cause the Oxidation 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 pairing for their unpaired electron. They cause all kinds of reactions that can mess up your cells and result in aging.
Where do free radicals come from? Free radicals are made 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 through our diet.
There are many antioxidants: Vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium are well-known ones. But there are so many more, especially found in veggies and fruits.
Antioxidants Allow Plant Foods to Fight Aging
Plant foods on average have 64 times the antioxidant content of animal foods! So a vegan diet focused on whole foods is likely to have many more antioxidants than the Standard American Diet. (source)
But not all plant foods are created equal when it comes to antioxidants. Not even close.
Even when you rule out processed vegan foods like french fries, there are big differences in the antioxidant content of similar 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, cherries, and more rare finds like amla and barberries.
Another good principle to know: 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 created by the “anthocyanin” antioxidants.
Study: People Who Eat More Veggies Have Fewer Wrinkles
A study of Japanese women found that those eating more 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).
But participants eating 2 or more servings a day of green and yellow vegetables only scored a 2. So more veggies correlated to less wrinkling.
Another study also found vegetables to be protective against wrinkles. It found 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 extra helpful in preventing 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 another study, it was found that butter, meat, and milk consumption were associated with more wrinkling.
In that study, Greek-born subjects living in Australia were tested for skin wrinkling. A high intake of veggies, legumes, and olive oil (and to a lesser degree, fish) correlated with less wrinkling. Meanwhile, meat, dairy, and butter (and to a lesser degree, sugar) correlated with more wrinkling.
A possible explanation for the difference between these two studies is that they were based on relative saturated fat intake, not total intake. And they took subjects from different regions.
Total saturated fat intake is pretty low in Japan as a baseline. So it’s possible the study of Japanese women showed the benefit of increasing saturated fat intake up to a certain level— while the Australian study may have shown the harm of saturated fat intake above a certain level… Or it could’ve been some other issue.
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 lower 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 expression of those genes can be impacted by your diet.
It actually happens due to changes in how tightly coiled your DNA is in specific regions. If it’s more tightly coiled, the genes aren’t fully expressed. And your diet can actually impact processes like “methylation,” which affect how tightly your DNA is coiled.
This is 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’s relevant to vegans and aging is “superoxide dismutase” expression.
“Superoxide Dismutase” and How It Affects Aging
Before I explain “superoxide dismutase,” remember 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 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. They are “the powerhouse of the cell.” It’s where food molecules like glucose are turned into energy the body can use.
Well, part of the byproduct of that process is oxidation. So we need 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 its mitochondria. But levels of superoxide dismutase activity vary between different people.
This is actually one of the suspected reasons why women live longer than men. Women usually have higher levels of superoxide dismutase activity. So they have less oxidative aging in 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.
So 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 for aging is the consumption of “dietary advanced glycation end products” (dAGEs). These are also known as glycotoxins.
These “advanced glycation end products” are found in certain foods and are also formed in certain types of cooking.
When you eat more AGEs, they can contribute significantly to oxidant stress and inflammation, which can speed up 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 foods rich in protein and fat—especially meat. Fatty meats are especially prone to forming 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.
Cutting Out “Gerontotoxins” to Slow Down Aging
Here is a helpful a peer-reviewed guide to reducing your intake of AGEs (“gerontotoxins”) 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 AGE content, most of the worst offenders are meats. Oils and processed foods can also rank high.
The remaining vegan foods that do have a lot of AGEs are mainly 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 isn’t perfectly tailored along the lines of minimizing consumption of these gerontotoxins—but for most vegans, our AGE consumption will be lower than meat-eaters.
Being Lean Can Make You Look Older
Here’s a weird side note I just wanted to mention in this post—how body-fat percentage affects your perceived age.
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 specific regard, vegans may actually be at risk of having more visible wrinkles—but only due to being leaner.
I know for myself, I noticed the first wrinkles in my face after I lost a bunch of weight and started getting a 6-pack. Maybe it’s a coincidence. But I think I lost some of my facial fat that was preventing me from having visible wrinkles.
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 ensure 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 many 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 is 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 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! In fact, maybe you’ll reap the same benefits I have as a 14-year vegan—people always telling you that you look young for your age!
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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!