Dietary AGEs—What Are They and Why Do They Matter?
We all know that the foods we eat directly affect our health. But did you know that the way you prepare your food also matters? Turns out, those mouth-watering grill marks on your pork chop may be more harmful than you realize…
Research has shown that the amounts of compounds called AGEs in the foods we eat are determined not only by the type of food, but by the way they are cooked.
If you’re asking yourself “What are AGEs? Where do they come from? And most importantly, why do they matter?” you’re not alone. Read on to learn more about AGEs and their effect on your health.
What are dietary AGEs?
Advanced Glycation Endproducts (AGEs) are compounds that naturally form in the body when proteins and fats combine with excess sugar molecules. This process is known as glycation.
AGEs can also be consumed from the foods we eat. Dietary AGEs are present in all foods, with the highest levels found in high-protein foods from animal sources (yet another reason to eat more plant-based foods). Food preparation can also increase AGE levels. Cooking food in high heat, such as broiling, searing, frying, or grilling, actually creates AGEs.
Why do AGEs matter?
The formation of AGEs within the body is a normal part of metabolism, and the body has natural processes that eliminate AGEs before they can do much damage. However, research has shown that high levels of AGEs in the body can lead to or worsen serious health concerns, including:
- Much of the information we have about AGEs today comes from diabetes research. People with diabetes often deal with chronic inflammation, and there is a strong correlation between diets high in AGEs and inflammation, which worsens many of the complications of diabetes.
- Kidney disease. The kidneys play a key role in the elimination of AGEs in the body, and high levels of AGEs have been associated with kidney disease.
- Cardiovascular disease. The role of AGEs and cardiovascular disease has been studied extensively. Research suggests that AGEs play a role in the development and the progression of heart disease, mainly due to oxidation and inflammation.
- The research showing a correlation between types of cancer and AGEs isn’t as definitive as the link to AGEs and other health concerns. However, there is some evidence that shows higher levels of AGEs in cancerous tumors throughout the body.
AGEs have also been linked to premature aging of the skin by breaking down collagen and elastin, which can lead to premature wrinkles (yikes!).
AGEs cause damage by promoting oxidation and increasing inflammation. Oxidation is a process that occurs when harmful free radicals corrode healthy tissues and organs within the body. Chronic inflammation in the body is linked to most harmful diseases.
AGEs become harmful when they accumulate faster than the body can eliminate them. According to research from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, approximately 10 percent of dietary AGEs are absorbed within the body. While this doesn’t sound like much, the accumulation over time is what leads to health problems. It’s also why older individuals typically have higher levels of AGEs. One study found that people over the age of 65 have AGE levels 35 percent higher than those under 45. This results in the higher inflammation levels that lead to disease and may be one of the reasons older individuals are more likely to develop serious diseases as they age.
AGEs and Food
All foods have some level of AGEs. The highest concentration of dietary AGEs are found in animal sources with high levels of protein, such as fatty cuts of beef and fish, as well as butter, cheese, margarine, and processed foods. Increased levels of sugar also lead to AGE formation.
Cooking method can also increase AGE levels in foods that initially had low levels of AGEs. For example, the AGE content in a raw chicken breast is 769. When deep-friend, however, AGEs increase to 9,052.
Foods that are naturally low in AGEs include fruits and vegetables, lean cuts of meat and fish (particularly poultry and tuna), and whole grains.
Fortunately, you can control the level of AGEs you consume and minimize the damage they cause. Some of the best ways to limit AGE levels include:
Fill up on fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables contain the lowest levels of AGEs. If you’re a meat eater, you don’t have to do a complete 180 when it comes to protein, but a primarily plant-based diet offers a number of health benefits, including lower AGE levels. Are you getting at least 5 servings of fruits and veggies per day?
Vary your protein sources.
Getting your protein from various sources is one way to limit AGEs while still meeting your daily protein requirements. It’s also right in line with the latest dietary guidelines from the FDA—in 2015, it prompted Americans to replace some of the meat, poultry and eggs with protein from seafood and plant-based protein from nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains.
Another option for cutting back on animal proteins and AGEs is to start a Meatless Monday routine. There are all kinds of reasons this is a great idea, from limiting AGEs to experimenting with different types of cuisine to improving your overall health.
Skip the added sugar.
Sugar is one of the biggest culprits in the formation of AGEs. Eating too much added sugar not only leads to weight gain and a host of other problems, it also leads to increased formation of AGEs.
Cook “low and slow.”
It may take longer, but cooking foods over low heat for longer periods of time can limit the amount of AGEs. Slow cookers are an excellent way to limit AGEs and still ensure the food is flavorful. When cooking food on the stovetop, cook over low heat for longer periods of time instead of high to limit AGE formation.
Use acidic marinades on meats.
Acidic ingredients have been shown to inhibit the formation of AGEs. When cooking meat, opt for acidic marinades, such as lemon or citrus, instead of sugary or fattening ones like barbecue sauce or mayonnaise.
Avoid processed meats.
Processed meats, such as hot dogs and bacon, contain the highest levels of dietary AGEs. Fried bacon, for example, contains a whopping 91,577 AGEs (woah!). A hot dog, even when broiled instead of grilled, still contains over 9,000 AGEs.
While AGEs are linked to many health conditions, the good news is, you’re in control. We know it’s impossible to avoid all AGEs, so don’t think you have to give up your beloved bacon or your summertime barbecues. Little changes, like going meatless once a week or steaming foods instead of frying, can make a big impact on your health.
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian