My husband left for the gym a few days ago, and a few minutes after he left, he was back. He said he walked in, the place was packed, so he walked out. For weeks he had been going at a certain time and it had been empty. He was confused….I was not.
I reminded him of the date: January 2nd. I am guessing most of those new people made a New Year’s Commitment to go to the gym. I am also guessing in a few weeks it will be quiet again.
This post is not about New Year’s Commitments. I started this post months ago, and, clearly I never finished it! What happened, you might ask? Why is this taking so long? Well, I came to the conclusion that while I was working full time with families and individuals dealing with eating issues I would encounter situations at least weekly that would fuel my fire. Something inevitably would happen or someone would say something that made me truly motivated to help clear up some misconception regarding food, eating and nutrition or weight. Now, being retired, I miss these inspirations. I realize the issues I think about now tend to be more personal. Which is why I started writing this post. Maybe it was going on Medicare that made me think (I was not happy when I had to pay 197 dollars for my first shingles shot! If you are under 65 and have insurance, don’t postpone it!). Anyway, it has been on my mind that paying attention to health gets even more important as we age.
The other excuse for taking so long is that I tend to go down rabbit holes when I am researching for a post. Now that I don’t have to get up to go to work, I can take my time and read everything I feel like. Nutrition is fascinating in these times, and if you love reading the most recent research, it takes time to find it. I had to leave things out, they will have to wait for another time. But I hope this post at least gets you thinking.
So here you go, the original post I started months ago:
Do you think being 80 years old is, well, old? I didn’t think it was THAT old when my dad turned 80. Maybe because he projected joy and warmth whenever he was around. He was just so thankful for everything. He enjoyed simple things, like watching UCONN basketball, especially the women’s games, Sunday dinners with family, making up silly jokes, and playing with the grandkids. He also had a passion for making videos, and would walk around with his gigantic video camera at all family gatherings (and with Italian families, trust me, there were lots of them). And he was funny…..really funny. He had a wonderful life before dying of esophageal cancer at the age of 85.
He never went to the doctor in his life…..until he fell, broke his hip and had to. This is also the time they discovered the cancer in his bones. The doctors told him he actually probably fell because his hip broke merely from walking, which apparently happens often with the elderly who have weakened bones. They think they broke a bone due to the fall, but it is the other way around. Anyway, he ended up doing really well with the cancer treatments and had a few more good years…..until he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. That he just could not fight for long.
For a long time my mom blamed the microwave popcorn. She believed something was in the wrapping that causes cancer. He had a bag almost every night. She would mumble out loud to herself “you had to eat popcorn? Why did you have to eat that popcorn?!” It turns out that certain chemicals used earlier in packaging actually may be linked to some cancers, however companies stopped using these years ago (so your popcorn package now does not contain it). Check out this short article on Microwave Popcorn and Cancer (the first rabbit hole I went down).
Even so, it is not likely that popcorn was the cause of my dad’s death. My mom also told us he smoked cigarettes starting when he was ten years old. Whether he did or not, they BOTH smoked for many years until they finally quit in their 50’s I believe. (Now she likes to complain out loud, “You had to smoke at ten years old?!!” She often says this ten times a day due to her dementia but that is another story). I am guessing it was a combination of lifestyle, genetics and just plain old age that played a role. But I do wonder, if my dad had gone for regular checkups, would they have detected the cancer earlier, and been able to treat it so that if maybe would have never spread? Maybe his last years would have been a lot more joyful.
As I get older and I see health issues among elderly people I know and love, I can’t help but reflect on myself, and question if I am doing everything I can to live the longest and healthiest life possible. Of course, having worked in a health field for so many years, I am well aware of the basics of living a healthy life. Unfortunately, knowing what we need to do does not mean we are going to do it! Plus, if you know me at all, you know I am a firm believer in enjoying life to the fullest, which does not mean eating the perfect diet or having the ideal exercise regime. Attempting to accomplish that feels way too stressful to me, and the way I look at it, too much stress surely does not lengthen your life, or contribute to health, quite the opposite.
But where is the balance? How do we do both, enjoy life but also live a healthy one?
I wish I had the perfect answer. I am still searching for it myself. I believe it is a personal and individual choice, probably based on our unique experiences in life. For example, losing someone who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day to lung cancer or heart disease may motivate you to never smoke, or to quit. If heart disease runs in your family, you may be more likely to stay aware of your cholesterol and blood pressure, etc. Maybe osteoporosis runs in your family (my issue). Does that mean you should force yourself to drink 4 glasses of milk every day so you don’t get osteoporosis (which is still no guarantee)? The answer to that one is probably no, not for someone like me who is not a big fan of milk. Even though I recently found out I have osteopenia (bone loss but not osteoporosis yet, which is what my mom has) I am struggling with how to address it. Medications have side affects, I don’t like milk, calcium supplements make me nauseous. Thankfully, I have figured out how to remember my vitamin D (I keep it with my toothbrush, finally I have made it into a habit). I am good with yogurt every day, even some ice cream but the dietitian in me knows that is not nearly enough. I just bought some gummy calcium chews which I am able to tolerate a half at a time. Let’s see how this goes.
Anyway, the point is, knowing your family genetics is one place to start. At least it gives us something to think about. Besides that, I think there are 2 questions to ask:
- what kinds of things can we control that can contribute to a healthier life, and
- what changes can I make that are doable, without contributing a great amount of stress to my life so that I feel I am still enjoying life yet moving in the right direction?
There are so many factors that may contribute to health and longevity that we do have a say in, unlike genetics, which we can’t control. It is often not easy, however, to control other factors, such as environment and lifestyle. You can’t always up and move just because there is lots of pollution where you live, and you can’t just quit a job immediately because it is stressing you out. We know being active and sleeping well are important, as well as having healthy relationships. But let’s stick to food and diet.
As it turns out, in the process of researching diet and longevity, a few themes pop up. The most predominant “diet”, or eating style studied (and recommended) is the Mediterranean Diet. The other theme that I found was a calorie restrictive diet, however this was newer, not as researched and mixed findings. I also have a strong opinion about any eating style that is overly restrictive because the risk for damage, both physically and psychologically is just too risky. Yes, I went down this rabbit hole also, and read a lot of articles, and maybe will do another post on this since I am guessing it is going to get more mainstream eventually (intermittent fast already is, and I hope to do a post on this in the future). But lets focus on the Mediterranean Diet since this is the most researched and most proven diet for health. This eating style has been around for awhile, and this recent review (Nutrients,2021) spells out the history, multiple studies and conclusions over the years scientists and researchers have discovered regarding “MedDiet” as it is referred to.
According to the article sited above:
“MedDiet comprises dietary choices but also lifestyle, as well as historical knowledge,
traditions, abilities, and practices, which have been passed down through the generations,
extending from the countryside and food production to the ways of cooking, which provide a feeling of belonging and permanency to the community. Mediterranean traditional
cuisines are rich in aromas, colors, and memories, highlighting the taste and the synchronization with nature, and emphasizing the significance of preparing and consuming foods
jointly with family and friends. The traditional MedDiet was shaped by the environment,
the flora, as well as by hardship. The production of food at the time of first MedDiet
description by Ancel Keys was not industrial and involved a conspicuous physical effort,
which is crucial in the context of the multiple benefits derived from combining dietary with
The article makes a point of explaining that it is not just the actual food that is important, but the feeling of belonging, enjoying food with family and friends (being social and connected to others) as well as pure enjoyment of the aromas, colors (think fruits and veggies) and the memories created with meals together. The other point is the “conspicuous phyiscal effort” preparing meals requires which clearly contributes to health and well-being. I wonder if trekking to the grocery store and lugging multiple bags of heavy groceries and then having to put them all away counts toward physical effort? Sometimes, I feel like it certainly does! And THEN, you still have to find a recipe, chop, cook and clean it all up! That takes lots of energy!
You probably know lots of the basics already. Here is the chart published in the article:
Table 1. Traditional MedDiet and Lifestyle Features
• Daily consumption of various fresh vegetables and fruit; nuts, seeds.
• Grain products (bread, pasta, rice), mostly whole.
• Consumption of legumes several times per week.
• Cold pressed extra virgin olive oil for cooking and for seasoning as the main source of fat.
• Herbs and spices, adding flavor to dishes.
• Fresh fruit daily as dessert; infrequent consumption of sweets, cakes, and dairy desserts.
• Fish and seafood (2 to 3 times weekly).
• Daily consumption of dairy, in particular yogurt (small portions of cheese less frequently).
• Eggs, source of high-quality proteins, 2 to 4 times weekly.
• Infrequent consumption of red/processed meat, in small portions (1 to 2 times per month) *.
• Water as the main beverage.
• Drinking moderate amounts of wine always with meals (for women: ≤1 drink/day; for men: 1 to 2 drinks/day) **.
• Preferring fresh, locally produced foods, which have been minimally processed.
• Connection and respect with nature.
• Flavorsome cooking.
• Moderate portion sizes.
• Moderate physical active every day.
• Preparing and consuming meals in the company of other people.
• Have an appropriate rest (enough time and quality of night-sleep and eventually sleeping for a short period of time during the day if necessary [siesta]).
*preferably as a part of stews and other recipes. ** respecting former habits and beliefs.
One of the reasons this diet appears to promote health, according to scientists, is due to it’s affect on the processes of “inflammation”. That is a buzzword these days. You may also have heard of the word “antioxidant”, and know that it is something in fruits and veggies that is healthy. “Oxidative stress” is what contributes to “Inflammation” which contributes to disease, so if we want to decrease oxidative stress we need to consume more antioxidants.
Antioxidant sounds like one thing in food, right? It actually encompasses many “bioactive components” in foods that act to decrease oxidation and inflammation. You may have heard the terms “phytochemicals” and “flavonoids”, or “resveratrol”. In fact, there are so many antioxidants, I thought it would be an eye-opener to include this chart from the article mentioned above. As you can see, it is complicated!
You might wonder if taking an antioxidant supplement would be easier than eating more fruits and vegetables. You should talk to your doctor before taking any supplements. According to this review from the National Institute of Health Antioxidants: In Depth the answer is that supplements may not be the best thing to do. But do talk to your doctor before taking anything.
The other rabbit hole I went down was reading about the DII or dietary inflammatory index. The DII categorizes foods according to ability to contribute to inflammation. It takes into account many factors too complicated to go into here, and has been modified over the years. It is used mainly in research, but the bottom line is fruits and vegetables still come out on top. (I can’t believe after all the hours I spent reading about the DII, I ended up writing only 4 lines).
I also spent hours looking for some magical perfect list of high antioxidant foods. Although I liked this article the best from Medical News Today on Top Antioxidant Food because it was a short list, the reality is that any fruit or vegetable that you are actually going to consume is what counts. Yes, artichokes, beets and spinach are great, but if they make you gag, well, that won’t work. As I said in the beginning, whatever you decide to do to be healthier has to be doable.
There are so many changes you may be thinking you should be making. It can feel overwhelming. Only YOU can decide what you want to do, or even if you want to change anything in your life. You may have been told by your doctor to decrease saturated fat in your diet. Maybe you need to quit smoking or be more active because of health issues. Maybe stress is getting to you and you don’t know how to change it. From what I learned just from my rabbit hole reading these past few months is that merely focusing on adding in some antioxidants to your diet can truly help improve your health and the functioning of the protective mechanisms in your body despite everything else. Yes, you really shouldn’t stop working on quitting smoking. But in the meantime, maybe one doable thing is adding some grapes to your lunch. Some ideas to get your started:
- Make a list of every fruit and vegetable you actually like and can afford and find in your supermarket. Then, add to your grocery list.
- Reflect on your eating habits: do you eat 3 meals a day? do you skip meals and snack? Being consistent with eating regular meals and snacks makes it easier to make a habit out of eating fruits and vegetables (it is easier to add a fruit to your lunch for school or work if you actually eat lunch).
- If you are a grazer or someone who snacks often, remove foods like crackers, chips, cookies, etc. from counter tops and refrigerators and store them in a cabinet or closet. Instead, leave your fruit or nuts on the counter. That way, if you are mindlessly looking for something to munch on, it will be easier to grab the snacks with antioxidants.
- If you like raw veggies like carrot and cucumber sticks but don’t want to take time to prepare them, consider chopping up a batch on a weekend when you may have more time and keeping in a Tupperware or container in your fridge. That way, they are ready whenever you want. Using a little dressing for a dip makes it even yummier.
- You eat what is available. Bring extra fruit to leave at work (if you don’t have a fridge consider long lasting fruits like apples or dried fruits). Or some dark chocolate, which never gets old!
- Buying salad fixings and eating them are two different things. I have found if I wash my giant head of kale (or romaine or whatever) when I get home from the Farmer’s Market or grocery store right away, it makes it easier to just grab and eat with a meal. I wash then dry it so it doesn’t wilt (never had a salad spinner, so when I finally got one, don’t know how I lived without it), and tear it apart then store in a large container. Sometimes I take the time to add diced red onion, leftover celery, carrots, etc. which makes it even better.
- If you find you don’t use your fresh veggies fast enough so they get thrown out (I hate when that happens), try frozen ones. The bags of frozen veggies are great because you can just make what you need.
- Add extra veggies to soups and stews. Even if it is canned soup, you can always throw in some frozen green beans or carrots, corn, etc.
- Try new fruits and vegetables whenever you get the chance. Remember, your tastes may have changed over the year, plus, it takes many tries (at least 20 or more) before you really know if you like something. You might also try different ways to prepare vegetables. I am not a fan of steamed carrots but roasted carrots are my favorites. I use parchment paper and spray olive oil to make it easy then season with a bit of garlic salt or whatever. You can pretty much roast any vegetable at 400-450 degrees for 10 minutes or longer (depending how you like it) and this always makes them sweeter and yummier. And they are great as leftovers!
So there you have it. I feel relieved to get out of those rabbit holes I went down. I clearly have an issue of feeling like it is not enough information, and that I should cover every base. It is a lesson for me. And I hope it is a lesson for you.
Sometimes, when we try to do too much, when we try to do it all……we end up doing nothing. So, with this new year, I hope you don’t fall into that trap. I hope you bite off just what you can chew…..and know that even doing something as little as adding an apple to your lunch is a step in the right direction. Yes, Live for Today……but eating your fruits and veggies might be one thing you can actually do to decrease your chances of paying tomorrow ; )
Happy New Year!!!