You know the drill: Eat less fat and you'll be less fat. Eat more protein and your muscles will be fuller and firmer. Eat more bean-curd salads and you'll probably beg someone to stop serving you bean-curd salads.
"However, there's more going on below the surface to healthy eating than most people realize," says Nicholas Perricone, M.D., adjunct professor at the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University and author of The Wrinkle Cure. "It all comes down to how your body responds to the foods you're taking in."
What the good doctor is talking about is inflammation. Not mere redness and swelling, but subclinical inflammation, which can't be seen by the naked eye. Inflammation exists throughout your body in various degrees, and is influenced by external factors such as the food you eat and the air you breathe. For example, researchers at the University of Buffalo have found that eating large quantities of sugar and fats causes an increased concentration of free radicals in your bloodstream, which creates inflammation in the body.
Perricone, who has given several lectures about inflammation on PBS, is world-renowned for creating nutritional plans designed to help the body counteract these inflammatory responses. His clients have become stronger, leaner and healthier by following his advice.
Perricone has given Men's Fitness five ways to help you look younger, lose fat and feel better through avoiding inflammation.
LOOK 10 YEARS YOUNGER
The goal: Cut back on your sugar intake.
The challenge: Most people don't realize the toll sugar takes on their appearance. "Sugar is responsible for nearly half of all skin aging, because it inhibits the effectiveness of collagen within your skin cells," says Perricone. Excess sugar in your system binds with collagen, causing a chemical change called glycosylation. Ideally, collagen molecules slide easily over each other, giving the skin a soft, elastic look. After being attacked by sugar, the collagen fibers become cross-linked and stick to each other, resulting in sagging and wrinkled skin. Glycosylation can also cause age spots and discolored marks on the skin by overworking melanocytes, the cells that provide pigment.
The plan: Avoiding sweets is a must, but identifying hidden forms of sugar is even more important. "Try to stay away from foods that are higher on the glycemic index, such as corn, bananas, potatoes and peas," says Perricone. Instead, eat more foods that are low on the glycemic index, such as kiwi, blueberries, peaches, leafy greens, broccoli and spinach. "These types of fruits and vegetables deliver sugar into your system at a slower rate, since they're also packed with fiber. They're also rich in antioxidants that help eliminate free radicals and reduce inflammation in the skin. Left unchecked, [free radicals] can lead to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, a weakened immune system and other health issues."
Perricone green-lights the regular use of topical anti-inflammatories such as alpha-lipoic acid and vitamin C ester to increase elasticity in the skin. Antioxidant creams can be found at health-food stores such as Whole Foods. If creams aren't your thing, try taking 100 milligrams of alpha-lipoic acid in tablet form (available in most health-food stores) twice daily. "This anti-inflammatory antioxidant also inhibits the attachment of sugar to protein, minimizing the amount of damage sugar can do to your skin," says Perricone.
SHED YOUR STRESS
The goal: Switch from coffee to tea.
The challenge: All those high-priced lattes not only subtract cash from your wallet, but all that milk, cream and sugar can deposit a Venti-sized amount of calories around your midsection. Moreover, a single cup of coffee raises cortisol levels for 12 to 14 hours. Cortisol, a hormone pumped out by the body at times of stress, is necessary for survival, but when cortisol levels are chronically elevated, you're asking for all sorts of trouble beyond fat deposition.
"Too much cortisol in the system is toxic to brain cells, thins your skin, decalcifies your bones, and suppresses your immune system," explains Perricone. Cortisol also kicks up insulin levels by raising your blood sugar, encouraging the storage of excess calories as fat. "Making the switch has been proven to show an average weight loss of up to eight pounds in just six weeks," says Perricone—and that's if no other change, such as beginning a workout program, is implemented during the same period.
The plan: Actually, caffeine is not the culprit, but rather the organic acids found in coffee that cause cortisol levels to skyrocket. Switching to tea, whether caffeinated or decaffeinated, can curtail cortisol release and insulin spike while keeping you healthy minus the withdrawal symptoms.