An Ancient Diet, a Man of Steel

This is a short story about a man who has lived a very long life. His life changed dramatically over time, but his diet has remained largely the same.

Born in 1917, his life began living off the land in the 1920s to 1940s in the ancient village of Azeh, now called Idil, in southeastern Turkey. After years of danger from people attacking the village, he moved his family to rapidly modernizing Lebanon where he became a builder from the 40s to the early 70s. He had an opportunity to move the family to Australia in the early 70s, and with increasing war in Lebanon he decided Sydney would be a safe place to finally settle.

His name is Saliba and he is 99 years old. My grandfather, who passed away in the early 80s was Saliba’s first cousin. They came from the same small village and from what I gather were like brothers. For 50 years they lived next door to each other. Their two families were very close. In the early 1970s, they ended up separated across continents with Saliba moving to Australia and my grandfather moving to the United States.

I had an opportunity to meet Saliba recently on a trip to Syndey for work. It was a chance to learn more about my family, myself, and about what life was like in a pre-industrial society nearly 100 years ago.

Saliba still lives very independently. He cooks his own food and I was told he takes trains and ferries to visit friends across Sydney. He walked into my cousin’s house with a cane, but he shook my hand like a man half his age. He held a firm handshake for several seconds. I could tell he was still in good physical condition. He moved a little slow, but was able to walk, sit and get up from a chair on his own. His English is not the best, and my Arabic is not very good either, so he spoke in Arabic and my cousin translated. From the stories he told, I could tell his mind was still sharp and he had lots of personality.

Saliba experienced tremendous change in one lifespan. With modern industrialization and processed food now reaching every corner of the world, this scale of change is now very rare.

I wanted to know what Saliba ate back in the old village about 80 years ago. You are what you eat. I wondered if there was something in his diet that gave him his strength and longevity.

I learned about what he ate growing up and raising children in Azeh. And then I learned about what he eats today. The genius was in the simplicity. It turns out that the one constant in all the change he experienced is diet! This man of steel had will power his whole life that was equally strong. He barely eats the “modern” Lebanese dishes my mother, grandmothers and aunts all learned to cook during the 30-40 years they lived in Lebanon. And aside from a soft spot for a few biscuits now and then, modern processed food probably never touches him. Maybe it’s that his diet is so nutrient rich and satisfying that he doesn’t even crave a change.

As I spoke with him, the stories of what he ate in Azeh and what he eats now felt so similar they started blending together. The biggest difference is that he farmed, and raised and slaughtered animals himself. From what I gathered, this is what he ate early in his life in the old village of Azeh:

  • Lots of yogurt, sometimes with a bit of cooked barley for breakfast
  • Bulgar (burghul)
  • Lamb
  • Goat
  • Beef — less commonly eaten. Cows were mainly used for milk and milk mostly used for yogurt or cheese
  • Tons of onion, it was a primary vegetable
  • Cucumbers
  • Other vegetables were likely eaten as well, but they didn’t seem as notable
  • Home made bread made from fresh, locally milled wheat. They would go to the mill themselves. It was likely naturally long-fermented (a.k.a. sourdough) because they likely did not have commercial yeast.

Meat was important. They didn’t have a lot of it, but they took care of their own animals and worked to have meat in their diet. Otherwise they ate dairy (generally fermented), vegetables and whole grains. Grains were and still are always soaked overnight at a minimum before cooking.

In modern life, he doesn’t get the bread from freshly milled wheat, and doesn’t slaughter his own lamb. I did pick up some interesting details on his current diet. It sounds like this list is likely similar to how he ate back then as well. He was decribing his current diet to me, but it was all with a tone that made it seem like he has always eaten this way. This is just how he originally learned to care for himself with the wisom of his ancestors.

  • He eats 5 liters of yogurt a week
  • Still has lots of onions
  • Raw lamb liver with onion once a month
  • The broth from boiled pig trotter with barley
  • Within the set of things he eats, he tries to slightly change what he eats day to day

Eating fresh food was so important, that until a few years ago Saliba gardened. His whole life he kept close to the source of his food and the earth it came from.

Life in the ancient village was simple. They farmed, raised animals, and lived. Family and church were at the center of their world. There was no daily stress. Perhaps stress came in bursts with a difficult growing season or moments of danger. But they had no equivalent of the daily, grinding, rising level of stress we face in the modern world.

It was a special moment for me to meet Saliba. I was excited to meet him in general and make the connection to family half a world away. I also was able to learn a lot about how to care for my body from someone with demonstrated long-term health. It serves as one more data point for me on my journey for optimal health and well being. And, one more point that validates our need to reverse 100 years of bad dietary advice. Saliba’s personal story and diet have given me a powerful family connection in my journey for optimal health.