Best Bet for Longevity? Feed It!

Anti-aging activist Aubrey de Grey: Maintain a car per the handbook, get 15 years out of it. Give it superior care, you could keep it running for decades!

By Julie Castillo

Vintage cars don’t run as well on ordinary gasoline; why should we expect optimal performance out of ourselves on everyday grocery store fare? If you’re looking for foods with the densest nutrition, try paying a visit to your local farmer.

Vibrant longevity — it’s what we’re all seeking: optimal health, energy, mental clarity, and engagement with life, for as long as we can possibly have it. Longevity activist Aubrey de Grey, in a May-June 2012 Futurist article titled “A Thousand Years Young,” wrote that if we maintain a car only as well as the law requires, we may get 15 years out of it. But if we give a car the best maintenance possible, we can make it last much longer. De Grey writes, “There are some Volkswagen Bugs that are 50 years old or more,” which have been “extraordinarily well maintained.” Long life is never guaranteed, but there are choices we can make to vastly improve our odds, especially about what to put in the “tank.” And when it comes to longevity fuel, your local farmer might be the best person to see.

Optimal nutrition is key

Folks over fifty have reduced caloric needs and sometimes dwindling appetites, which makes it imperative to pack every calorie with the densest nutrition possible. The National Institute on Aging offers guidelines for optimal amounts of thirteen vitamins for all adults (C, A, D, E, K, B6, B12, folate, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, and pantothenic acid), but recommends special quantities for adults over fifty: 600 to 800 International Units of Vitamin D, at least 1.5 milligrams of B6, 2.4 micrograms of B12, and 400 micrograms of folate. Older adults also need 1,200 milligrams of calcium and 4,700 milligrams of potassium each day.

The National Institute on Aging advises that it’s better to get what you need from food, rather than supplements, because the nutrients in foods are absorbed better, and plant-based foods also provide you with much-needed fiber. According to Tufts University’s MyPlate for Older Adults, the best sources of the nutrients that fuel longevity are dark leafy vegetables such as kale and collards, bright-colored vegetables such as carrots and broccoli, deep-colored fruits such as berries and peaches, legumes, and low-fat dairy products.

But there’s more to this equation than the specific type of food you choose. Not all produce is created equal when it comes to nutritional density. The freshness of the food, the health of the soil in which it was grown, and for animal products, how much “grass time” the animal received are also key factors.

The fresher the food, the denser the nutrition

Science is now confirming what Mom knew all along: fresh food is better for you. The nutritional density of a fruit or vegetable on the day it’s picked is not the same as it is after weeks of sitting in a shipping container or on a grocery store shelf. From the moment it leaves the farm, its nutrient content begins to decline.

Fruit and vegetable specialist Dr. Diane M. Barrett, of the University of California, Davis, found that the nutritional profiles of fresh fruits and vegetables begin to degrade only a week after harvest. Green beans, for instance, can lose as much as 77 percent of their nutrients during just one week in cold storage. Barrett explains that Vitamins A, C, and the B vitamins are negatively affected by heat, light, mechanical harvesting, and exposure to air.

Although buying locally doesn’t guarantee freshness, when you buy from local sources, you can go there, meet the people who did the growing, ask questions, and see for yourself whether the food meets your standards.

Healthy soil boosts nutritional complexity

Dirt might not be the most appetizing topic when it comes to food, but it’s an important one, because the health of the soil is vital to the nutritional density of the food that’s grown in it. Fruits and vegetables get their nutrients from their soil, so the most nutritious foods are usually the ones that come from the healthiest soils.

But how do you know what kind of soil your food was grown in? Does the “USDA Organic” label on a food tell you everything you need to know about soil health? Organic is certainly a step in the right direction, because these foods were grown without synthetic chemical fertilizers, which can degrade the natural fertility of soil. Unfortunately, organic alone isn’t everything. An organic product could still have been grown in depleted soil.

The healthiest soils are literally alive with trillions of organisms that release nutrients from their digestive systems in exactly the form plants need in order to thrive. Molly C. Haviland, director of the Living Soil Compost Lab, says that if we want healthy soil, we need to focus on maintaining the health and fertility of those tiny organisms that make up the “soil food web.” Farmers who use such techniques as permaculture, diversified farming, and grass farming typically place soil health at the top of their priority list. If you see words like this, on their websites or in their literature, you may be on the right track.

Pastured meat, milk, and eggs: more of the good stuff, less of the bad stuff

When it comes to animal products, one ingredient makes a big difference: grass. Even though our idyllic images of life on the farm almost always include happy animals frolicking in green pastures, many Americans aren’t aware that the meat, eggs, and dairy products they consume come from animals who have had little to no acquaintance with grass, which is, of course, their natural food. Organic farmer Nick Maravell of Adamstown, MD claims that it’s the animals’ access to pasture that makes the greatest nutritional difference: on grass, he explains, “animals are exhibiting their natural behaviors and are in contact with the soil. It’s how they live in nature.” Nick explains that when cows and chickens dine at will on grass grown in healthy soil, their products are naturally higher in omega-3 fatty acids.

Research has been quietly accumulating that shows the nutritional superiority of pastured products.

In December 2013, Washington State University researchers published a study in the online journal PLoS ONE showing that USDA Certified Organic milk which, by law must come from cows with access to pasture for at least 120 days per year, had 62% more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk.

A 2007 study by Mother Earth News found that pasture-raised eggs contained as much as two-thirds more vitamin A, three times more vitamin E, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, and seven times more beta carotene than ordinary grocery store eggs. Pastured animal products have also been found to have less cholesterol and saturated fat than their supermarket equivalents.

But if more time on grass equates to higher levels of the good stuff, and lower levels of the bad stuff, how do you know how much “grass time” your meat, milk, and eggs have gotten? “Grass fed” on a package of beef means the animal spent most of its life on grass, but according to the Beef Board, “grass finished” means the animal spent a lifetime on grass. Likewise, for eggs, the terms “cage free” (which only means “no cage”) and “free range” (which means they had access to the outdoors) aren’t as meaningful as the word “pastured,” which indicates that the birds lived out their lives in contact with the green stuff.

Where to get the foods you’re after? Ask your farmer

Since your local supermarket isn’t likely to carry these nutritional powerhouses, where can you go to find them? This is when your local farmer is likely to enter the picture. Just because a given food comes from a local farm doesn’t guarantee that it’s fresher, healthier, or pasture-raised. But if they’re local, you can visit them and see for yourself — or meet them at local farmer’s markets and ask them questions.

A visit to a local farm is hands-down the best way to engage more deeply in the sources of your food. Check your county’s web page for local farms or search the Internet under “your town’s name” and “farms.” Be sure to visit only during the farm’s established public hours. You can also get to know local farmers at weekly farmer’s markets. Visit the USDA’s Farmer’s Market Directory at to find a market near you. Also, consider a visit to your local food co-op: many of these organizations specialize in produce from local growers.

In many cases, fresh, local, sustainably grown foods come with a higher price tag, the result of economics that tend to favor larger producers. But there are many things you can do to offset the higher cost of these foods — and with practice, even end up paying less than you do now for supermarket fare. My book, Eat Local for Less, details more than a dozen sources of sustainable foods and offers tips on keeping the cost low.

Since shopping this way often means buying whole foods, sometimes in bulk, and preparing them from scratch, you may need to make a few adjustments if you’re shopping for one or two. Try clubbing together with neighbors, friends, and other folks in your social circles: create an informal produce-buying cooperative to maximize the convenience and minimize the cost.

Take the daily grind out of cooking

But once you bring home all of this fresh bounty, how do you fit it into an active senior lifestyle? Karen Bergs, R.D., of Utah State University recommends that you plan to cook just one day a week. Make meals for the entire week, plus a few to freeze for those inevitable days when you’re busy or just don’t feel like cooking. Bergs also suggests buying fruits and vegetables at several stages of ripening: one for today, and a few that will be ready in another day or two.

There’s another benefit to seeking out and preparing the best quality foods: they present an opportunity for social interaction. Great food that you’ve invested time in begs to be a shared meal, so it creates an occasion to invite friends and loved ones to gather around the table. A great dinner with the gang today, vibrant health for the long term — both can be had from a simple bag of well-chosen, farm-fresh produce.

Julie Castillo is a college anthropology instructor and author of Eat Local for Less: The Ultimate Guide to Opting Out of Our Broken Industrial Food System.

Read Eat Local for Less! You’ll laugh! You’ll eat! You’ll feel better!

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