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Thoughts on Eating and Long Life

I recently read a wonderful book called Life is So Good by George Dawson, a book made remarkable by the fact that Dawson didn’t learn how to read until he was 98 and wrote the book when he was 101!

Dawson’s story was fascinating, in large part because he lived in three centuries, being born in 1898 and dying in 2001. He also had a remarkable memory, including many details of his childhood – he remembered more at 100 than I do at less than half that age.

But I was also interested in a discussion from later in the book. Because Dawson lived to such an old age, a lot of people wanted to know the “secrets” to his long life, including what he ate.

This isn’t surprising. I think every article about a person who makes it to 100, and especially those who live past that, addresses those sorts of questions.

The problem is so many other factors impact longevity that you can’t just narrow it down to food. Genetics plays a big role, sometimes more than you might think. For example, I had a great-uncle who lived to be 86, even though he started smoking at age 11 and kept it up for the rest of his life. I can only attribute that to having really good genes.

Other factors are physical activity, stress, social circles, and luck. Dawson described some experiences in his book that he was very lucky to have survived.

Still, it can be interesting to find out what these long-lived people eat, with the recognition that there’s no silver bullet to having a long life.

Unusual eating habits

One of my favorite parts of hearing what long-lived people eat is when it turns out to be something we think of as unhealthy since it’s a reminder to only put so much faith in specific diets.

Personally, I had two great-grandfathers who lived to be over 90, though not over 100. One of them, who lived to be 96, did cook his own meals, so he wasn’t eating a lot of processed food, and he included vegetables in those meals. But he also ate a lot of fatty meat, like bacon and sausage (apparently, the more fat the better), and I think he liked sweets.

My great-grandfather who loved sausage

This aligns with what I’ve found online. You can certainly find information about “Blue Zone” diets, which advocate eating lots of plants, small amounts of meat (sometimes as little as five times a month), getting in lots of beans, eating unprocessed foods, and drinking moderately.

But you can also find examples of people who don’t quite follow those rules, such as:

  • 100-year-old Geraldine Karlan, who likes eating steak and lobster and other goodies

  • Susannah Jones, who made it to 116, ate bacon every morning, along with eggs and porridge

  • Richard Overton, who died at 112, ate ice cream every night and smoked a cigar every morning

  • At 100, Antoinette Fiore also ate a lot of ice cream and other goodies

Dawson’s thoughts on food

Going back to George Dawson, he had an approach to eating that I liked.

“I eat what I want and when I want. If it’s two in the morning and I want some beans and potatoes, then I have beans and potatoes…. If I want fried chicken then I eat fried chicken…. For breakfast, I always have three slices of white bread and a cup of hot chocolate. I never eat too much, just when I’m hungry.” (pp. 243-244)

That sounded like a very mindful approach to eating, and it certainly worked well for Dawson.

I was also interested in his comments about books that focus on nutrition. “Carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, calories. You know what all that will do to you? … Most likely… it will just make a person worry.” (p. 243)

I thought that was a good point. Sometimes knowing too much about nutrition can make you obsess over it, worrying that you’re not getting it right. And too much worry and stress can cause all kinds of other problems.

No one answer

While it’s fun learning about what long-lived people eat, it’s a reminder that no diet can guarantee that you also have a long life.

But eating mindfully, in moderation, and without deprivation, is a good start, and it will help you enjoy your life along the way.


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