You could say in a fatalistic way ‘well that’s the luck of the draw!’Or you could ask some very challenging questions of yourself like ‘what am I doing today that might impact positively or negatively on my prospects for a healthy old age?’ This was exactly the question I posed myself after reading a book called ‘The Telomere Effect’ which probably had more of an impact on me than any other that I read for my research.

The book asks a simple question. How long will you spend in a healthy span of life and how long in a disease span? Like most people, I would ideally like to stay fit and well for as long as possible and then have a very brief period of acute ill-health before the end of my life.

Few of us would opt for years and years in a disease span with multiple and multiplying health issues, kept alive by modern medical science, whilst living a life severely compromised by illness. And the difference between these two scenarios is a combination of your genes (nature) and your lifestyle (nurture). As it says in the book, your genetic inheritance loads the gun, but your lifestyle pulls the trigger. So, for instance, if you have a family history of heart disease but you take steps to improve your heart health with diet and exercise, then you may well avoid the heart attack that did for other members of your family.

And at a cellular level it’s all down to how long your telomeres are! So a bit of basic genetics first: we inherit 23 pairs of chromosomes from our parents. Telomeres are found at the end of each of our chromosomes and they act like the plastic tip (or aglet) on a shoelace. They stop our DNA from unravelling in exactly the way that the aglet stops the shoeIace from unravelling. As we age our telomeres shorten so we gradually lose their protective effect and we start to enter our ‘disease span.’ We can do little about this shortening as it’s encoded in our genes, but the speed with which the telomeres shorten can be greatly affected by the way we live our lives. And the food we eat is a crucial element in this story of health-span versus disease-span. Take France as a good example.

In France average life expectancy for women is 88.5 years, compared to the UK at 85.25 years. However the difference in life expectancy doesn’t happen at the English Channel but about half way down France. Northern French women have the same life expectancy as we do. It’s in the south of France that life expectancy is higher - and the reason is down to the diet they consume.

Since reading The Telomere Effect I have made several changes to what I am eating every day. I have increased my consumption of whole fruits (as opposed to fruit juices), nuts, seeds and vegetables but I have dramatically decreased my consumption of red meat (especially processed red meat) and for protein I now eat mostly oily fish which are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. And, more importantly, I have taken a long hard look at my consumption of sugar and have drastically cut back on it, which I have found the most challenging of all. I really LOVE sweet things including biscuits, cakes, ice cream and all manner of desserts - my idea of heaven is treacle tart and custard. My childhood has a lot to answer for! For years I would have a slice of cake every day at 4.00pm with a cup of sweetened tea. This was such a ritual that my 5 grandchildren called me Granny Cake! I also ate ice-cream every day in some form or another. But no more and this is why.

I started to notice that after my sugar rush at 4.00pm, within an hour I would experience the shakes and a hollow uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. The solution would be to eat something quickly to counteract the feeling but I started to realise that the better solution was to avoid creating the reaction in the first place! I found the explanation in The Telomere Effect: ‘[After eating sugar-laden food or drink], almost instantaneously, the pancreas releases more insulin, to help the sugar enter cells. Within twenty minutes, glucose builds up in the bloodstream and you have high blood sugar. The liver starts to turn sugar into fat. In about sixty minutes, your blood sugar falls, and you start to think about having more sugar to pick you back up after ‘the crash’. When this happens often enough, you can end up with insulin resistance.’ A toxic environment for our telomeres is created by three things of which insulin resistance is one. The other two are oxidative stress and inflammation. All three can be improved with a diet rich in antioxidants which limits the intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates (ie white bread, white rice, pasta and french fries), red meat and processed meat and increased consumption of fish, fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

And finally the proof of the pudding! Let me tell you about Janet, a retired nurse living in Wales. I received this email from Janet a couple of years ago and it made such heartening reading that I decided to include it in the chapter in my book about healthy eating:

“It all started with you Look Fabulous Forever! Last March I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and decided on splashing more money than I normally spend on a set of your makeup. I’m so glad that I did. After seeing an improvement in my appearance using the makeup, both because of the staying power of the makeup and spending ten minutes on myself each day, I began to wonder what else I could achieve and to consider some proper weight loss, to see if my health improved. I’ve been overweight all my adult life, not hugely so, but enough to be unhealthy and depressing. I’ve lost and regained more weight than I care to think of over the years - Slimming World, Weight Watchers, Cambridge Diet etc. Always lost quite well, always put it back on with interest.

I was interested to see whether there would be an improvement in my general health if I lost a decent amount of weight as I was pre-diabetic, arthritic and suffering from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). I tried Dr Michael Moseley’s Blood Sugar Diet and went from 13 stone 5 lbs to 11 stone in eight weeks. I’ve lost a further half stone since June, just by following the principles of low carbs, high fats and sticking to three meals a day, no snacking and not much alcohol. I feel so much better! Full of energy, no more IBS, stable blood sugars and much more flexible due to weight loss, ten minutes of exercise each morning and walking 10,000 steps most days. This is what motivates me. I know that if I were to eat carbs again I would feel sluggish and disappointed in myself.”

The research in The Telomere Effect shows that improvements in diet can not only slow the shortening of our telomeres, it can actually reverse some of the damage which increases their length.

Janet has effectively stopped stressing her body with foods which were creating a telomere-toxic environment which was pushing her at the age of 60 into an early disease-span of life. My changed approach to sugar rich foods means that I no longer have ‘sugar spikes’ or cravings and, like Janet I also feel better and more energised as a result. I like to think that my telomeres are thanking me every day for treating them with the respect they deserve. I very much want to live a long life, but, above all, I want to lead a long disease-free life. So I am prepared to make the necessary adjustments to my diet and not rely on the luck of the draw!

Tell us about any changes you have made to your diet or lifestyle which have led to improvements in your health or energy levels. What helps you to make positive choices when it comes to food or weight control?