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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

A Ripe Old Age

I am at the point in life where I am more conscious of the decisions I make, as well as those I made in the past regarding my potential lifespan.  It isn’t something I think about a lot, usually just before my annual physical which occurred last week. But while I don’t spend much time over the course of a year thinking about it, I am aware that every day I make choices that can and likely will affect my health. So, in a departure from my usual, more philosophic posts, I wanted to share some thoughts on a very practical subject, what we eat.


Physicians generally talk about diet and exercise under the rubric of lifestyle choices.  That is to separate them from other factors that we have little or no choice about such as genetic predispositions, incidents beyond our control and what insurance companies like to call Acts of God; an interesting turn of phrase in itself. But I digress.


Two documentaries I’ve watched over the past year raised some questions for me that got me thinking more than usual about human longevity.  I’ve written about one, Blue Zones, which examined five places in the world where there are an unusually large number of centenarians and where the incidence of the most common causes of premature death are decidedly uncommon.  More recently, a similar documentary detailed the results of a scientific study of twenty-one pairs of identical twins who were randomly divided into two groups based on diet.  Why twins?  Well, the scientists conducting this study wanted to eliminate the one factor that has remained a question in prior efforts to understand the degree to which what we eat affects our health and longevity, our genetics.


The twins in You Are What You Eat came in all shapes and sizes, male and female, from very fit athletes to individuals who were clearly overweight and anything but fit.  Other than for the fact they were all twins, the group as a whole was a pretty fair cross section of the overall population.  During the initial study period of eight weeks, the twins were divided so that one group continued to eat an omnivore diet—whatever they had been eating before the study commenced.  The other, were shifted to a vegan diet—no animal protein at all.  During the initial study period both sets of twins were enrolled in an exercise program with a trainer who was himself a vegan.  That was a conscious choice in view of often-expressed concerns about the ability to build or maintain muscle mass on a plant-based diet.


The twins were subjected to a set of rigorous tests prior to the commencement of the study—not just the usual measures of BMI, or blood tests, but stress tests, scans of actual body fat and lean muscle mass, tests of cognitive acuity, and dozens of other metrics of health and wellness. The same tests were conducted at the end of the initial study period and at the end of a year. 


I want to preface my report on the findings with this caveat.  This post is not intended as a promotion of any dietary approach—what people choose to do is their own affair.  But I was more than slightly surprised by the findings. 


Blue Zone had prepared me with an understanding that the typical American diet is heavily weighted—no pun intended—with processed, high cholesterol, sugar and salt intensive foods and a ratio of animal to plant based proteins that is the precise opposite of what is found in areas with a low incidence of heart disease and cancer.  Blue Zones went far beyond this to understand a host of other issues affecting lifespan and health outcomes including daily activity, the degree to which faith, a sense of community and a sense of purpose also impact longevity.


You Are What You Eat did not examine those factors –focusing largely on diet and regular although not especially intensive exercise.  The big takeaways were indisputable.  The vegan diet twins all saw significant improvements in lean muscle mass versus unhealthy body fat; not the superficial fat that we can see, but the fat that surrounds our vital organs and can lead to a myriad of health issues, not least of which is diabetes and heart disease. Not a huge surprise, but the degree of improvement over just two months was startling; in one case reducing body fat of an already lean twin to an astonishing single digit percentage.


But that was only the beginning.  The Vegan twins also saw across the board improvement in cognitive ability, heart health, stress test results, literally every area of measured performance.  And the most impressive of all was actual growth in their telomeres. In case you may have forgotten your High School biology section on DNA, telomeres are the structures at the end of our chromosomes that regulate the lifespan of our cells. As we grow older our telomeres grow shorter and eventually less able to repair our cells or regulate the creation of new ones.  Adding length to those telomeres is not unheard of, but doing so at a significant rate in just eight weeks is radical.


You might think, this alone is the case for going vegan but as much as that might be true, it isn’t quite that simple.  Changing one’s lifestyle—that is attending to those dietary things that both studies identified is critical, but it isn’t the whole story.  And I want to be clear, it isn’t easy.


For some time now we’ve been on a diet heavy on vegetables, legumes, fish and poultry.  We made a decision to limit our animal protein and increase our plant based along with some other changes.  We are both active, both in and out of the gym and we pay attention to what we eat.  But we also like good food and so any changes we’ve made have been balanced against eating things we enjoy, and in my case having a glass or two of wine on occasion.  


From my annual physicals I already knew that my biological age was 15 years less than my chronological.  Good for me. But as the Blue Zone documentary observed if you asked the average person if they would be willing to make some changes to add 15 years to their lifespan—to live to that Ripe Old Age, not everyone would.  We aren’t special, but we do want to do what is sensible and we’ve found that it isn’t always a straightforward proposition to change.  There are some sacrifices—to one’s pocketbook and to eliminating some things that we liked to eat.  It is also demanding—it takes some time and attention to figure out meals, to find ingredients that may not be stocked by every market, and most of all it takes discipline to stick to a plan. 


Is it worth it?   It is for us, but I am not in the pulpit preaching what others should do.  And I want to add that we didn’t get here overnight but through a process of gradual change, subtracting foods that did not align with the direction we wanted to head and finding ways to enjoy replacements.  That included some seemingly easy things like replacing sugar with a safe alternative, using less salt but adding more spices, eliminating chips, and other snack foods for nuts, fruits and veggies.  But cravings are real so we don’t put temptation in our own paths—most of the time. And if on occasion we do indulge we don’t make it a habit. We aren’t vegans and we may never be, we just keep moving in a direction that keeps our intake of healthy food at about 85% of our diet.


We’ve learned how to substitute plant-based alternatives for ingredients that are less healthy and have been pleasantly surprised to find that they can taste good and satisfy our cravings much of the time.  But I want to be honest, as good as these alternatives are—and they are very good these days—they cost a little more, and even the best are just not the same as their analogues.  A great plant-based burger can and does taste like its meat-based cousin but it isn’t the juicy, fat dripping, char broiled, artery slamming shut handful that I love on occasion. 


So, there is the sacrifice—making the choice to forego some of the things we’ve grown used to or do nothing at the price of a shorter lifespan and potential health issues in the future. Intellectually it is a no brainer, emotionally it is harder because there is no immediate gratification. But, there is this, there have been changes for the better, more energy, a clearer mind, and less stress.  It did not happen overnight but over the course of months, a visible sign that it isn’t all sacrifice, that there are benefits in the present—and with some good fortune for many years to come.

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