No doubt you've spent the first few weeks of 2017 bombarded by different diets. We always find the sheer variety of weight-loss tips on offer at this time of year astonishing.

From counting every last calorie to eating nothing but cabbage soup, or trying foods of just one colour and living off baby purees (the mind boggles), you could try a different diet every day this year and still have some left over, according to Daily Mail.

Scientifically speaking, though, there's only one weight-loss tip you really need to learn to get a healthy figure and a radiant youthfulness. And that's to ditch diets altogether.

You can trust us when we say this; one of us is a Nobel prize-winning molecular biologist and the other a health psychologist, and we've devoted years to discovering how to slow life's clock and the ageing process - inside and out.

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Our scrupulous research, which has generated a whole new field of scientific understanding, has helped us pinpoint how you can glow with health and youth when your contemporaries are succumbing to wrinkles, grey hair, exhaustion and illness. It adds up to a revolution of sorts.

So what is it? The answer lies at the end of your chromosomes - the string-like structures that house your DNA.

Chromosomes can be found in every single cell in your body, from the tips of your fingers to deep inside your lungs.

At the end of each DNA string lie little-known things called telomeres. Think of them as the plastic bits that cover the end of your shoelaces. The longer they are, the more they protect your DNA from 'fraying' and succumbing to disease, and the more youthful and happy you will be.

It's simply never too late to reverse old age. It doesn't have to be a one-way slippery slope towards infirmity and decay. For even if your telomeres are short, you can help them stabilise or grow - no matter how old you are.

All you need to do is follow our simple suggestions for turning back the clock, taken from our new book The Telomere Effect, which is serialised this week in the Mail.

In our four-page pullouts, we reveal scientifically proven ways to help you slow down ageing, from how to sleep to how to combat stress.

Today, we're going to examine how the food we eat not only affects the size of our waistlines, but can also make us age badly by shortening our telomeres.

All this week, we'll give you mouthwatering, telomere-friendly meal ideas to inspire you to make vital nutritional changes.

Telomeres offer a priceless insight into the foods that are best for us.

They show how our body responds to what we eat at a micro-biological level. So it's crucial that we consider our telomeres when we're deciding what to eat.

Encouraging your telomeres to grow and flourish will protect you against all manner of diseases and the early onset of old age - and your tummy will certainly become trimmer, too.

You'll be delighted to hear that starvation or strict rules that cut out whole food groups are not part of the plan.

All fruits and vegetables - but especially those containing high levels of antioxidants, flavonoids and/or carotenoid are telomere lengthening foods. Photo / 123RF
All fruits and vegetables - but especially those containing high levels of antioxidants, flavonoids and/or carotenoid are telomere lengthening foods. Photo / 123RF

But there are still a few no-nos. One is refined sugar. Not only is it packed with empty calories, but it wreaks havoc on your body, ageing you inside and out.

We even found that enjoying soft drinks every day had the same ageing effect on the telomeres as smoking.

Another no-no is processed foods - especially meats such as ham, sausages and corned beef, which have strong links to cancer.

But the good news is that coffee's still on the menu, as is a small evening tipple. And - as we'll explain, much to the relief of those who dread getting on the scales - it's more your shape that's really important, not your weight.

Why your body shape matters

Many of us devote a huge amount of time and emotional energy to eating less, convinced that being super-slim will make us feel younger and healthier.

Yet being overweight (but not obese) is - surprisingly - not strongly linked to ageing and having shorter telomeres. (In fact, depression is three times more likely than your weight to adversely affect your telomeres.)

Nor is being overweight (again, not obese) strongly linked to increased mortality. What matters far more than your weight is what body shape you have.

Many of us devote a huge amount of time and emotional energy to eating less, convinced that being super-slim will make us feel younger and healthier. Photo / 123RF
Many of us devote a huge amount of time and emotional energy to eating less, convinced that being super-slim will make us feel younger and healthier. Photo / 123RF

In short, forget your body mass index (BMI), because we've found highly convincing evidence that those with hourglass and pear shapes - who have slim waists and big bottoms and thighs - are more likely to age well than apple shapes, who carry weight around their middles.

This is because the fat stored just under the skin or in the limbs may be protective, while fat stored deep inside us - in the belly, liver or muscles - is a real threat to the health of our telomeres, and therefore a threat to how well we will age. So if your waistline is bigger than your hips, beware.

One study predicts that those with a greater waist-to-hip ratio, such as the classic apple shape, have a 40 per cent greater risk of developing shorter telomeres, and thus ageing faster. But the main risk that comes from having fat around your tummy is diabetes.

Too much belly fat can cause your body to become insulin-resistant and unable to process the glucose in your bloodstream.

As well as this, we've found that people with more tummy fat also go on to develop shorter telomeres, which are likely to worsen the problem of insulin resistance.

Add to this the fact that tummy fat is more inflammatory than thigh fat - and thus highly damaging to the cells of your immune system - and you can see how having a large middle poses a triple-threat to any chance of you achieving a healthy, youthful vitality.

Much better, then, to have a large bottom.

Best and worst foods

TELOMERE SHORTENING FOODS

• Red meat, processed meat
• White bread
• Sweetened drinks
• Foods high in saturated fat
• Vegetable oils, such as rapeseed and sunflower, unhealthy snacks including most crisps and biscuits (anything high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats)
• Alcohol (drink no more than four units per day)

TELOMERE LENGTHENING FOODS

• Wholegrain produce such as brown rice, brown pasta, brown bread
• All fruits and vegetables - but especially those containing high levels of antioxidants, flavonoids and/or carotenoids (such as red, purple and blue berries, red and purple grapes, apples, kale, broccoli, yellow onions, tomatoes, spring onions, plums, carrots, green leafy vegetables and, in smaller portions, potatoes with skins on)
• Nuts and legumes, such as beans, peas and lentils
• Seaweed
• Foods with omega-3 oils - salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, eggs, broccoli, kale, • Brussels sprouts, cauliflower
• Low-fat, high-quality sources of protein, such as organic free-range chicken
• Seeds
• Green tea
• Coffee

Two cans of sugary drinks a day are as bad as smoking

Yes, it's a something of a cliche to say that sugar is the new smoking. But this may actually be the case with liquid sugar.

The most potent form of sugar in our diets is from soft drinks. They deliver a sweet hit quickly, with no fibre or any other nutritional benefits to speak of. There are around nine teaspoons of sugar in a single can of cola, when the recommended adult intake is just seven teaspoons a day.

When we examined people who drink around two cans (approximately 600ml) of sugary soft drinks every day, we found that their telomeres were around 4.6 years older than those in people who avoid soft drinks. That, astonishingly, is about the same amount of telomere shortening as we'd expect to find in smokers.

Sugary drinks have no fibre or any other nutritional benefits but there are around nine teaspoons of sugar in a can of cola. Photo / 123RF
Sugary drinks have no fibre or any other nutritional benefits but there are around nine teaspoons of sugar in a can of cola. Photo / 123RF

And lesser quantities of soft drinks appeared to be similarly pernicious. When people drank a single glass of soft drink a day (around 200ml), their telomeres showed two years of extra ageing. When you consider that the average person in the UK is said to drink well over 200 litres of soft drink per year, you can see why we're concerned. Surely though - you might think - people who have such a regular intake of soft drinks also have other unhealthy habits that might affect how they age?

We thought so, too. So in our study, which included around 5,000 people, we made allowances for other factors such as diet, smoking, waist circumference and age. But the link between soft drinks and short telomeres remained.

Frighteningly, the link between sugary drinks and poor ageing has even been found in young children. One study discovered that three-year-olds who were drinking four or more sugary drinks a week - whether soft drinks or super-sweet fruit squash - tended to have a greater rate of telomere shortening.

And the damage posed by sugar isn't restricted only to soft drinks. Energy drinks or sweetened coffees, including the peppermint mochas or gingerbread lattes in High Street coffee shops, are just as sugary.

They should be consumed only very occasionally - as should almost anything considered a dessert or treat.

That includes biscuits, chocolate, cakes and ice cream. And the same goes for refined products such as white bread, white rice and pasta, which are also rapidly converted into sugar by your body.

Instead of a diet high in sugar, aim to have a diet high in fibre and protein to avoid damaging insulin spikes that can lead to diabetes and all-round damage to our telomeres.

Foods including wholewheat bread, wholewheat pasta, brown rice, vegetables and fruit are friends to our telomeres. If you have a sugar craving, why not just choose some fruit?

Though fruit does contain sugar, it is good for your telomeres because of its fibre content and overall nutritional value (fruit juices, however, from which the fibre has been extracted, are generally not so good).

And while there's currently no research linking short telomeres to diet soft drinks, we know that artificial sweeteners are far from innocent.

Associated, among other things, with glucose intolerance and even a pre-diabetic state, the easiest way to think of sweeteners is like methadone for a heroin addict. It's simply replacing one addiction - albeit one not as destructive - with another.

If you really need to liven up plain water, why not do so with lemon, cucumber or orange slices? Your telomeres will thank you.

Yo-yo dieting is an ageing disaster

Even if you're depressed by the extra pounds you put on over Christmas, we don't recommend you go on a faddy diet to cure them. And that's because we've found that dieters - especially yo-yo dieters - have shorter telomeres, putting themselves at greater risk of ageing badly.

Repeated dieting takes a toll on your body. You have internal mechanisms that will fight any attempt you make to lose weight because your body is biologically programmed to avoid starvation.

Your body has a set weight - it's different for each person - which it will defend, no matter what.

So when you lose weight, your metabolism slows naturally in an effort to regain the weight.

Indeed, fewer than 5 per cent of people who are trying to lose weight can stick to a diet and maintain the weight-loss for five years. The remaining 95 per cent either give up or are trapped in a life of yo-yo weight-loss, shedding the pounds only to put them straight back on again.

We might make jokes about this kind of dieting - for example: 'Inside me there's a skinny woman crying to get out, but I can usually shut her up with chocolate' - but it's no laughing matter. We've found it raises the risk of shortening your telomeres, causing you to age poorly.

Yo-yo dieters restrict themselves for a while and then, when they fall off the wagon, indulge in unhealthy foods. This is damaging not only for our waistlines, but also for our brain chemistry.

Research on rats shows that when junk food is withheld most of the time, and eaten only every few days - the classic behaviour of a bingeing yo-yo dieter - something rather disturbing happens.

In studies, the rats' brain chemistry changed and began to look like the brain of a drug addict. Without their junk food hit, they actually developed withdrawal symptoms.

Yo-yo dieting puts you at a greater risk of ageing badly because it is damaging to the brain's chemistry. Photo / 123RF
Yo-yo dieting puts you at a greater risk of ageing badly because it is damaging to the brain's chemistry. Photo / 123RF

In response, their brains released the stress chemical CRH (also known as corticotropin-releasing hormone).

This chemical made the rats feel so bad they were driven to seek out junk food whatever the cost - anything to relieve the angst of their withdrawal. And when they found the junk, they binged, eating themselves silly. Sound like anyone you know?

So, scientifically speaking, dieting can cause you to live in a permanent semi-addicted state. It's also just plain stressful, because monitoring calories causes something we call 'cognitive load' - it uses up the brain's limited attention and increases how much stress you feel.

We asked a group of women questions including: 'Do you try to eat less at meal-times than you'd like to eat?' And: 'How often do you try not to eat between meals because you are watching your weight?'

The women who answered in ways that revealed a high level of dietary restraint had shorter telomeres than carefree eaters, regardless of how much they weighed.

It's just not healthy to spend a lifetime thinking about eating less. It's not good for your attention span (a precious, limited resource), your stress levels or your telomeres.

Your morning coffee is good for you!

There has been endless debate in hundreds of scientific studies over whether coffee can really be good for our health. The answer, much to our relief, is yes.

Many studies show it reduces the risk of cognitive decline, liver disease and melanoma, for example. While only one trial specifically relating to coffee and telomere length has been carried out, the news so far is good. Researchers tested whether coffee might improve the health of 40 people with chronic liver disease. Selected at random, half drank four cups of coffee a day for a month, while the others didn't. Those who drank the coffee had significantly longer telomeres than those who didn't.

Another finding showed that in a group of more than 4,000 women, those who drank caffeinated coffee (but not decaf) were likely to have longer telomeres. More reasons to enjoy the aroma of your morning coffee brewing!

Good news: no need to ditch the coffee it can actually reduce the risk of a number of diseases. Photo / 123RF
Good news: no need to ditch the coffee it can actually reduce the risk of a number of diseases. Photo / 123RF

As for tea, it, too, appears to be good for you. Both black and green tea have health benefits, but green tea may more actively protect against telomere-shortening.

What to eat to slow the clock

Rather than restricting calories or food groups, we should just focus on eating a good, wholesome diet, full of fibre, vitamins and nutrients.

Research shows this is the way to maintain telomeres, to slow the clock on ageing and restore our youthfulness.

Our food suggestions to fight ageing are simple.

This is not a diet or a fad. It's a way of life. And the food we think you should eat has been carefully selected after scientific research. Thankfully, it's all tasty, too. Just imagine the food you'd eat when on holiday in Italy, for example.

Platters of freshly caught fish, bowls heaped with fruit and vegetables of all colours. Hearty wholegrains - yum!

That's the kind of eating we want you to embrace: a healthy, satisfying and filling Mediterranean diet, packed with good quality protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and fibre.

Forget counting calories or excessive portion control - just eat delicious food that's had as little 'done' to it as possible. Easy!

And unlike many so-called healthy eating plans, carbs, dairy and fats are all very much on the menu.

This way of eating will keep you younger inside and out - no matter how old you are, or where you live.

In Southern Italy, for example, elderly people who followed the Mediterranean diet had longer telomeres.

The more closely they adhered to this type of diet, the better their overall health and the more they were able to lead a full and happy life.

And in another part of the world, a study of middle-aged and older people in Korea found that those who ate more fish and wholegrains had longer telomeres after ten years than those who ate a diet high in red meat and refined, processed foods.

Wholesome foods can help stop time

So why are such wholesome foods good for our telomeres?

Through our research, we've pinpointed three enemies in our bodies: inflammation, oxidative stress and insulin-resistance.

First, let's look at inflammation. This is a cause for many diseases - from cancer to arthritis and coeliac disease to heart disease.

Inflammation in the body automatically increases with age, so much so that scientists have a name for the phenomenon: 'inflamm-ageing'.

One cause for this age-related inflammation is telomere injury. As we age, the cells in our body become damaged. When this happens, a cell reacts to try to defend the precious DNA it contains. It sends an SOS message to neighbouring immune cells, which try to help it heal.

But shortened telomeres block this SOS call.

They are so preoccupied with trying to protect themselves from further shortening that they refuse to let the help into the cell, presuming it's an enemy attacker.

The cell keeps shouting for assistance to come in, even though it is never going to get it.

This has disastrous consequences. The damaged cell becomes a bit like a rotten apple in a barrel sending out gases that rot other apples.

The signals it sends for help actually, in time, encourage inflammation throughout the body and damage other cells.

It's a process we call 'cell rot', which makes an ideal environment for cancer, for example, to grow. And all because those telomeres were short.

One of the best ways to protect against the onset of inflammation is to stop feeding it. The sugar in soft drinks, chocolate and cakes, as well as refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta, all feed it.

Healthy foods, meanwhile, combat inflammation.

This means foods that are high in omega-3s, such as oily fish and leafy vegetables, and fruit and vegetables high in flavonoids and antioxidants, such as blue and purple berries, tomatoes and kale.

The second enemy of good health is oxidative stress. It's caused when we have too many free radicals, a kind of corrosive molecule, in our bodies, and not enough antioxidants to mop them up and stop them in their tracks.

Free radicals literally attack our DNA and shorten our telomeres.

The answer? Include more antioxidants in your diet - such as vitamin C and vitamin E.

Again, fruit and vegetables are the best source: from plums to leafy greens. Other sources of antioxidants include nuts, wholegrains and green tea.

As for the third enemy, insulin resistance, as we've explained previously it's caused by excessive sugar in the diet and can lead to diabetes and telomere shortening.

All in all, it makes our task of reducing the amount of sugar we consume even more vital.

That's the research behind our plan. Perhaps now you understand more about how food can directly affect the tiniest components of our bodies - and invite disease to take a deadly grip on our lives.

So here's our plan for true cell youthfulness: eat more fruit, vegetables, healthy lean meats and fish, as well as dairy and fats, and reduce red or processed meat and sweetened soft drinks.

Do this and your telomeres will flourish - and you'll radiate youthful good health.

Most supplements aren't worth it

We don't suggest getting your vitamins and antioxidants from a supplement. At least one study has found that taking a multivitamin is related to shorter telomeres.

As well as this, in other tests, high antioxidant levels even provoked laboratory-grown human cells to take on certain cancerous properties.

It's a finding that should warn us all it may be possible to have too much of a good thing.

In general, antioxidants from food are better absorbed by the body and may have more powerful effects than those which come from supplements.

Similarly with omega-3 oils, food sources - such as fish and eggs - are best. A few portions of fish a week should be enough to do the trick.

Again, fruit and vegetables are the best source: from plums to leafy greens. Photo / 123RF
Again, fruit and vegetables are the best source: from plums to leafy greens. Photo / 123RF

Should you take fish-oil capsules too, though? Research says no, at least not to improve your telomeres. One study found that people who took fish-oil supplements for four months did not have longer telomeres than those who took a placebo.

But the same study also found that the greater the increase in levels of omega-3s compared with omega-6s (those bad polyunsaturated fats found in sunflower oil), the greater the telomere lengthening overall. The jury, it seems, is out.

The one supplement you perhaps should consider (after consulting your doctor, of course) is vitamin D. One study found that a dose of vitamin D3 every day for four months led to an increase in the levels of telomerase -the enzyme essential for telomere growth - by around 20 per cent.

Four steps to beat cravings

Mindfulness - taking a moment to listen to your body - has been shown to help conquer cravings and reduce overeating.

When you pay attention to your level of physical hunger, you are less likely to confuse it with psychological hunger. Stress, boredom and emotions (even happy ones) can make you feel as if you're hungry even when you're really not.

In one study, we found that when women were trained to do a 'mindful check-in' before meals, they had lower blood glucose and cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, particularly if they were obese.

Another trial found that the more men and women practised mindful eating, the fewer sweets they ate and the lower their glucose levels were one year later.

Mindful eating seems to have a small effect on weight, but may be critical to breaking sugar cravings. So why not follow the steps below the next time you feel hungry?

1. Breathe. Bring awareness to your entire body. Ask yourself: How physically hungry am I right now?

2. Rate your physical hunger on this scale:

Not at all hungry - 1, 2, 3

Moderately hungry - 4, 5, 6, 7

Very hungry - 8, 9, 10

Try to eat before you get to eight so you're less likely to overeat. Definitely don't wait until you're at 10. If you're famished, it's easy to consume too much too fast.

3. At mealtimes, fully savour the taste of the food and the experience of eating.

4. Pay attention to your stomach, to the physical sensations of fullness and distention. After you've spent a few minutes eating, ask yourself: How physically full do I feel?

Not at all full - 1, 2, 3

Moderately full - 4, 5, 6, 7

Very full - 8, 9, 10

Stop when your score is seven or eight, when you're moderately full. Your biological signals of fullness, caused by increases in blood sugar and satiety hormones in the blood, kick in slowly, and you won't feel their full effect until 20 minutes later.

Stopping before you get those signals, before you've eaten too much, is usually the hard part, but this becomes much easier once you start paying attention.