Want to know how to live a long and healthy life? In this extract from The Longevity List, Professor Merlin Thomas myth-busts the top five things to do.
what should be on our longevity list for a longer healthier life? Do we really have to give up the chocolate and coffee we so enjoy? After we have cut out all the starch, fat and added sugar, what will we have left to eat? If you want to know the answers to these big questions and more, in The Longevity List Professor Merlin Thomas uses the latest scientific research to help you understand what the fuss about some things is really all about, and how easy choices can improve your health and your chance of living a long life.
1 Do I really have to cut out chocolate?
Why is it that when we think about all the things we might have to do away with to improve our health, our chocolate fix is always first on the chopping block? Chocolate delivers a potent drug called theobromine. Its chemistry is about 98 per cent the same as caffeine, so it has a similar ‘pick-me-up’ effect on our brain to a cup of tea or coffee, helping us to focus, lifting our mood and creating a sense of optimism. High levels of theobromine are only found in products made from cocoa powder, with much smaller amounts in the fat-rich cocoa butter. Regular milk chocolate has smaller amounts of theobromine than dark chocolate, as it is made of almost four times less cocoa powder. the bottom line It’s not unhealthy to love chocolate, but only in moderation. In the context of a healthy diet, the best way to eat less is to thoroughly enjoy when we do it. So don’t give up chocolate. Just buy the pure, good stuff (which is more expensive so you’ll eat less of it anyway) and thoroughly enjoy it!
2 Do I really have to cut down on the caffeine?
Coffee and tea are many things for many people. But first and foremost they are drug mules, delivery vehicles for a chemical stimulant known as caffeine. Caffeine does nothing for the flavour or aroma of tea or coffee, but after we drink it, it quickly enters our brain and blocks the receptors that are responsible for dulling brain activity, so we feel a sense of invigoration and subtle euphoria. This is known as the coffee buzz. Given the acute effects of caffeine on our brain, it is hardly a wonder that tea and coffee are widely viewed as vital tonics. But the long-term effects of caffeine also appear to be surprisingly positive for human health. Some studies suggest that people who drink tea and coffee have a slightly lower risk of diseases that might kill them, including the usual suspects like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some cancers and dementia. Not by a lot, but still enough to add up. the bottom line
Coffee and tea might seem to be some of life’s luxuries, but that doesn’t mean we have to give them up in the austere pursuit of good health and a long life. A regular intake is quite safe. Caffeine improves mood and helps us concentrate when our brain is dulled. At best, the effect on our health is not enough to warrant taking it up if we don’t like it. But if we do, all the better to enjoy it.
3 Do I really have to eat less fat?
The fat in our food has a bad name. And for good reason. More than any other component in our diet, fat is the archenemy of our waistlines and, consequently, our health. Whether it’s saturated, mono- or polyunsaturated, fat provides energy for our metabolism. All fat will make us fatter if we eat too much of it relative to our level of physical activity. So whether one kind of fat or another is a dietary hero or villain comes down to whether it has any other effects beyond its impact on calorie balance.
the bottom line Obviously, eating too much fat readily adds to our calorie count. So cutting out unnecessary fat is one simple way to cut calories as well. Most of the saturated fat in our diet comes from meat and dairy. So if we can make a habit of only eating the lean meat or substituting an amount of something else that doesn’t have the fat (such as legumes for mince), we lose nothing except for calories. Most of the unsaturated fat in our diet (as well as a quarter of the saturated fat) comes from oils and spreads, which together contribute as many calories to our waistlines as all of the saturated fat we currently eat. It is possible to cook without oil, or at the very least, with less oil. This means fewer calories, not less food.
4 Do I really have to eat less added sugar?
Sugar seems like the new pariah of modern diets: pure, white and deadly. The mere act of adding 2 teaspoons of sugar to a cup of coffee nowadays is almost as heretical as lighting up a cigarette or ordering a soft drink with our meal. And just like with cigarettes and soft drinks, there are calls for taxes to dissuade consumers corrupted by their addictive pleasures. But the same ‘toxic’ sugars found in a can of soft drink are also naturally found in fruit. One large banana or one apple contains as much sugar as 2 cans of soft drink. Yet no one complains about apples or tries to ban them from schools. So it can’t just be added sugar that’s causing all the problems. It certainly adds to our woes, but we are getting fatter not because we eat too much added sugar, but because we just eat too much. The biggest problem with added sugar is not so much what it adds, but what it doesn’t. Sugar on its own behaves differently when it is part of an apple than when it is found in a soda can – not because the sugar is different, but because the apple also has fibre, resistant starch and other phytonutrients. When over 10 per cent of all the calories in a diet come from added sugar, you’re never going to be getting enough of the important things. the bottom line Just taking away all the added sugar is not the solution, however. It makes a diet less flavoursome and less rewarding. Regularly eating a fresh, flavoursome diet makes added sugar superfluous. Sugar then need only be added for special occasions, when it can be happily enjoyed without guilt.
5 Do I really have to cut out the starch?
For most people, starchy foods are their major single source of sugar (carbohydrate) and therefore their major single source of calories. For this reason, starchy foods are widely vilified. When most people think about going on a diet, after cutting out the fat and sweet things, starchy foods are usually next on the list. Sometimes higher. In recent years, low-starch (ie, low-carb) diets have become very popular. The big problem is that, over the long term, removing foods that are rich in carbohydrate from our diet means we don’t eat widely across all the food groups. And can also mean we eat too much fat instead. If we are not careful, taking away the starch in any low-carb diet can also sometimes mean not getting enough of the other things, including fibre and resistant starch, minerals and vitamins like folate. the bottom line
Starchy foods like bread, cereals, rice or potatoes are more than just the sum of their sugars or their calories. Make no mistake, sugars and calories count in regards to our waistline and our health. And while abandoning these foods by going low-carb or low-gi can have an immediate and obvious effect, in the long term they are no better than other methods for weight control. At the same time, if we aren’t eating enough vegetables (which, let’s face it, we aren’t), our major source of resistant starch and fibre is the starchy grains we are planning to give up. The obvious solution is to compromise. Eat a little bread, but maximise its fibre. Eat rice and pasta, but maximise their resistant starch. Eat more beans, nuts and wholegrain cereals.
The Longevity List by Professor Merlin Thomas (Exisle Publishing, $34.99) is available now from good bookstores.