Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are molecules formed inside the body when sugars bind to proteins, lipids, or DNA.
This process is called glycation, and it’s a normal part of everyday metabolism.
But under certain conditions, such as high blood sugar, AGEs accumulate, leading to inflammation, chronic disease, and accelerated aging.
That’s right—AGEs literally age us.
Luckily, there’s a routine lab test you can easily get that can give you a peek into your AGE levels.
It’s your hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c).
Today we’re talking about how AGEs create disease, the optimal HbA1c levels to strive for, and how to reduce your exposure to AGEs for healthy aging.
Let’s jump in!
Why Are AGEs a Problem?
Our bodies can handle AGEs to some degree, but under certain conditions, such as high blood sugar, glycation occurs at an accelerated rate. This leads to an accumulation of AGEs, oxidative stress, and an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, dementia, kidney failure, and more.
One study found that high levels of AGEs in the blood of middle-aged women were linked to a twofold increase in their risk of dying from heart disease. This is because high AGE levels promote LDL cholesterol oxidation and create pro-inflammatory cytokines that damage the endothelial lining.
In addition to increasing inflammation and the risk for age-related chronic disease, AGEs can visually age us as well. Due to their ability to cross-link with collagen, AGEs can cause the skin to lose elasticity, which shows up as fine lines and wrinkles.
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How Are AGEs Formed?
AGEs are formed as a part of normal glucose metabolism, and our bodies come equipped with antioxidant and enzyme systems that effectively eliminate them.
The bad news is too much carbs and sugar from ultra-processed and fried foods cause AGEs to accumulate inside the body to an even greater extent. This is troublesome for two reasons: 1) these foods naturally contain high AGE levels, and 2) they spike your blood sugar, contributing to additional AGE formation.
Your hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), a marker on most routine lab tests, is an excellent proxy for understanding the level of glycation you have going on inside your body.
Know Your AGE Levels: Get Your HbA1c Tested
When glucose is present in the blood, it chemically attaches (or glycates) itself to hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells. More glucose in the blood means more glycation can occur, resulting in a higher HbA1c.
HbA1c is the percentage of glycated hemoglobin in your blood, and it provides insight into your blood sugar over an average of two-to-three months. For individuals with blood sugar levels in the optimal range, a normal HbA1c is less than 5.7%.
A lower HbA1c (ideally 5.5% or less) indicates better blood sugar control and a lower risk of diabetes and related complications.
Cooking As a Means of AGE Formation
When it comes to minimizing our AGE exposure, how we cook our food matters.
It turns out that regularly eating highly charred and deep-fried foods can increase your AGE exposure significantly compared to poaching, boiling, baking, steaming, sieving, sautéing, stir-frying, and air frying. And when you factor in sugary sauces (BBQ sauce, processed dressings), it only adds to AGE levels.
Does that mean we can NEVER eat highly charred and deep-fried foods? No, it doesn’t.
But if we’re eating charred and deep-fried foods as a staple, especially if we already have a higher HbA1c, that’s when we start to run into problems (i.e., inflammation, increased risk for chronic disease, and accelerated aging).
This is why it’s more important to limit these foods while working towards balancing your blood sugar (see recommendations below).
While glycation is a normal process, high blood sugar can cause it to grow out of control and have a serious impact on our health and overall levels of inflammation.
But there’s good news! By knowing our HbA1c and identifying the most problematic sources (i.e., ultra-processed and fried foods), we can lower our exposure and, consequently, our risk for chronic diseases.
- Get your HbA1c levels tested. This is a great way to get a baseline of your AGE levels. Thankfully, this test is super easy for your doctors to order and is included on most routine lab panels. The optimal HbA1c level to strive for is 5.5% or less. An HbA1c above 5.7% indicates that your blood sugar and AGE levels are elevated, and you could likely benefit from lowering your blood sugar.
- Balance your blood sugar levels. High blood sugar is the greatest risk factor for AGE formation. This makes bringing your blood sugar and HbA1c into the optimal range crucial for lowering your AGE exposure.Eating a savory breakfast, having protein and healthy fats at every meal, and, most importantly, minimizing added sugar from ultra-processed foods, sugary drinks, and fried foods is a great place to start.Here are a few of my top newsletters and podcast episodes to explore for radically improving your blood sugar levels:
Powerful Hacks To Help You Cut Cravings And Get Your Energy Back
Try This: Manage Your Blood Glucose Levels
How to Improve Insulin Sensitivity and Regain Metabolic Health
4-Steps to Balance Your Blood Sugar and Increase Longevity
- Move your body every day. Regular physical activity has been shown to lower the number of AGEs in the body by improving insulin sensitivity, inflammation, and blood glucose levels.
- Cut back on charred and deep-fried foods. Let’s be real: 90 percent of the population is getting their AGE exposure from ultra-processed foods. If you’ve greatly reduced the ultra-processed foods in your diet, you’re already winning. But if you want to take it one step further, being mindful of your intake of charred and deep-fried foods will help lower your exposure even more.
- Cook with antioxidant-rich foods and spices. Foods naturally rich in vitamin C (tomatoes, berries), quercetin (onions, garlic), ellagic acid (pomegranate), catechins (green tea), and spices (rosemary, thyme, and turmeric) are a fantastic way to combat AGE formation while also enhancing the flavor of a dish.Bonus: Make homemade marinades using vinegar, tomato sauce, or lemon juice. The acidity in these ingredients can help offset AGEs by up to 50 percent!
Lowering our HbA1c and our exposure to AGEs can help decelerate the aging process and protect us from chronic disease. The best part is it’s mostly in our control. Balancing blood sugar and cutting back on ultra-processed foods can help bring HbA1c (and AGEs) down to a healthy range.