When my friend Melissa reminded me that her grandmother had recently celebrated her 108th birthday, I had so many questions.
What did she grow up eating? What healthy habits did she pass on to her children? Did she even have healthy eating habits? And what if she lived off a diet of fine wine, aged cheese and gelato? Now that WOULD be something!
The only thing of which I was certain was that she probably didn’t spend her life obsessing over where to buy the best acai berry bowl, or whether the NutribulletⓇ would be the most convenient and effective way to blend her chia seeds into her morning smoothie, or if she should cook with coconut oil as an alternative to butter. But with all of these products touting the benefits of everlasting health - how on EARTH did she get to be 108 without them? This is what I found out:
Opt for fresh and seasonal produce whenever you can.
Assunta Paesano Notarantonio is from the small town of Isola del Liri, located in the Lazio region of Italy. Life was not particularly easy on her and money was scarce, a situation that was made quite a bit harder by the fact that she had seven small mouths to feed. If she was able to feed seven mouths, maybe she could unlock a well kept secret to help us all feed our (probably) smaller families. However, much of what I discovered seemed unremarkable and resembled a pretty typical italian diet - olive oil, vegetables, fruit, pasta, meat, biscotti, coffee, salads and so on. Sourcing their food, with few resources, was a challenge but the family took advantage of the food growing in their garden and they had fresh eggs from the chickens they kept. Mostly they ate whatever was in season which resulted in some fairly monotonous menu recycling that featured broccoli rabe for days or potatoes for months on end.
Of course the obvious theme in her “diet” was the complete lack of processed food: No microwave dinners, no pizza delivery, no canned soups! Turns out this family made everything themselves (including their own wine!). While that sounds like perfection, it is way too much of a lofty goal even for this dietitian. It is, however, a good reminder that the emphasis for any healthy lifestyle or diet should be fresh and seasonal produce. Not protein bars and weight loss shakes. And don’t freak out if some of these “health” foods such as acai berry bowls are a bit out of your food budget. Blueberries on sale in the summer will do just fine.
2. Don’t be a short order cook!
In case you missed the other important nugget of information, I’ll repeat it here: “they ate whatever.” That’s right. The children ate whatever was in season. This lady was definitely not a short-order cook catering to the whims of her seven children and I’m willing to bet she managed to hold on to a good deal of sanity based on that alone. I truly believe that if you want to maintain any sense of control at meal times then cooking the same meal for everybody at the table is key (food allergies notwithstanding)!
3. Stop reading magazines that include any weight/waist size reference in their headlines.
The thing that stuck out most to me about Assunta’s life was something that her granddaughter casually mentioned. Back in those days, especially when Assunta was a teenager and young mother, she had no access to the images and headlines that promote the body image “ideals” that are so pervasive in today’s society. Her relationship to food was focused on feeding her family, not about how certain foods may or may not affect her weight. She was able to go through life with little concern for such nonsense. When she went food shopping she didn’t have to stare at magazine headlines reminding her to get “swimsuit ready” with the damn candy bars placed RIGHT BELOW THEM. This stuff messes with your head. I’m quite sure we would all have a better chance of living to 108 without that kind of stress in our lives. So maybe the key to a long and healthy life is to stop thinking about it all so much. Keep it simple. Stick to the basics. Maybe lower our heads a bit at the checkout line as we empty our carts, but make sure we fill our carts with more fresh foods and fewer packaged ones. Then get home and eat together just like the Notarantonio family has been doing for generations (It’s the best ritual to pass on!).
And finally - don’t deprive yourself of the occasional treat
Depriving yourself of every sweet indulgence is enough to dampen anyone’s spirit. So, live a little! It turns out that Melissa’s grandmother has a bit of a sweet tooth and based on this non-scientific one-person study, I would say she seems to be doing pretty well! Her family actually still sends over care packages to Italy filled with her favorite treats: Hershey's chocolate and m&m’s! Of course as a registered dietitian I can’t condone this behavior - after all if you are going to spend good money on postage you should at least send her Cadburys chocolate.
Gemma Saylor RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Long Island NY. She is the founder of The Food Wizard for Kids - Making food and nutrition fun for the whole family.