7 most important health practices from my “aging” vantage point

Dance like no one is watching . . . they're probably not. But it helps maintain hope, joy and gratitude.
Dance like no one is watching . . . they’re probably not. But it helps maintain hope, joy and gratitude.

As many of you know, I have been interested in health and particularly in good eating for most of my adult life, ever since my grandmother died of colon cancer in 1969. During those years, I’ve watched a lot of fads come and go.  I’ve avoided most of them, have tried a few and have stayed with those that made sense and produced results for me.

You probably also know I’m not a scientist (a Ph.D. in psychology who used me as a guinea pig to take tests she needed to administer as part of her degree program told me my personality and aptitude results were the most skewed she had ever seen, toward religion and the arts). I’m not a certified practitioner of any kind. I just read a lot and think a lot and try things on myself and try to stay in the realm of good sense with a dose of realism.

In my last post, I mentioned a 9-part series on cancer I’ve been watching. The first four segments were interesting and contained enough pieces of information I know are true that it persuaded me to continue listening.  The fifth segment went a little over the edge for me, comparing our position on vaccination in this country to Nazi experiments in the concentration camps. Huge red flag.

I’m still listening, picking out what’s useful and interesting and leaving the rest. It did inspire me to write this post, though. Following are the five things I believe are true about health at this point in my life at the grand old age of almost 67. Some things have shifted as recently as during the last few months, one during the last couple of weeks:

  • Reject black-and-white ideas about health. Reject “super foods” and “demon foods.” Suspect anything that comes from a mentality of conspiracy theories and paranoia. The enemy on all sides of any argument, at least in this country, is much more likely to be opportunism, arrogance and thoughtless good intentions than evil intent, and there are bound to be a lot of gray areas. Be open, listen, consider what’s useful — but it won’t do a whole lot of good for your health and will cloud your judgment to start feeling persecuted.
  • Fiber. Found it 45 years ago and have relied on it ever since. It’s a pillar of my health program — but there’s a disclaimer here. I’m not talking about fiber supplements, and that brings me to my next point.
  • Eat real food. IMHO, eating real food, whole foods with all their parts, hopefully bypassing commercial food processing completely, is more important than buying organic, avoiding GMOs (if you’re into that), or any other “health food” practice for that matter. This includes juices: they are denatured fruits. Instead drink water and eat whole fruits. This includes bread, for the most part. Make your own with whole grains and little or no sugar.
  • Focus on plant foods, and all the slogans work for me here: “Eat the Rainbow,” “Nutrient density” (an equation that represents lots of nutrients in relation to the number of calories), “G-BOMBS” (drfuhrman.com – an acronym for an anti-cancer diet, which includes enjoying daily Greens, Beans, Onions, Mushroom, Berries and Seeds).
  • Eliminate added sweeteners of all kinds from your diet along with refined carbohydrates. This means, in effect, eliminate all commercial food products.
  • Calories count, but not the way I learned many years ago. This is a change in my thinking during the last week since I started watching the series on cancer. The best way to create an anti-cancer, healthy internal environment is to keep calories in the recommended range for your height and weight, but those calories need to be the kind of things mentioned in #4 above. Keep protein and starchy carbohydrates at a minimum and enjoy good fats, even saturated fats, especially if they are the fats contained naturally in foods like avocado, nuts and seeds. My diet contains fats way above the percent commonly put out there, 25-30%. It’s more like 50%. I believe this is fine, perhaps even good, as long as I stay within the recommended range of calorie consumption.  I can do that by eating lots of high water content veggies.
  • Exercise is critical. This is another change in my thinking during the last few months. My focus has been on the metabolic aspects of good health, although I always exercised regularly. I liked individual sports and activities, and my own have included ice skating, gymnastics, swimming, running (not my favorite), yoga, biking, hiking and walking. As I got older, and obligations other than to myself started to fill my time, it was harder for me to maintain my exercise habits. I’ve tried to get started again since my work environment has changed, and my effort has highlighted dramatically how important exercise is. I got a pedometer, and most days I get in an hour of walking (split into segments) and hopefully 15-20 minutes of yoga-like stretching. During the winter I replace some walking with jumping on my mini-tramp. It’s not enough, and here’s why I say that: my work now is more sedentary than it has been for the last nine or ten years. Have you ever read the statistics on what happens to your body if you sit eight or more hours a day, even broken up with exercise? Google it. Scary.

Did you do that? Here’s my proof that those statistics don’t lie: I am experiencing it. After I eliminated added sugars and all processed foods from my diet about five years ago (I had eliminated most processed foods years ago), I lost 15 pounds and remained at a fixed weight, the weight that is right for me, year-in and year-out during those five years. My blood sugar level dropped to a happily normal 90, my cholesterol dropped and my HDL went up into the good range.

I haven’t changed anything in my diet in the last nine months since I left the food business (where I was on my feet and active all the time), but I’ve gained 3 pounds. I will venture a guess my next blood tests will show that my blood sugar levels are creeping up along with my cholesterol levels. And I have developed chronic pain in particular locations in my frame. You probably won’t realize how important exercise is when you’re working at a desk in your thirties and forties and fifties — but when you get into your sixties and older, you will experience the results of not doing enough.

I’ll end as I began, with a focus on worldview. Here’s one additional thing I have learned about good health: do whatever you need to do to keep yourself in a positive, hopeful frame of mind.

This may sound like blasphemy to some, but I’m not at all sure that we have a positive purpose and direction put in place for us on our behalf by a force outside ourselves.  I choose to believe that we have a positive purpose and direction, and there are times when it’s hard to maintain that belief, to maintain my sense of joy and gratitude. I look for and do things that support me in that. Call them placebos or a crutch for the masses if you’re a serious skeptic, but studies show that 18-88% of people are helped by placebos. Worth thinking about.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me onFaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter,@vegwithleslie.

10 thoughts on “7 most important health practices from my “aging” vantage point”

  1. Leslie, this post was just what I needed to motivated myself to do what I know I have to do. I’ve known these principles and practiced them for thirty-plus years, but have found that occasionally I slip into less than ideal practices. I read your post as I was eating Chicago Mix popcorn and drinking diet soda. I know so much better, but I’ve gotten complacent. So thanks for the timely push.
    BTW, I didn’t know you’d gotten out of the food business. Are you no longer involved with Expressly Leslie?

    1. Hi Jane – I sold the cafe February 1. They’re keeping it pretty much the same, but I’m spending my time writing and researching these days. Working at home again and loving it, as I used to do! Glad you’re energized now. I go through those lax times myself, so you’ll be able to do the same for me someday!

    2. Hi Jane – I sold the cafe February 1. They’re keeping it pretty much the same, but I’m spending my time writing and researching these days. Working at home again and loving it, as I used to do! Glad you’re energized now. I go through those lax times myself, so you’ll be able to do the same for me someday!

  2. Very well written, Leslie. Thank you! Given your reading and research, how important do you think hereditary is on our health later in life? I ask because I’ve been compiling a family “health history” and at 61 I have outlived all four grandparents. My dad is 95 and quite healthy, though understandably slower these days. Mom was diagnosed with lymphoma at age 59 and died from it at age 65. The two causes of death that stand out are cancer and heart disease in all but one case. I know I am far more active than my mother was, and have been vegetarian for 25+ years, and will continue learning. Grandparents did not eat processed foods, as they were not available, but it makes me wonder. And I do choose organic non-GMO foods whenever possible, largely influenced by the work of Michael Pollan and certain others. But I agree, the single most important thing we can do is eat whole ingredients, unprocessed. Excellent post!

    1. Hi Dottie – you asked the same question I ask, and I don’t really have an answer. I tend to take the position that genetics isn’t determinative, but that’s my bias. I want to believe that we shape our own course within limits, both ethically and physically, with the choices we make.

      Isn’t it interesting how deeply it affects our lives and the choices we make when we lose people we love? I’m sure I was like most people who suffer loss in finding myself thinking, how did this happen, and how can I make sure it doesn’t happen again? In fact, I had a professor at N.U. who taught Bible that way, that the entire text was based on exactly that set of questions following a tragic war and exile.

      Anyway, I did love sipping black cows with my grandma every evening. Her southern fried (in Crisco) chicken was the best, as was her devil’s food cake (white flour) with boiled fudge frosting (loads of sugar). Of course, we also had fruits and veggies from her garden that we spent hours out under the broiling Arkansas sun picking — but I can’t help but think the Crisco and refined flour and sugar and meat at every serious meal were a problem. She died at 65, two years younger than I am now.

      My experience doesn’t shed much light on the question, though, because my Dad was adopted as an infant, and there isn’t a genetic connection for me there. On the other hand, my ex-husband, who came from the same town and food culture, just died this past June of colon and pancreatic cancer, and his brother died the year before of stomach cancer. Both were heavy soda pop drinkers in addition to loving that southern fried food. Oh, and smoked meats.

      After I watched the fourth segment of this cancer series, which is the segment that interested me the most because it was about food, I went to do a little more web research (yet again) on cancer. I read a very interesting post about a researcher who declares unequivocally that cancer is a metabolic disease. I actually found it interesting and exciting reading (http://www.diagnosisdiet.com/what-causes-cancer/), probably because it holds out the hope that we can all be “saved,” and I suppose I look for that. Then the next day, I figured I’d better see how credible that researcher was and found a contra article (https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/ketogenic-diets-for-cancer-hype-versus-science/#disqus_thread) that declared it hype. The second writer did grant that the researcher had some valid points, points worth considering, but in the final analysis, for the second author, cancer is both a metabolic and a genetic disease and probably a number of other things as well, in other words, a very complex disease, and there is no one size fits all solution.

      So I’m kind of back to where I started with regard to the question you ask. I suspect it’s probably both/and. I’m still inclined to think that genetics doesn’t have to be determinative and that we can influence outcomes with lifestyle choices, both as a preventive measure and for healing. I believe there’s also important work going on now with immunology. I can’t help but think, though, that our immune system is stronger if we eat right and exercise.

      Anyway, I think we just do the best we can with the knowledge we have at any point in time and try not to get so involved with what we eat that we neglect to enjoy it! That’s why I love what Monica is doing — all that beautiful, real food, outdoors, amazing places, with friends or her cute little dog, active. It’s a whole, well-woven tapestry that is bound to produce joy and good health.

  3. Leslie, those memories and smells from those old family kitchens bring floods of memories and warm feelings. We always had a good can of Crisco, the big tub, growing up. And my mother saved bacon grease, used it to cook in and season things. She cooked every single day, even as a teacher, for our family of seven. I am still in awe of her. But heredity is what it is, and we are still learning how far-reaching those genes are. I do believe we can positively impact our health with different eating and activity habits.

    I also admire my daughter, Monica, who has always been fiercely independent with her thoughts and lifestyle choices, because it is a quality life, simply but richly lived. And she attracts those who share her vision. And she reaches out to people she meets or learns about, who bring something valuable to the pot where it all comes together. (That’s how we know you! She reached out.)

    Perhaps food should become more of a priority to me. It is up there on the list, but first comes my spiritual practice, then family and art. It is a blessing to live this kind of modest abundance, but I want to be healthy enough to enjoy and continue it.

    1. Somehow this beautiful post ended up in a spot where I didn’t see it! Yes, I love Monica’s lifestyle. She’s amazing in what she has done – and I so appreciate that she reached out to me. I follow her all the time and am inspired by her. It seems as though she comes by her passions and talents and commitments naturally, too 🙂 – I’ve really enjoyed the chance to get to know you, such a beautiful and talented person.

      I have warm feelings for those kitchen smells too. I lived with my grandmother in Arkansas for some periods of time and visited many times over the years. She always had the big Crisco can to use for pies and southern style deep fried chicken. They had chickens in back, and we often had bacon and eggs for breakfast. Sometimes for a special treat, we’d get bacon smoked the old-fashioned way from a smokehouse in Springdale, Arkansas. The aroma was not to be believed.

      I suppose they had factory farms then too, or at least the beginning of them, but they weren’t looming over the food supply in the way they do now — or at least I was blissfully unaware.

      I agree with you on the priorities — but I have come to think that what I do with food is an expression of my spirituality. Although I’m interested in health, it has never been the primary motivation for my choices.

  4. Yes, Leslie, food is an expression of one’s spirituality, one of the best ways we can love ourselves into good health. I usually eat delicious, quality foods… but I eat a little too much of them. 🙂 This is a work in progress. FYI, I regularly make your “tuna” salad sandwiches now with Just Mayo. And I hope to try your stuffed pumpkin soon. 🙂 Oh yes, and your barley soup. So glad you share your wonderful recipes.

    1. Thanks, Dorothy – oh, btw, did you hear that the CEO of the egg group – forget what the organization is called – resigned after they found evidence that the group had lobbied with Whole Foods to stop buying Just Mayo? Which I believe may have put an end to their campaign against the product. Hooray!

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