Ask the Expert
Ask the Expert

Dole Nutrition Institute’s Nicholas Gillitt, PhD, on the research behind nutrition and aging.

Dole Nutrition Institute’s Nicholas Gillitt, PhD, on the research behind nutrition and aging.

Nicholas Gillitt, PhD

Vice President of Nutrition Research and Director of the Dole Nutrition Institute (DNI)

As biomedical research continues to deepen our understanding of the processes of aging, a growing body of evidence reveals nutrition as an important driver of healthy aging.

For the many older adults in good health, good nutrition is protective--promoting a longer healthspan, better function, and quality of life. For those with chronic diseases and related disabilities, malnutrition and over-nutrition can exacerbate problems, with potentially serious consequences including longer hospitalizations, increased frailty, and higher health costs.

For a research perspective coupled with real-life nutritional advice, AFAR consulted Dole Nutrition Institute for this special two-part series.

First, Nicholas Gillitt, PhD, Vice President of Nutrition Research and Director of the Dole Nutrition Institute (DNI), shares insights about the latest findings on nutritional research and the benefits of eating well as we age.


How did Dole Foods, which is the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world, become interested in conducting health research, and looking at longevity or healthy aging?

Dole’s interest in the relationship between healthy aging and nutrition is very personally motivated actually.  Our chairman David H. Murdock himself exemplifies how you can maintain health and vigor into your 90’s, but his passion for health and nutrition was triggered when he lost his wife to breast cancer. This tragedy inspired him to build the resources to look at the relationship between disease and nutrition, and he became more committed than ever to turn Dole into the biggest supplier of the highest quality fresh fruits and vegetables in the world. About 15 years ago, he created the Dole Nutrition Institute (DNI) to educate the consumer about the value of fruits and vegetables in the diet and to advance research to truly understand the mechanisms behind why exactly fruits and vegetables are healthy for you.

As the Dole Nutrition Institute has been leading research for over a decade, what are some of the most surprising or important new discoveries being made about nutrition or fruits and vegetables that you wish more people were aware of, especially amid a growing marketplace of supplements and “magic pills?”

We’ve looked a lot at and learned a lot about your body’s efficiency when it comes to nutrition. Your body is a very complex set of metabolic processes, and these processes need nutrients to work efficiently. If your body works efficiently, it is very good at protecting itself from the onset of disease. The real power of diets rich in fruits and vegetables is prevention--if you have a healthy diet for as long as you can manage it, you will be in the best possible place to live healthier, longer. When the quality of your diet starts to diminish for long periods of time, the risk for disease starts to creep up. Whole fruits and vegetables are simply the most effective way to provide your body the nutrients it needs to work the way it was designed to.

Taking pills or supplements is a real short cut that only allows you to get essential nutrients in isolation, which is never as good as getting them from the whole food. A 2007 Washington University School of Medicine study on calcium supplements exemplifies this. The research showed that if you compare calcium intakes from folks who got their calcium from supplements to those who got it from whole foods, you see two things: first, the calcium-supplement-takers had higher intakes of calcium as you might expect, and second, the food group had significantly higher bone density. Getting calcium from food made it more readily absorbed and assimilated into the body than by supplements. This is why getting your nutrients from foods is so much better; of course, always consult your doctor before making any changes in your diet.

One important focus of aging research is the role of inflammation, and whether it is a cause of aging, an effect, or possibly both. How much can dietary changes limit the damage that inflammation does to our bodies as we age?

Inflammation and oxidative stress are part of the prognosis of many of the diseases of aging, and Dole Nutrition Institute is looking at how we can reduce them through diet. The key here is to realize that if you eat a healthier diet from the onset, you reduce the amount of inflammation your body experiences, and thus a lessening of the problems that come with it. Of course, not every one has eaten healthily all of his or her life, but it’s never too late to change habits or diets. The body is very good at dealing with inflammation itself through its own anti-inflammatory metabolic processes, so we just need to give these processes all they need to be as active as they can be. We can do this not only by providing the body all the nutrients it needs, which you can get from fruits and vegetables, but also by eliminating the so called “anti-nutrients”--salt, saturated fats and added sugar--that high intakes of which are often associated with inflammation related conditions, such as atherosclerosis and diabetes. We know the body becomes less efficient as we age, so it is even more important to increase the nutrient intake and decrease the inflammatory triggers as we approach our golden years.

Like several of AFAR’s grantees, Dole’s research is also interested in the relationship between exercise, nutrition, and the processes of aging. How do diet and exercise reinforce each other and how important is that combination as a driver for healthy aging?

Diet and exercise go hand-in-hand in driving healthy aging. Just as studies that show high intakes of certain foods reduce the risk for disease, so does exercise--even just walking! As we age, our bodies become less efficient at absorbing nutrients, so it’s important to have a good diet. But at any age, if you stop exercising, you will lose muscle mass and stamina, and this can be more problematic as we grow older. The good news is that we can adapt.  When you exercise, your body burns calories and it needs the right fuel and the right nutrients for recovery. That is, exercise is not just burning calories. The Dole Nutrition Institute has done research on carbohydrates that show bananas are a perfect fuel for exercise as they also contain nutrients that help in recovery. When we exercise, we become inflamed and oxidatively stressed, so the Institute is looking at which foods can help us here in reducing this stress as we age. So far, we are seeing that whole fruits have noticeable impact on exercise’s effectiveness. We are seeing that the most efficient exercise is when we use fruit sugar (in the form of the whole fruit) as an energy source, and our research suggests that antioxidant compounds, known as phytonutrients, help in metabolic recovery or getting your metabolism to look like it did before you exercised. The link between exercise and nutrition is complex, but research is helping explain just why eating whole fruits and vegetables in combination with exercise can extend our healthy years as we age.

Learn more insights from Dole Nutrition Instiute's Jenn LaVardera, here