When I was 75, I audited my eating habits. After the audit I started a few tiny habits that improved my diet. I’m Rachel McAlpine and I’m tweaking my food for aging in advance. I’m engaging with aging, investing a few pennies now for a happy old age in future years.
Poem: The Erymanthian Boar—how Hercules conquered a greedy pig
Choosing foods for a healthy future
According to the traditional checklist for a healthy diet, I was eating OK. For example, I ate heaps of vegetables (which I love). But I failed to drink enough water, especially as older people often do not know when we’re dehydrated. Also, my meals were light on fruit, fish, and pulses (peas, beans and lentils)—all good food for aging bodies and minds.
Almost daily we’re told about some new research on diet. Do/don’t eat salmon. Yes or no to coffee, dairy products, red wine, gluten, black tea, bread, chocolate, pasta, potatoes, tuna, sauerkraut—even olive oil and parsley can be frowned on.
Moreover, thinking about every bite as nutrition for aging would be depressing, especially when the rules keep changing. Healthy food should be a pleasure, not a duty.
No diets, no food fads, just tiny habits
In my year of being old I did learn stuff and I did tweak my nutrition. How did I make that happen? Not with a strict diet: we all know how that ends! No, I did it by starting a few tiny habits. A tiny habit works like this:
- 1. first a trigger (I open the computer)
- then an action taking 30 seconds or less (I put a full glass of water on the desk)
- then a reward (I get a nice wet feeling in the throat with every sip).
Five years later, many of those tiny habits have stuck and even expanded. I still keep a glass of water on my desk, I still put peas, beans and lentils into Saturday soup, I still add at least two extra fruits to my porridge, and I sometimes eat sardines on toast with salsa. And when my weight goes up, sometimes I just use a smaller plate for a while. It’s all very easy: I like doing all those things.
People get evangelical about food. They try to convert you to kale, or brazil nuts, or this or that diet. (I like brewing kombucha and kefir.) However, it is not my business to tell you what to eat. Let’s keep an eye on the science—and eat what we love and love what we eat.
Healthy eating habits from our parents
Like my mother I prepare food very fast and efficiently. Our mother’s old-fashioned rule for a healthy dinner was meat-and-3-vegetables. (As a nearly-very-old person in the 21st century I aim for more protein, more veges and less meat.) Our Dad grew vegetables, milked the cow, fed the chooks. Also, as kids we used to say grace at every meal: we were grateful. Nowadays I make appreciative noises over my meal. That might be an omelette or salad, or tagine, a toasted sandwich, a weird Bhutanese vegetable stew with chilli-and-blue-cheese—whatever.
I have started another new habit, too. The Supermarket Lunch. This will stand me in good stead when I am very old. Nowadays, when people come to lunch, it’s a bought one. I love cooking for myself, but I get stressed if people are coming and that impinges on my pleasure. Instead, I buy something like a roast chicken and a salad from the supermarket. Then it’s all about the company, not about planning and thinking and timing and cooking and serving.
Food for aging: my three priorities
- Eat food that is yummy.
- Mix up colours, tastes, and textures.
- Take joy in the making (or the shopping) and eating and sharing.
What about pills?
Let me jump forward here. A few months after I’d finished my boot camp for the bonus years, I realised something a bit weird.
I had duly reviewed and improved 12 aspects of my life, preparing for the future when I would be very old. But there was one factor that I had overlooked: my health care. That was odd, because health care is obviously crucial in old age.
All year I had focused only on how I could help myself to stay healthy and happy. I forgot that when there’s something wrong with me physically, I go to the doctor, of course. In wealthier countries, life expectancy has gone up partly for this very reason: we can manage the killer diseases of old age with medication. So why wouldn’t I? Peas and parsley are delicious, nutritious and health-giving, but sometimes people also need pills. Let’s carry on with the healthy food but take the meds for heart disease or high blood pressure or Type 2 diabetes, for instance.
Good luck with making your own food choices. May you enjoy your meals and stay on the path to a healthy old age.
While we’re on the subject of healthy food for aging bodies and brains…
- Nutrition and healthy eating (Mayo Clinic)
- Brain Ageing, Cognition and Diet: A Review of the Emerging Roles of Food-Based Nootropics in Mitigating Age-related Memory Decline
- The Erymanthian Boar—poem