For full disclosure the title is a bit misleading, blame the marketing guy in me. Nonetheless, I assure you this missive is worth the few minutes it will take you to read.
When my family immigrated to the US in the late 60s we were nothing short of astonished the way Americans shopped for food and other necessities. I remember going to a local supermarket (by ’69 standards) in Gary, Indiana where later I also got my first job. Aisles and aisles of all types of foods; meat, produce, dairy, canned and frozen food and every type of cereal one could imagine. There was even an aisle dedicated to pets. That was a shocker!
For comparative purposes our version of ‘supermarkets’ in my homeland of Macedonia were more like 7–11 stores. They only carried the basic necessities such as flour, sugar, rice, some canned food, etc. We got our meat from the local butcher, produce from the farmers market (twice a week) and our milk was delivered fresh daily. We made our own cheese, butter, kefir and even grew our own veggies — namely peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers — the mainstay of the Mediterranean diet — long before nutritionist and dietitians proclaimed its health benefits. We often joke and laugh about scientists finally catching up to us J. Our fridge was tiny because my wonderful Mom — a housewife and homemaker — cooked every day with fresh ingredients. And at the ripe age of 87 that lady can still cook up a storm!
So imagine the joy when we discovered all of that pre-packaged food. We were especially blown away by the meat section; we had never seen such cuts of meat before — t-bones, sirloin steaks, filets, chops, chicken breasts, wings and other poultry parts etc. — all trimmed and cut to perfection and packaged in a way it was not only presentable but looked palatable as well. My younger brother and I even wondered if Americans perhaps had created new types of animals that produced such cuts. We were serious! And the redness of the meat made it look like it just came out of the slaughterhouse. We were simply in awe of our newly discovered American pragmatism; that Yankee ingenuity applied to food. Amazing!!!
Soon everyone started working, learning English and doing our best to settle into our new lives. However, working at the supermarket I quickly noticed something odd, almost disturbing, which was how frequently Americans loaded up on prepackaged foods. All those Del Monte and Green Giant cans full of fruits and vegetables that looked tasteless. What I also noticed was how often the fresh produce was being discarded as trash. It wasn’t flying of the shelves as fast as the canned foods, not even close. My mother would always say that the problem with most Americans is that they are lazy — a claim made by many immigrants from different cultures and regions over time. Having worked alongside my fellow Americans at the supermarket, and then later at the steel mills in Gary, Indiana during my summer breaks from college, I vehemently disagreed with her observation. However, and to be truthful, when I was asked to help shoppers take out their groceries and put them in their cars I too felt that ‘lazy American’ syndrome as well. So I helped with the groceries recollecting that I had never witnessed such a service in my homeland. In our defense, we had not been in the US long enough to appreciate or even understand the concept of the consumer service mindset and how those very services were leveraged as a competitive advantage by all types of companies. It wasn’t laziness but something else that was creeping in, something subtle and seemingly harmless yet deeply insidious. I couldn’t put a finger on it then but now I know exactly what it is — our collective and deep dependency on modern day conveniences. And science is finally acknowledging it, their latest research confirms what I observed 40+ years ago!
Science also tells us that there are only two key factors in determining longevity — one is DNA; if your family members lived long lives then you are very likely to have one as well, and the other is calorie restriction. Well, no disrespect to science but I think they missed two more factors! Will address the other towards the end; let me begin what is perhaps the most important one — MENTAL TOUGHNESS!!! And boy, do I know that one well — very, very well!
Before immigrating I spent most of my summers in my mother’s village where we actually did farming and grew things. We had a few cows, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens; we also had a fruit orchard, small fields where we grew corn, wheat, potatoes and a decent size vineyard. Much later I had an opportunity to share that life with my two beautiful kids who got a taste of why dad is the way he is. My daughter was amazed that we had free ranging chickens, pigs and goats; I laughed out loud and reminded her that we don’t use such verbiage, we just called them lunch!
The other thing I witnessed was the mental toughness of the villagers, especially the elders. Each and every day I saw elders of both sexes put stuff on their backs and carry it up and down the village. The look of determination on their faces said it all: this needs to get done now and I am doing it, NOW! Of course they got tired and of course they got hurt at times but that gritty determination was etched on their faces. And I never saw anyone offering help. Why? It was considered an insult and more than once I got an earful for showing disrespect. Those elders did NOT want to be helped for one very simple reason — they knew they did not need it and by doing so it also ensured that the village remained strong and would continue to be self-sustaining. Contrast that with the requests by abled-body shoppers asking for help with their groceries to get a better appreciation of my bemusement.
That grittiness has served the maternal side of my family very well. My baba (grandma) lived to be 96; my grandfather died at 98; my uncle, who can still kick anybody’s ass is 92 and my mother is 87 going on 60. Even with numerous health issues such as hypertension, gout and a ravaging arthritis she is still one tough lady. While shoppers 20 to even 30 years younger wheel around supermarkets on motorized carts she just leans over the shopping cart as support and walks throughout the store. And she is pretty fast, too. When I point to the motorized carts and offer to get one she fires back a look that would scare even the fiercest fire-breathing dragon. I just laugh because that is exactly what I want to see. So long she is fighting, she is living!
Growing up I also remember how determined she was to ensure I ate my veggies. At the time I felt like I was being punished for some unknown reason but that demand did not originate with my mother. Many-a-great mothers around the world demanded the same thing. Their collective dietary convictions were amassed over eons of generations preceding them and none needed the latest guidelines from the American Heart Association highlighting the benefits of a diet rich in veggies and fruits. I know Mom is very proud that I start each day with a healthy serving of green veggies, pulverized for easier consumption. She never said I couldn’t drink them.
I also had the good fortune to travel around the world and every time I am at a foreign airport the first thing I notice is that the elderly walk around by their own strength and conviction. Rarely do I see any motorized passenger carts that I see so often at US airports. Nothing wrong with being assisted from time to time but this addiction to conveniences is now embedded in our behavior, it is part of our culture. All of my relatives back in Macedonia tease me and ask if I have turned into a spoiled American. I realize they are not being judgmental, just observant of the way we project ourselves. We are not spoiled but we are deeply dependent on a lifestyle that ensures an earlier departure than otherwise wished. We run and bike indoors in specially designed and enclosed buildings, take the elevator to the second or third floor, grab that pre-packaged meal at Costco and Wall Mart or even drive by to get our coffee. Think about it! Drive through latte? Last I checked Starbuck’s had plenty of parking spaces left. Why not get out of the car, walk into the store and get your Grande? To paraphrase Nike’s iconic motto — just move!
As someone committed both personally and professionally to a healthy lifestyle I have done plenty of reading and research on the various causes for our collectively declining health. No need to hammer on the statistics, 12-yr olds know them and, puuuhleeeeze, don’t even get me started on that big pharma thing. Nonetheless, research also shows there are better ways to a healthier lifestyle as practiced by various cultures and communities around the globe. Just take the time to read the info on the five Blue Zones as they are known where the inhabitants live the longest. Personally, I think there are five thousands blue zones yet to be discovered. What is it that they do differently than the rest of us? Four things: they eat fresh food that includes lots of fresh fish, move naturally and don’t ask for help, just like the villagers I grew up with. But guess what is in a short supply in those regions? Yup, modern day conveniences. Just go ahead and try to explain the concept of babysitters and nursing homes to them and watch the deeply disgusting look they fire back. And the fourth thing is their commitment to family and community. They live with a purpose, which is what drives them each and every day. Just like my relatives. Nothing sadder than watching the elderly in nursing homes, they have very little zest and know the end is near.
Bottom line is that we are not spoiled but we have turned into a nation of junkies, convenience junkies that is. That does not mean we don’t do everything in our power to ensure the handicapped are fully supported by whatever means necessary. I am referring to the rest of us, collectively. So the next time you feel like ‘saving some time’ by ordering in instead of preparing a fresh meal at home consider this: for every minute you think you save you shortchange yourself, your family, your friends and the rest of us by shortening your life by that very minute you think you just added to your time. Peter Thiel, the famed venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal is pretty vociferous and seems determined to live to 120 years. Given today’s knowledge about health and increased awareness about nutrition, medical and scientific research coupled with top notch healthcare for the super-rich such a feat is indeed possible. But if Mr. Thiel wants to accomplish his goal he needs to start doing things differently. He just does not strike me as a person that values physical activity but I could be wrong. So Peter, stop Ubering and start walking or take the bus to your meetings in SanFran where you are forced to stand and remember that for every minute you don’t sit, you add that minute to your life. And the latest scientific research supports that walking is indeed a great way to a healthier lifestyle. Someone had a brilliant idea to tie sensors to East Africa’s Masai tribes whose livelihood is based on a diet rich in fat, dairy and meat yet they are some of the leanest people on the planet. Pretty sure ellipticals are not common in Kenya and Tanzania. Apparently, they walk (slowly and naturally) for over 7 kilometers each day and stand upright most of the time. And Peter, if you think dealing with emotional founders, pesky limited partners or angry shareholders is a bummer think about facing a charging lion with nothing but a spear! So start walking and eat decent portions of schnitzels but don’t go overboard with that Paleo-bullshit diet. Latest research confirms we are not protein pulverizing factories unless of course you are Michael Phelps or Lebron James. We should also remember that cooking at home with fresh ingredients is impossible to do sitting down. Those extra thirty minutes to an hour standing (or dancing) while we cook do add up to our benefit over a lifetime. It’s the little things that we do (or don’t) that determine our overall health and wellness.
And speaking of the aforementioned Mediterranean diet, it should be noted that Hippocrates — arguably the world’s most famous physician who grew up on that very diet — realized over 2,400 years ago that food is indeed our medicine. He also favored walking and lived to a ripe old-age of 83+ years (est.) in a period when life expectancy for males was half that. As much as I appreciate scientific research and scrutiny some things are simple enough, the only thing we need to do is practice that old wisdom just like my village relatives who also had an incredible sense of humor, which I consider to be the forth factor in longevity. Their sense of humor helped them deal with setbacks only farmers experience; work all spring and summer only to see you crop devastated by drought or a freak storm. That very sense of humor is key to neutralizing stress, which, in my opinion, is the real silent killer and responsible for more ailments than all other factors combined. Don’t have the scientific facts to prove that but science does not benefit from keen observations over a lifetime either. And that my dear friends is my take on longevity. In the end, we know that death is definitely not avoidable but longevity and quality of life is within our grasp! No one will ever cheat death but I will not help the Grim Reaper either. He has plenty of business already.
Originally published at medium.com