“Decide how you want to die and eat accordingly.”
Those were my mother’s words to me when she was in her late 60s and living in Fort Lauderdale. It was the received wisdom of wealthy retirees who had a vested interest in living as long as possible.
At the time, my decision was to try to avoid dying from a heart attack as there is a history of heart disease in my family among the men on my father’s side, with an apparent expiration date of 60 years. “Eating accordingly” translated into adopting a low fat, low cholesterol diet. For me, it was mostly a matter of reading labels and avoiding certain foods.
Nonetheless, it was quite a transition that I undertook in my 40s. It was a radical lifestyle change from my 20s and 30s when food was all about taste, variety and exploration. Pizza with extra cheese, sausage and pepperoni had been food for the gods. Now it was poison. 😦
In 1990, when I was 39, I wrote and self-published The Tyler Hill Bed & Breakfast Cookbook. I was aware at the time that it was probably the last full fat, high calorie cookbook that would ever be written. In the introduction, I wrote:
“I like things that look good and taste good, even if there’s enough cholesterol in them to clog every major artery into Manhattan. I don’t like — but understand and approve of — your need to substitute low fat, low cholesterol, low sodium ingredients if you must, even though it changes the taste. I think I’m middle of the road when it comes to cooking: I don’t insist on whole grains, but I’m not into junk food, either.”
I went on to rail against using artificial ingredients and products that contained unpronounceable chemicals. I ended my statement of cooking philosophy by comparing eating to having sex…and concluded that eating well was better!
Fast forward 31 years. Although I adjusted my cooking to be more heart-healthy, my weight yo-yoed in a predictable way. At 5’8″ tall, 155 pounds is a good weight for me. Each year, though, it creeps up to about 165 with most of that gain coming in the fall and winter when I tend to hibernate and stop exercising. Each March, I gather myself together, get back on my healthy diet, and start jogging again. By July, I’m back to 155 and feeling good.
That same pattern unfolded last year but there was a glitch: I was just beginning my descent from 166 when the COVID quarantine hit and the gym at the YMCA shut down. I wasn’t able to adjust my exercise routine and over the course of the next 12 months, I gained another 20 pounds: the infamous COVID-20 that hit a lot of us.
When this March rolled around, then, I was really worried about my weight which was at an all-time high of 186 pounds. I’d be out of breath after climbing the stairs and bending over to put on my socks was a challenge. It was time to get really serious about my diet and exercise…but there was a new wrinkle.
Not only was I dieting and exercising to avoid heart disease, but now I was concerned about maintaining brain health and warding off dementia, too. So I began reading up on brain healthy eating.
The good news is that all of the things that are heart healthy are also brain healthy. As a result, I didn’t have to eliminate a lot of things from my diet. It was disconcerting, though, to discover that some of the prior changes I thought were healthy decisions, like eating non-fat Greek yogurt, were on the brain food shit list: all milk products are out!
Whereas heart-healthy eating for me was mostly about avoiding certain foods, brain-healthy eating requires you to go beyond that and intentionally include a wide variety of foods in your diet. It gives a whole new meaning to the 60s mantra “Feed your head!”
I’m just at the beginning stages of exploring this new way of eating. The information in the reading I’m doing is pretty overwhelming, but I’m doing my best to simplify it: nuts, berries, wild-caught fish, shellfish, poultry, herbs, spices, beans, fruits, leafy greens and vegetables are good; beef, sugar, junk food, refined flours, milk products and anything that ever had a relationship with pesticides, antibiotics or hormones are poison. (Here’s a link to a video that provides a pretty good overview.)
So far, so good. I’ve been able to adhere to a good workout schedule, getting to the gym 5-6 days each week, I’m making the shift to more healthy foods and I’m having fun trying out new recipes.
Bottom line: I’ve lost 15 pounds over the last 3 months with 16 more to go. When I get there, I will have 2 of the 5 pillars of a healthy brain lifestyle in place: diet and exercise. As always, maintaining my new habits through the year (and years!) ahead will be the greater challenge.