Some Thoughts on Food and Aging

A number of years ago I faced a very unhappy truth about life: aging and excess baggage (of any sort) are unsuitable companions. Whether you are twenty or thirty pounds overweight, or you are carrying twenty or thirty pounds of emotional crap, you are setting the stage for entering the most demanding part of your life seriously handicapped. Old age can, quite frankly, be a bit of a bitch. Attention must be paid. As I approached the much-touted “golden” years, I decided it was time to assess my general health vis à vis family genetics and my own (particularly lazy) lifestyle. The emotional crap I managed to ditch, big-time (a mega “thank you” to my psychiatrist for this), in my early thirties.

With that behind me, what I faced was this: a family history of Type II Diabetes — adult-onset and almost always lifestyle related (sister, brother), and High Blood Pressure (mother, sister, brother). There’s a bit of craziness in there too, but since that involves both genetics AND some seriously bad decision-making, I’ll leave that part of the equation to minds far greater than my own. On the good side, my cholesterol is such that a teenager would be happy to have my testing results. So, given my love of food, what I decided to do was to create my own plan, one based on my medical realities, and one felt I  could actually live with for life.

Once I had evaluated my likely personal health trajectory vis à vis my family history, I worked out a way to (hopefully) make that curve work for me (without, of course, compromising my enjoyment of food).

In the end, I created a simple plan for myself. It worked. Living with my own personal approach, I lost 40 pounds and never realized I was losing it. I never considered this to be a “diet” (I’ve never found one that worked for more than a short time anyway), and never weighed myself or even exercised during this time.  Many years later, I continue to eat without a single change to this plan, and I have never gained a pound back. Here’s what I do:

1)    Rather than trying to keep my mind off food, as one usually does when making dietary changes (because they all seem, in one way or another, to leave you feeling deprived), I decided to do the opposite. Having finally accepted that ignoring food would not somehow magically reduce it’s power to entice,  I instead put food front and center in my life. I treat every sip and every bite as a celebration of the best I can offer myself. Whether experimenting to find the best homemade English Muffin recipe (so far, Alton Brown’s has my vote), or learning to create the world’s best gin and tonic (Hendrick’s gin, Fever Tree tonic, crushed juniper berries, and a 3″ square block of ice surrounding a sprig of mint, hovering mid-glass with iceburg-like patience, waiting for my ginny ship to sink), my goal is to allow not one “throwaway” morsel or sip into my culinary world. The overall effect of this  has been great pleasure at the table. It also leaves me feeling pampered rather than deprived. And, to my everlasting surprise, I have discovered one additional salutary benefit; it has reduced the amount that I eat. In other words, I am now satisfied before I am full.

2)  I limit my carbohydrates, but not drastically. That means I made simple adjustments, such as having one piece of toast in the morning instead of two, half a sandwich for lunch instead of a whole. Fortunately my terrific cholesterol levels have allowed me to enjoy eggs whenever I wish. I seek out whole grain foods wherever their presence won’t compromise flavor. On  special occasions, when dessert arrives at the table I enjoy some, but in slivers. So, simple changes, but with minor ripples in terms of overall satisfaction.

3)   I never bring a salt shaker to the table. I cook with salt, but have really cut back on the amount I use. I have replaced it with tons of freshly ground black pepper, a personal favorite, and all of my cooking is now driven by the desire to optimize flavor in everything I make. I have come to believe (strongly so) that we eat, not until we are full, but until we are satisfied. I find that the more flavorful the food on my plate is, the less, not more I eat. This was a life-altering discovery for me.

4)     I now follow the sage advice of the Okinawans, who bring to their tables the mantra “Hara hachi bu”, by which they pass on to their children early in life the importance of  eating only until one is  80% full. Given that the Okinawans have been identified by researchers as a culture where people routinely live very long lives, it seemed to me prudent to take a page from their culinary book.  Embracing the concept of hara hachi bu has been extremely important to me in coming to understand my overall relationship to food. In our culture we learn to enjoy food to the point of satiation, but in my new experience, based on the aforementioned Asian wisdom, satisfaction occurs somewhat before that point. If you can tune yourself to that wonderful place where you feel satisfied but not full, you will find your body lighter before you know it.

5)    Perhaps the most critical part of my food-related changes has been the decision to make every bite count, in spades! That means working to pack every bite I take with as much flavor as a I can. I have replaced salt and sugar, two problem areas for people with my family history, with fresh ingredients and spices that blow those (frankly inferior) ingredients out of the water when it comes to leaving the table satisfied.

6) I refuse to worry about fats. They give you a wonderful sense of fullness and enhance flavor so much that overall, you actually eat less when you cook with them. While I’m on the subject, I find it interesting that those long-living Okinawans routinely fry their vegetables in lard. And why not? Lard is an extremely good source of monounsaturated (that’s right, monounsaturated!) fatty acid, and  if the pigs it comes from actually get to live their lives outdoors where they can enjoy a little sunshine, they’re a great source of vitamin D too. In my opinion the soul-less foods prepared by food conglomerates cause us to eat more because they offer fewer nutrients. Fewer nutrients in what we consume leaves us needing to eat more in order to satisfy our physical needs.

My effortless weight control leads my doctor to ask me whenever we meet just how I manage to do it. I’m sure she finds it hard to believe that it was so easy. I eat like a queen, and rarely give a thought to the exhortations of weight-loss gurus, since nothing they propose has ever proven effective for me. I may have to add a few embellishments to my plan in order to lose the final ten pounds I’d like to end my life with(out), but I feel no need to rush. I’m enjoying life too much.

I share this experience with you because it has been an eye-opening one for me. If I had known about weight, and weight loss, and weight maintenance when I was 40 what I do now, I would never, repeat, never, have gained unwanted weight to begin with.

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One Response to Some Thoughts on Food and Aging

  1. Greg Achtzehn says:

    Wow! That was beautiful and extremely insightful! I will have to reread this again and again to keep reminding myself of it. Having just recently been diagnosed diabetic, I immediately went into a panic, especially when I realized I would most likely have to give up forever my favorite desserts and pastries. After going “cold turkey” I was rewarded by a loss of around 25 pounds in three months. And while I have tried eating “healthy” after a triple bypass some ten years ago, I now have yet another new way to look at food, and will be embarking on this new journey as you have done. I am excited to begin!

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