Friday, December 25, 2015

How I Learned to Use Food as Health Insurance

My lifelong interest in food as a path towards health began when I was a child observing my grandmothers. Each of them was faced with a medical condition that required attention to food ingredients. 

My maternal grandmother survived rheumatic fever when she was 15. The illness damaged her kidneys. In order to stay healthy, she was advised to limit her salt intake. Her husband, my grandfather, was a doctor, and he also enjoyed cooking. I remember watching him prepare fresh food ingredients such as vegetables and fish, for a delicious fish soup with no added salt. They were fortunate to live first in New York City, where they had access to a wide variety of produce, and then in Florida, where they marveled at all the tropical fruits and vegetables grown locally. Because of their vigilance with diet and lifestyle, my grandmother lived to 83. And my grandfather, despite his own health challenges in his later years, lived to 95.

On the paternal side, my grandmother was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes when she was 45. She had to administer an insulin shot to herself every day and watch her intake of carbohydrates. As soon as she learned she had diabetes, she and my grandfather studied exactly how to keep her healthy. And they went one step further: Whenever my grandfather found out that one of his customers, or any of their aquaintances, had diabetes, he and my grandmother helped educate them about diet and exercise so they could help themselves survive and thrive. 

My paternal grandmother loved to bake. And we, her 13 grandchildren, loved to sample her baked goods. But she couldn't taste her own cookies and cakes, because of the carbohydrate content. We'd take a bite and say, "More chocolate, Grandma!" or some other taste-critique. Because she was careful with her sugar load, she lived to 95 and never faced the awful consequences of diabetes such as blindness or amputations.

Along with learning about my grandmothers' medical conditions and dietary limitations, I also noticed that neither of them complained about what they were missing. They incorporated their eating habits into full lives and lively family relationships. 

My father was another interesting example of the effects of diet and exercise on health and longevity. His father and two brothers all suffered in their later adult lives from heart disease. When my siblings and I were young, in the 1960s, President Kennedy emphasized the need for American children to exercise and stay in shape. My Dad ordered a copy of the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises and got us to do the 12 minute routine every day. He also began a lifelong habit of doing the RCAF exercises every morning before he left for work. His pre-commute breakfast consisted of bran cereal or wheatena with yogurt and ice cubes, and a bowl of freshly cut vegetables stewed in water. Dinner always featured a protein, vegetables, and salad. His resting heartbeat was about 40 beats/minute. He outlived all his siblings and passed away at 92 3/4 years.

My grandmothers and my dad were human. They had treats and weren't obsessive about their food. But their lifelong daily habits gave them an advantage as they proceeded into their advanced years. I'm happy to follow their early example as I approach mine.

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