Interested as I am in ancestral health principles and traditional wisdom, and always in search of proof that aging sick and fat is avoidable, I read about stories from far far away, maybe from some insect-eating primitive tribe or from some white-and-blue-island in Greece, stories in which old men and women age gracefully as a result of their whole lifestyle. Lifestyle of which these unsung heroes are often mostly unaware of. Sometimes I read of this 100-something lady declaring that her secret for longevity is the fact that every morning, with no exception except for that day in 1976, she’s been eating this thing. All right. Enter my father.
From age 10, I grew up in this small village in the north-west of France, surrounded by forests, cows and apple trees. That’s where my father is from, that’s where he grew up himself and that’s where he returned after some 25 years of exploring the world. He still lives there. The other day, my sister was visiting him and she whatsapped me “Dad is in great shape! With his white V-shirt he definitely does not show his age!”. He’s 80, and I honestly consider him to be in better shape than most of the 40 to 70-year-olds around me. So hey, maybe his story qualifies as an aging-gracefully success story too!
One thing most people in the paleo and ancestral health communities know about France, is that there’s this idea called the French Paradox. The French Paradox states that based on conventional nutritional wisdom, why on earth do those damn Frenchmen not all die of heart disease before age 60, as all they happily eat is animal saturated fats. You know, foie gras, paté, saucisson, rillettes, confit de canard, cheese (we rarely say “cheese”, actually, we name each of them), crème fraîche, and I could go on until the end of this post, as when it comes to food, my French half totally takes over. My father ate plenty of French Paradoxes until he was 75, until some should-know-better French doctor informed him that fat is bad and therefore advised that he eats less French Paradoxes. Thankfully, the good was done before that advice, and eating habits aren’t that easily changed.
Now, this is not Dad in Wonderland. At 75 he did need surgery and that’s when the doctors stepped in. He also has hip, knee and back issues. By ancestral health standards, his diet was never perfect. Breakfast includes bread and marmelade, of course, and sometimes croissants and corn flakes. Each meal ends with something sweet, often some industrial desert. Pasta and french fries are often part of the menu. As time went by and as food marketing did its job, industrial food became more and more part of the family’s meals. However, my point here is that the good countered the bad, and that it still does. My mission as a kid was to get raw milk from a neighbouring farm every evening, despite the barking farm dogs, and that’s all the milk we drank until all farms stopped providing this service. Eggs, pork, chicken and beef where generally from some pink-cheeked farmer that my father would drive to. Same for butter. Vegetables were often from our own garden by the river, growing organically long before organic was a label for luxury food. We’d end every single meal with lettuce from our garden with one of two seasoning options (garlic or échalotte?). The cider was (and still is) bought in bulk from another pink-cheeked farmer and bottled at home. This is the nutritional good I’m talking of.
Now, we all know that eating is not all there is to life, although many Frenchmen here would pause for a while before reluctantly agreeing. There’s Bourgogne wine too. No, just kidding. There’s movement, there’s sleep, there’s stress, there’s the air we breathe and the surroundings we live in, there’s our social life, there’s our intellectual life and there’s quite simply the fun we have at living. Now that the categories are all spelled out, I think we’ll all agree, even my wine-drinking compatriotes, that all of these matter from a health perspective. It’s science-backed common sense. So how does my father measure up in these categories?
So mushrooms in France have names? an American friend once asked me. Indeed, same as cheeses. Actually, rural pharmacies in France provide an interesting service. You bring in the mushrooms you picked in the forest and they tell you, to the best of their knowledge, whether they are all edible or if you mistakenly picked a poisonous one. I say to the best of their knowledge because there are 35000 species of mushrooms in France. Plenty of names to remember. Well, my father would go out to the forest on the weekends during mushroom season, rain pouring down or not, to fill up a basket that he’d then present to Madame Guesnay the pharmacist. There were other seasons for picking wild blackberries, dandelions and even the rare wild strawberries. That was for the weekends. In addition, on a daily basis, my father, as of this day, and my mother too, until her death, goes for a 30 minutes to one hour walk in the surrounding nature. Unless it’s freezing, which is not very common over there. I myself find it hard to follow his pace. So yes, plenty of outdoors and plenty of forest bathing, as the Japanese call it.
A few days ago, my father (he’s 80, remember) told me that his usual gardener couldn’t come any longer because of his health issues. He had to find another one. Another one came. I was afraid he’d fall from the ladder, clumbersome as he was, my father told me, and I had to ask him to come down so that I could do the work myself. A few years ago, I was home for the holidays and it had snowed. Ah, snow’s return for christmas… Family was coming to visit and we had to clear the snow in the driveway. He was 75 at the time and I felt I needed to help him on this task. We both started shoveling. After a while, my father paused. You’d better slow down or you’ll hurt your back, he said to me, his 35-year-old-fitness-enthousiast son. He then resumed shoveling like he was using a beach-grade plastic toolset to build a sandcastle with his grandson. Movement: checked.
We have some antiques at home, my father being somewhat of a collector. In particular, there’s this huge ancient reel to reel tape player in the living room. This is a black-and-white-cold-war-soviet-spy-movie must-have. Russians aside, the main purpose of the tape player in the living room has been, for the last 40 years, to provide my father with Beethoven music for his daily 20-minute afternoon nap. This non-negotiable daily break comes in addition to a 9-hour night (or more, listening to how tired he feels) always starting before 11PM. I guess sleep is checked too.
What about stress? I personally think stress makes for the largest gap between my parents’ generation and my generation, and that it constitutes the main danger of our 21st century lifestyle. I’m talking stress not only in the sense of being stressed out because our workload exceeds our work capacity, but also stress of constantly being interrupted by an email notification, a twitter notification, a text message, a ticker, and by all means add the specific notifications that are part of your life, as well as the stress of information overwhelm and the stress of constantly doing something. As health-conscious as I am, I believe my stress levels are 10 times those of my father. I try to slow my life down, but slow is a built-in feature of my father’s. His life is slow. This is a good thing. There’s much less in one of his hours than in one of mine. Cooking, even a simple lapin à la moutarde (kidding), takes, I believe, one to two hours a day. Or at least it used to. My father, and I believe this is generational, goes only once a day to his computer to answer emails, and generally doesn’t answer his cellphone. “No stress”, as we so easily say without acting upon. Now, he was a highschool teacher for half of his life, and although all teachers present will raise and shout (please sit down, will ya!), public teaching in France did not qualify as a stressful job. Except maybe on that damn day in 1976… OK, stress: gold-medal checked.
Let’s move on. My father has a dirt-soil wine cellar where bottles remain up to 15 years before qualifying as drinkable. Another variation of the slow life to which I’m much attached. My mother was English, and visitors from England were a common event. This is a secret, so please dear reader keep it to yourself, but the cheaper bottles were often for certain English acquaintances. France and England, you know. Plus, my father would say “why will I serve good wine to guests who’s feedback to my five-course-meal is le pain est bon? (the bread tastes good)”. Indeed, a normal social meal takes about half a day to prepare, in addition to the shopping and the talking about it. It will indeed include going down to the cellar, selecting two or three dust-covered bottles in the dim light (and if you happen to be in the living room, hearing my father’s loud voice exclaim Ah, voilà!), opening them a few hours in advance and pouring the oldest one’s content into a decanter. It will indeed include preparing the apéritif, the entrée, the main course, the cheese plate, the legendary lettuce salad and the desert. Preparing all of it, even for the English. This happens in my father’s life, as of today, I’d say twice a week. Plus friends and family inviting him back as often, or more. His social life makes me feel like that ermit at the top of the mountain. And, back to the French Paradox, he remains at 160 lbs for 5’9” despite all this eating, careful not to loose weight. It’s also worth noting here that, as much as wine is debated in the ancestral / paleo communities as healthy or not, it’s main role here is not to provide resveratrol antioxidants. Wine, when present, is always included in the meal and not drinken on it’s own. Oh, and if the dinner was a lively one, my father will suggest un petit fond de Calva or une petite poire, a small dose of our local apple digestive after-dinner drink, Calvados, or of the often home-made pear digestive drink.
So it my father’s life all about dinner with friends? Actually not. I don’t get as mad as I used to anymore, he often tells me. Although, the other day, he continues, Gérard really made a huge mistake that only a beginner might do! And more than once. That did make me mad and I told him, Gérard, why on earth did you draw the king of spades? My father is as passionate as you get about bridge, and it’s been so for the last fifty years. As far as I remember, he’s practicing bridge at home, he’s reading bridge books, he’s teaching bridge to beginners and he’s competing with Gérard who should know better than to draw the king of spades at the wrong moment. At 80, he still competes at a regional level (mainland France is devided into a dozen regions), with some years the competition ending in Paris for the national final (he’ll say they were just lucky, but will still play like life depends on it). I don’t notice any decrease in his bridge skills over the years, he just seems to be as sharp as he used to. It’s one thing to know about the research-backed benefits of maintaining an active intellectual life throughout your retirement years, and it’s another one to witness it this close. As a bonus, I don’t know what research says about the benefits of regularly getting mad at Gérard throughout the years, but each of these episodes definitely brings a big smile on to my face.
It’s time to end this post. I could go on with my father regularly having fun with his grand-children, with him travelling to visit some new remote place two to three times a year, with him travelling to a known place another two to three times a year, or with his daily reading. What’s lacking? Maybe spiritual life, as the local catholic priest really pissed him off in the fourties, and so it remained. So where does all this lead me to? First to the 80/20 rule. You don’t have to be nutritionally perfect to hope for health and energy in your senior years. Then to balance. There’s good in almost all aspects of my father’s life, and I’d say all if it weren’t for that long-gone priest. Many of us in the ancestral health community – me included – make up nutrition to be the Holy Grail of Health. My father’s habits, and those of many other healthy to-be-centenarians, suggest that eating right is part but only part of the picture. There are many more parts in the health picture that might often be overlooked. That was Health Wisdom from the Field, thank you for reading! What do you think, does the energy you see in the seniors you know suggest otherwise? And this other fundamental question, what would you like your offspring to write about you when you’re eighty? Leave me a comment!