Lifespans in the 1970s compared to 2020s
I was reared on stories of hardy ould fellas who never let vegetables pass their lips. Odoriferous characters of half-tanned leather, wet wool and dog. Smoking was good for them. Water was only good for the ducks and watering down whiskey. Tea, meat, fags and alcohol acted like mystical preservatives. Although, come to think of it, I'm sure that many of them only looked old with their yellow dentures. Lifespan in the 1970s was only about 70.
Their 2020 counterparts are living to be (on average) 79.9 years old. Females are living longer, about 3.6 years, but this isn't improving their quality of life. When you look at time in good health (compared to men), they are only getting an extra 0.6 years.
Our biggest killers of the aged are heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Half of all diabetics in the UK are over 651. Two thirds of UK adults are overweight and a third are obese. None of this is painting a pretty picture of a hale and golden age. Do we really want an increased lifespan if we are going to be in rag order? Bits falling off, leaking, wheezing, marbles rolling....
The good news!
There are so many positives and plenty of good news.
- Babies born in 2018 may live to be 100 years old.
- A diet rich in fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and grains can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's by more than half2
- The World Health Organisation (WHO) say that if we all give up smoking, get more exercise and eat a healthy diet we can reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease by 80%3.
- Eating plenty of cruciferous vegetables daily is associated with a reduced risk of disease and death by heart disease. 'Cruciferous vegetables' sound dreadful but it just means dark green veg like broccoli and Brussel sprouts4.
- People who eat plant-based live longer. A huge study on a 'vegetarian' lifestyle showed a 12% decreased risk of death. This isn't promising immortality but it's probably a few extra years in good health5.
Glossary of plant-based diets
Why is a vegan or plant-based diet better for you?
It's not just about avoiding the meat. I have known plenty of grey-faced vegans living on potato waffles, processed rubbish and sweeties. They do not paint a pretty picture of the vegan movement with their pasty complexions. It is entirely possible to eat badly on any diet. The trick is to introduce only healthy vegan food options. Ignore the creepy fake bacon and expensive chocolates. Have some raspberries or a gourmet bean casserole instead.
- A healthy vegan diet is rich in fibre which nourishes the good bacteria in your gut. Fibre keeps the digestive system moving and helps to maintain bowel health. It can help lower cholesterol and balance blood sugar levels.
- A good vegan diet is full of fruits and vegetables that are often really dense in colours and pigment. As a general rule, the deeper the colours the more antioxidant value the food will have. For instance beetroot and spinach will have more anti-aging power than iceberg lettuce and celery. They have vitamins and minerals that we need for good health, like potassium and folates. Vegetables and fruit are low in calories, you can eat as many as you want. This is truly one of the selling points for me. It's also quite hard to pig out on fruit or veg, as the fibre fills you up!
- A vegan diet is often rich in healthy oils that come from food like seeds and avocados. Rich in essential fatty acids, they plump out skin in a youthful manner and lubricate joints. They help nerve function, hormones and can help with inflammation.
Does this sound at all convincing? Or does a vegan or vegetarian diet sound terrifying and completely alien?
Let me give you some small tips.
I used to work in a gourmet vegetarian restaurant. The odd time you would get a really scared customer. Someone who liked plain food. They'd be terrified that they wouldn't be able to eat anything on the menu. When asked what they liked, the description was always full of vegetarian foods: chips and baked beans; breakfast cereal; salads; pastas; stir fries; curries; one million things that you can do potatoes! It's easy to get hung up on meat as being the only tasty thing on the planet. It's really not. Usually it's just the salty or chewy thing.
Look at diet you have; maybe keep a food diary for a couple of days. You are probably making loads of good food choices that you don't even think about. You just need to build on them, bit by bit. Then make it a habit. The average British person over 65 already eats 4 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. It wouldn't be too difficult to make that five to start with. Work the numbers up gradually and you'll be eating well in no time.
Quality is important too. Remember that fresher is better, as food can lose vitality and nutrients as it ages (like the rest of us!). Try to buy locally produced vegetables and fruit to support local growers. If it is grown near where you live it will have been harvested recently. That will make it nice and fresh with all the nutrients intact. It will probably taste a lot better than the worn out stuff that has come from other continents. If you can buy organically, the product will have been grown with care for the environment. Organic food doesn't use chemical fertilisers and pesticides that can damage insect life and the surrounding countryside.
My Self-Care Tip: Overcome digestive problems
Making sure that your food is digested well is as important as eating the right food. This can be a bit of a battle as we age, our metabolism can slow down and not work as well as it once did. In this video I talk about why this happens and what you can do to help it along:
Try something new every week.
Cooking and eating the same thing every week gets very boring. Just one new recipe a week can really expand the range of food that you eat. Variety is really important nutritionally and it helps to spice up your life.
- Have you eaten something amazing in a restaurant or a friend's house? Maybe you remember something your mum used to make. Why not find out how to make something you know will taste good.
- Have you some things in your cupboard that you need to use up like lasagne sheets, lentils or nuts. Find a recipe that uses up what you have.
- Pour over the recipe books you have – you'll find lots in there that you may not have considered. Quite a lot of recipes can be tweaked to make them vegan or vegetarian.
- Visit your local health food shop or vegan/vegetarian café for ideas and tips.
- Look online for new recipes and ideas. I love Anna Jones, 101 Cookbooks and Post Punk Kitchen. Our A.Vogel recipe page is brilliant too.
Here are a few of the recipes that I think are really lovely:
- Beetroot coleslaw
- Simple pasta with black olives, garlic and tomato
- Yummy chickpea curry
- Cranberry, almond and coconuts bites – yum!
There are many other reasons why a person may choose to become vegan. Animal farming is often cruel and unethical. Animal effluent from cattle and pig farms has ruined once pristine rivers6. Intensive animal husbandry has been blamed for the overuse of antibiotics that has ruined their efficacy7. A global economy driven to produce more and more meat is failing to meet the basic food needs of many populations8.
Food for thought. I haven't even mentioned meat packing plants...
WHO. Preventing chronic diseases: a vital investment. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO, 2005.