Longevity or Dessert
Is it worth living to 90 if it means never eating another piece of pie?
Fondue, Skirt Steak, and Cheesecake
Recently a friend and I took ourselves to a bistro and consumed a meal of cheese fondue, skirt steak, and cheesecake. The only heart-healthy thing we ate was a runt of a baby carrot served with the fondue. After we paid the bill, we power-walked to a drugstore (my friend swears that a brisk walk apres dinner discourages bad cholesterol from lingering in the arteries), where we bought some chewable baby aspirin to swallow right outside on the street. Thus we saved our own lives.
My friend and I don't normally eat that way. On a health-mindfulness scale of one to 10, I'd say we're about a seven. We are both of reasonable weight, neither of us is a smoker, and we eschew fast food and the midday sun. We exercise, floss, and cultivate friendships (with other women who might make an occasional meal of fondue, steak, and cheesecake). In other words, we're committed to healthy living as long as we don't strain anything.
But recently, research labs all over the nation seem to be coming to the same depressing conclusion: The best way to significantly extend our life spans (as well as reduce the incidence of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer) is to channel our inner air fern. We're not talking about forgoing white bread or adding more fiber or passing up the Brie wheel at the company party. We're talking what's known as calorie restriction, the goal of which is to adopt a nutrient-rich, calorie-sparse diet -- 30 to 40 percent less than normal -- and then cut back. It's all about steaming up some rice and broccoli, then not eating much of the rice.
I've seen a photo of one practitioner of this diet, an extremely thin man sitting in front of his bowl of greens. His blood pressure is below average, and he has an enormous head. People like him will eat a piece of fruit for breakfast, vegetables for lunch, and brown rice and vegetables for dinner. I'm sure there's some carefully meted-out protein in there somewhere, but I doubt it's skirt steak. I eat a piece of fruit for breakfast, also a piece of sourdough toast and an egg. I am clearly suicidal.
The calorie-restricted way of living differs from anorexia in that it is not about weight loss; it is about health. Even so, that handsome young guy pictured in a recent New York Times story on CR is six feet tall and weighs 135 pounds -- five pounds more than my father weighed when he died of lung cancer at 75. My father was from a different time altogether, when the great thing about being alive was getting to do whatever the hell you wanted, and if that included smoking two packs a day, then so be it.
Those of us who are unrepentant fondue-eaters console ourselves with the fact that researchers still can't agree on whether semi-starvation holds the same benefits for humans as it does for the species they've tested it on: mice, worms, and yeast.
We are not yeast. We've got our troublesome human desires with which to contend. We're burdened with a hankering for half-and-half in our coffee, as well as the sort of philosophical questions that, to our knowledge, yeast never thinks to ask -- such as, if you lost three years but got to keep drinking caramel macchiatos, would it be worth it? Would you give up five years of life if you could enjoy the occasional hookup with prime rib?
If what the calorie-restricting practitioners believe is true, my friends and I are probably destined to be riddled with disease, doomed to early graves, unless we heroically and endlessly deprive ourselves of one of life's most consistently reliable pleasures. This leaves me in despair, which can't be good for my health. I feel like going into the kitchen right now and whipping up a batch of double-white-chocolate-chip macadamia cookies out of pure spite. That there are many delicious ways to prepare tofu does nothing to assuage me. Tofu is not a chocolate-covered caramel. I haven't eaten one in years, but part of having a full life is knowing that I could eat one at any time.
We should be able to indulge ourselves in midlife. One of the great comforts of not being 23 and obsessed with how fat our thighs look in our new pair of skinny jeans is being able to eat the occasional slice of garlic bread. Saying yes should be one of the perks of our wisdom and self-acceptance. We should be able to revel in not being concerned with every morsel we put in our mouths.
Fortunately, if we bide our time, this year's surefire anti-aging cure will become next year's bad idea. It wasn't that long ago that there was widespread support for a diet high in carbohydrates, or that studies revealed that people who were too thin actually had a greater risk of premature death than people who were of normal weight or even slightly heavier. It's nice to see that the benefits of red wine haven't been debunked just yet and that the benefits of a nice brisk walk are holding steady.
Confucius called old age a good and pleasant thing. (He didn't have much to say about midlife, but I think it's safe to extrapolate.) "It is true that you are gently shouldered off the stage," he said, "but then you are given such a comfortable front stall as spectator."
Perhaps this is part of our problem: These days no one wants to be shouldered off the stage. We are convinced that if we live on lentils and spinach, we won't get old but will remain flexible, sharp, and relevant. There comes a time when, no matter how much you don't eat, you are the guest who won't leave.
I wish a well-regarded scientist would step up and say we should all strive to emulate the life of Julia Child, who said she became a chef because she was always hungry. She wasn't published until the age of 49, and, at 51, was one of America's first television cooks. She was a proponent of moderation and attributed her general good health to eating red meat and drinking gin. (She battled breast cancer in her mid 50s and won.) Child died in her sleep at 91, having spent a lifetime as far away from calorie-restricted diet as is humanly possible. Her main source of nourishment came from passion and joie de vivre.
I'm no more courageous in the face of growing old than anyone else. If I thought living in eternal hunger would guarantee me another 40 years of perfect health, perhaps you'd see me choosing kale over Kettle Korn, but there are no guarantees. There never are. There is, however, a little taqueria near my house where you can sit outside while sipping excellent margaritas. That I never fail to enjoy this means I'll just have to take my chances, like everyone else who opts for indulgence.