Thankful to be celebrating 70 years of eating

Happy Thanksgiving! Last week I said goodbye to my 60s and have embarked on my life as a septuagenarian. Older people tend to reflect more on what has happened in the past. Younger people tend to focus on the present and how to make it to the next day. I realize that I have experience eating for over 70 years, and I reflect back on things I have learned.

Food is to be enjoyed, but don’t overdo it! Contrary to popular opinion I believe that individual foods are neither healthy nor unhealthy, but that all foods should be eaten in moderation. It is the diet rather than the food that is healthy or unhealthy, and that means that we must be careful not to consume too much food or too much of any specific food.

vegetables, meat and cheese in a salad bowl
Fresh spinach salad

A healthy diet is varied and balanced. I like both animal-based foods and plant-based foods. I like both processed (including ultra-processed) and whole foods. I enjoy preparing meals at home, going out to eat at a restaurant, or heating a fully-prepared food up in my microwave oven. I believe in nutrients as expressed on food labels and seek to balance out nutrients as well as food groups.

peanut butter, mayonnaise, banana circles wrapped in a burrito shell
A peanut butter burrito

Eating is a cultural experience. Eating is much more than what is desirable or what is healthy. Whether eating alone or in a group, there are cultural factors involved in any food choice. To ignore culture is to ignore a prime factor most people use in selecting what they eat. A cultural perspective must be considered anytime a new diet is prescribed or adopted or it will fail.

Not everyone has access to foods that can comprise a healthy diet. I am very fortunate. I live in a small community that has many bike trails, places to walk and two medium-sized grocery stores. I have a nice kitchen that allows me to store fresh fruits and vegetables as well as perishable processed foods. I am thankful that I can prepare several meals each week for my wife and myself and that I can go out and eat at fast-food and extended-service restaurants. Access to food is not equal in this country and neither is the ability to prepare healthy meals. I try to help every Monday night to distribute deli items to those who need it at the local food pantry. I hope that in my lifetime we will see better access to a wide range of food and more equitable distribution of food across income groups.

Everyone has an opinion about what we should and shouldn’t eat, and many of those opinions can become dogmatic. It seems that many critics believe that just because they have experience eating every provides them with expertise on what is good for us and what is not. I am amazed at how many self-taught nutritionists appear in the books I read about food and how many diets appear from people who have discovered the secret of health. Like The Angry Chef I believe that most of the diets recommended in these books represent an improvement on what the author ate previously, but they essentially represent a regression toward the mean. Many highly restrictive diets can be dangerous, and not all elimination/challenge diets achieve their goals. It still seems to come down to moderation and balance, but that doesn’t sell books. Few things anger me quite as quickly as seeing someone on the tube, obviously overweight, lecturing me on what I should or should not eat!

Food preferences are very personal. The foods I like may not be those that you like. Forcing someone to eat something because it is good or good for them is unlikely to work. Being open-minded about trying new and unusual foods is a good thing, but food aversions are real. When I was young, I ate most vegetables, but I hated drinking white milk and eating sandwiches containing canned salmon or cold Spam. I now drink milk frequently, but I have no desire to try canned salmon or Spam again. I have no patience for food shaming. Let people eat what they want to eat. The purpose of this blog is not to shame others about processed food or to advocate certain types of food. All that I am saying is that processed foods may not be as bad as they appear to be and that they should be judged on the basis of logic and not emotional appeals.

vegetables, meat and cheese on a salad plate
Salad with plant- and animal-based ingredients

You can’t always eat what you want, but if you try sometime you find you eat what you need. Apologies to the Stones! I mentioned in an earlier post that I would start eating ice cream when I turned 70. I noticed that the third greatest source of calories for Americans over 70 was dairy desserts. Confession time: I started eating ice cream again four weeks before turning 70. OK, it is lactose-free ice cream because I am avoiding the Disaccharide lactose. And, I only consume ½ cup of it at a time to avoid overconsumption of another sugar, sucrose, to avoid elevating my blood sugar levels. Age does come with limitations, but it beats the alternatives.

In Superfoods Rx, Dr. Stephen Pratt describes two 68-year old individuals. One senior parks in a handicap spot and struggles on the way back to the drug counter in the local pharmacy aided by a walker to get all the needed prescriptions. The other person just finishes a game of tennis and seeks out a basket of fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a diet emphasizing superfoods. I see representatives of each of these two groups every Sunday when I go to church, although many of them are older than I am. I don’t fall into either group and neither do many others in the congregation. I walk briskly to the back of the pharmacy to pick up the two prescription drugs I am on as well as the few that my wife takes. The two of us don’t play tennis, but we do bike at least five miles almost every day. I try to swim for 30 minutes two or three times a week when the outside temperature is above 70ºF. I lift 50-pound boxes of food at the pantry on Monday evenings.

I try to get my fresh fruits and vegetables, but I don’t believe in superfoods. I enjoy processed foods including ultra-processed ones. Aging is an interesting process and not easily delineated into a healthy/unhealthy dichotomy. Diet is important, but so are genetics and so many other factors. As I grow older, I become ever more cautious about judging on appearances. Appearances, particularly with respect to health, are deceiving. It is easy to stereotype, but life is so much more complicated than that.

I wish everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving. I am thankful for my health and the bounty of the food I am able to eat each day. I am thankful that I have a nice kitchen for preparing my meals and ready access to stores that can supply me with both whole and processed foods. I am thankful for family, friends, former students who are raising families and contributing to society, and all people who work diligently every day to convert plant-based and animal-based materials into the foods that appear on my table every day. I pray for everyone who is working to make this world a better place for all of us to live. Happy Thanksgiving!

Next week: We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast

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