Sunday, November 13, 2011

Live Long and Prosper?

Around 3:00 pm yesterday, just when I was thoroughly sick of being at work, I got an email from a coworker entitled “PUMPKIN PIE.”  She had brought two pies from a bakery near her house and was offering to share with people she likes.  She’d even brought a can of whipped cream.  I ran up there.  Didn’t literally run, I took the elevator, maybe it would have been a good idea to pre-burn the calories by walking up the 24 stories, but the building doesn’t allow it and there was that little problem of having work to do.  But it sure helped get through the rest of the afternoon.

As I washed the pie down with cappuccino - our office recently got new machines that offer espresso, cappuccino (not bad, really), French Vanilla (fat free, whatever that means), Hot Chocolate, and various combos - I flashed on the most recent interview I’d heard with Michael Pollan, who nearly always seems to be on one talk show or another.  “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not hungry,” he said.  (To which Stephen Colbert replied, “That’s quite an insult to the apple industry.”)
Now Pollan, who has actually done a lot of great work on the food industry, is not as bad as a lot of the people I incessantly hear on the radio.  People like John McDougall, creator of Livestrong and Jeanie Redick, founder of Eat forLife, who claim we are “meant” to eat only whole, unprocessed plant foods, are missing a fundamental point.

If I were not “meant” to eat pumpkin pie, it would not taste so good or make me so happy.
Moreover, the people who claim that humans are by nature hunter-gatherers (though they really mean gatherers, because they’re all vegans), and that eating dairy is a recent alien innovation, never met my ancestors.  Pollan suggests we follow “the wisdom of our grandparents” when it comes to food.  My grandmother did not invent the recipes for malai (corn bread with farmer cheese, butter and sour cream) or noodle kugel with cream cheese and sour cream, or milchiks, a type of pastry whose very name means “dairy.”  She learned them from her mother, who no doubt learned them from hers.

The basis for all these new-fangled theories about how we should not eat anything but unadulterated vegetables is that the only reason past generations were able to get away with ingesting inappropriate animal products was because they didn’t live long enough to experience the ill effects.  Now that we in the developed countries are not so subject to the ravages of typhoid, rampant tuberculosis, war or being eaten by bears, we are discovering how unhealthy our diet is.

Again, this seems counter-historical to me.  My grandmother lived to be ninety.  I wouldn’t say the last five or so years of her life were that happy, and she wasn’t necessarily in the best health, but more of that has to do with a fairly sedentary lifestyle once her kids were grown up, less awareness of the importance of taking steps to prevent things like osteoporosis, and probably also early experiences in Romania.  She had some heart issues late in life, but as far as I know, she never had a major illness until then.  For most of her life she was happy.  She had most of her kids and grandkids around her (she lived in Montreal, and I grew up 800 miles away in Richmond, Virginia, but she usually came to stay with us for the winters), and friends and other family members, and her cooking – with lots of butter and other dairy products, as well as meat – was one of the things that made her happy.

In fact, what population scientists predict is that our generation and those that follow will not live as long as those who preceded us.  Yet many more people now are vegetarians and vegans, lots of us are eating organics and getting our vegetables fresh from farmers’ markets rather than canned or frozen, which is what I mostly grew up on.  (Smoked fish might be a delicacy now, but it was invented as a means of preserving fish in countries where without it, people would starve during the winter.)  All evidence is that it’s the poisons in our environment, as well as in the foods that are mass-marketed, that pose such hazards to our health (and to be fair, Michael Pollan has helped to spread that awareness).  That is, it’s the social problems created by corporate capitalism, not our individual taste for unhealthy foods, that are toxic. So the wisdom of the nutrition experts setting up their Wellness Clubs at Whole Foods should be contemplated carefully.

But my big revelation in what I have dubbed my Pumpkin Pie Moment is that I don’t care if I live as long as I possibly can.  I hope I live another twenty years or more, I have a lot of things I want to do.  But living as long as possible just isn’t my top priority.  Being happy is.  Not that there is necessarily a contradiction.  A few months ago, I heard an interview with one of the researchers on The Longevity Project, a huge study begun in the [twenties] which followed a large cohort of Americans for their entire lives.  Now that they are all dead (including the original researcher, Lewis Terman), a team has compiled information on what factors seem to yield the longest, most satisfying lives.

The shocker that’s grabbed the headlines was that Happiness Doesn’t Help.  The people who were most “conscientious” or “responsible” lived longer than those who were carefree, thus ostensibly bursting the age-old assumption that stress and worry are bad for your health.  Okay, that’s interesting.  But the researcher I heard on the radio, Leslie Martin, used that information to advise parents not to worry if their kids are not making friends or having a good time, because they’ll be fine in the end.

Now I’m all for telling parents to stop measuring their kids against a one-size-fits-all playbook.  But the fact that anxious, friendless kids may in the long run live longer than their happy, well-adjusted peers is not a good argument.  Presumably, the parents of a seven-year-old are not deciding what is and is not a problem for her based on whether she’s going to live to be 84 or 88.

Now admittedly, when I read the study I found it more nuanced than it sounded in the interview.  They measured not just how long people lived but how satisfied they were with their lives.  And one of their points is that there was no behavior that determined who lived longest or had the most success, keeping in mind that all the participants in the study started out in fairly privileged circumstances.  One of my secret ahas:  no specific diet ended up yielding better results than any other in their study.  The NPR story about the study is entitled, “It’s Not All About the Broccoli.”  Alas, cruciferous vegetables, which I happen to love, according to this particular study at least, do not significantly prolong our lives.

I mentioned that to a coworker.  She said a friend of hers who recently died from breast cancer said, “If I’d known I was going to die now, I wouldn’t have eaten all that broccoli.”
Well I’m going to keep eating broccoli, but I’m also going to keep eating pumpkin pie and ice cream.  I’m also going to stop worrying so much about what other people think I should be doing, and if that doesn’t help me live longer, at least it’s going to make me happier.

1 comment:

  1. The Longevity Project findings fit with most of what you are saying. Individuals who were persistent, active, responsible, and involved with others generally were happier and healthier. The didn't make lists of things to eat and they didn't avoid hard work. To read the Introduction (free) to The Longevity Project, go to
    The Longevity Project
    There is also a Facebook page with lots of discussion about The Longevity Project.