by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
A few months ago I celebrated a special numbered birthday. In doing some research, I discovered that we are not just living longer, but a lot longer.
In 1900 the average life expectancy for Americans was about 46 years, it is now approaching 80 and that is the average. Many of us are living well beyond 80 to even 100 years or more.
This all sounds good but with advancing age comes a greater potential for conditions associated with aging such as arthritis, hip fractures, memory loss (I call it mature moments). Should these conditions be seen as an inevitable part of aging? The good news is that we have a good deal of control over how quickly, and maybe even more importantly, how well we age. Research indicates there are three things that determine how we age: genetics, environment and our lifestyle. While we cannot choose our parents who gave us our genes, we can control our environment and lifestyle. In my article today I will write about some diets that may help us live and love longer.
Most of us know which foods are good and bad for us. The best advice about nutrition is not to make yourself miserable about eating foods that you don’t like (for me Brussel sprouts) just to lose weight or stay healthy. Food should be one of the basic joys of life. Most nutritionists remind us that it is important to eat a varied diet that includes lots of vegetables and fruits. When you go to the grocery are you putting the same foods into the cart? Be adventurous and try something new.
Two diets that kept showing up in my research are the Mediterranean and the Paleo: both have their strong devotees and their fervent critics. Nutritionists seldom recommend one specific eating pattern for everyone. There are drawbacks and benefits to every way of eating. It is important to find one that is balanced, sustainable, enjoyable and tailored to your specific needs. Let’s review these two popular eating patterns.
Last fall, when we visited Italy, I had the opportunity to observe the Mediterranean diet. Although my eating pattern was not typical while there (I love my carbs and Italy is the best country to enjoy), many say the Mediterranean diet will lower your risk of developing many diseases including cancer and heart disease. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olives/olive oils, nuts and seeds. It encourages limiting starch vegetables, red meat and processed meat. White meat, fish and legumes fall in the middle, with approximately two servings per week of each recommended. Their diet promotes whole/natural foods with increased fruit and vegetable intake. It emphasizes cardio-protective fats and encourages limiting the types of fats that have been shown to negatively affect our health (saturated fat and trans fats). One criticism I found of the Mediterranean diet is that it can be low to moderate in protein. It limits white meat to two servings a week and places fish/eggs higher up on their pyramid, which implies they should be eaten less frequently.
The Paleo Diet is a diet that I knew little about. It boasts that it is the “world’s healthiest diet,” based on wholesome, contemporary foods from the food groups that our hunter-gatherer ancestors thrived on during the Stone Age. It aims to improve overall health, promote weight loss and lower disease risk. It is a newer diet and gaining in popularity. The typical cycle of the Paleo eating pattern encourages meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and fruits (mostly berries and melons.) It excludes grains, dairy, legumes added sugar and salt because people living in the Paleolithic ages would not have eaten those foods. Natural foods and limited processed foods are a big part of this diet. It also emphasizes vegetable consumption and is higher in protein than the Mediterranean diet. The Paleo eating pattern promotes the consumption of lots of fiber which helps the gastronomical function but can also be a shock to the system if intake is increased too quickly. The typical Paleo eating pattern is also high in potassium, which helps prevent hypertension. On the negative side, the Paleo diet eliminates many key food groups including dairy, grains and legumes. I would surely miss my ice cream and bread. Another negative some say is that the diet is excessively high in protein.
So which is better? My research shows that a number of nutritionists feel that the Mediterranean eating pattern is a much more established, balanced way of eating for lifelong health. If you are a fan of the Paleo then consider reducing the protein intake and include whole grains and dairy. This way you are ensuring that you obtain healthy fuel and calcium.
I would be remiss if I did not write about the benefits of wine and chocolate and how it relates to living and loving longer. My wife Carol was happy regarding recent reports that chocolate may help us live and love longer. I saw many studies that indicated that dark chocolate is good for more than a broken heart. The secret seems to be cacao: the source of chocolate’s distinct taste. Packed with healthy chemicals like flavonoids and theobromine, this little bean is considered by some to be a disease-killing bullet. The only problem is that on its own it is bitter, chalky and not tasty. Enter milk, sugar and butter-all good for your taste buds, but not always good for our health. Besides adding calories, these can dilute the benefits of cacao. The recommendations are to stick to healthy chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao (cocoa which is cacao in its roasted ground form). Because of its high fat and sugar content, one nutritionist recommends limiting yourself to seven ounces, or about four dark chocolate bars a week. I know the staff at the new Pease’s at Bunn Gourmet will be able to advise you which chocolates are higher in cacao.
Good for the heart (what I always tell my wife) is wine, especially the red variety that has been studied extensively over many years, with many findings that suggest it may promote a longer lifespan, improve mental health, and provide benefits to the heart. I’m confident my friend Dr. Geoff Bland, owner of The Corkscrew, would concur. Of course it is important to remember to drink wine in moderation, and moderation defined by your age, sex, body stature and lifestyle. Researchers from Harvard Medical School have reported that red wine has anti-aging properties. Specifically resveratrol is the compound found to have the beneficial effect. The resveratrol in wine comes from the skins of red grapes. Blueberries, cranberries and nuts are also sources of resveratrol. A concern as we increase in age is dementia. One study from Loyola Medical Center found that moderate red wine intake can reduce the risk of developing dementia. The study showed that resveratrol reduces the stickiness of blood platelets which helps keep the blood vessels open and flexible, maintaining a good blood supply to the brain.
Living and loving to a ripe old age is really up to us. It’s not just diet. How we live our life, practices that strengthen our inner life — our mind, mood and sense of connection — count often as much as any solution that comes from a scalpel, diet or prescription pad.
I close with a quote from American entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie, “The most important things are actually the easiest to obtain: good friends, good food and a decent bottle of wine.”
P.S. Don’t forget the chocolate!