For as long as I can remember I've wanted to be old.
That might sound like a strange life ambition, but it's one I've taken rather seriously — and it lead me to embark on a quest to find the ultimate diet to help me get there.
Most people associate "elderly" with a loss of freedom in some sense — the chance your mind and body will betray you increases by the day. My elders are firmly to blame for my alternative (if naïve) view of our twilight years.
I spent every weekend with my grandparents as a kid — right into my teens. That might sound boring, but to me it was magical. Living in housing commission in Western Sydney's Mt Druitt, they didn't have a lot of material possessions — but they did have a sense of adventure. We'd read The Phantom comics while eating big bowls of porridge (with extra brown sugar), then get on a bus, a train and a ferry all the way to Manly just for an ice-cream.
For me, getting old genuinely became synonymous with freedom. Being able to do what you want, when you want. And that's how as a child, I set myself the goal of reaching at least 100.
As I slowly began to lose the older generations of my family to various cancers I realised this may be a difficult target to achieve. I started to focus on how I could avoid the same fate.
Seemingly every day there is a discovery of an everyday food item or product that is giving us all cancer. I thought it better to be safe than sorry and started cutting out everything. I followed vegetarianism for eight years, veganism for two. I cut gluten, dairy, and sugar (sometimes all at once). I also avoided alcohol, second-hand smoke, Teflon and plastic water bottles. I was living a pure, wholly unsustainable and incredibly stressful existence, worrying everything that came in contact with my body would shorten my lifespan.
Then life happened.
A series of what I've chosen to call "challenging personal events" culminated in my ninth hour of being stranded in Lima airport during a 42-hour journey home from Peru, where I suddenly decided I needed a Big Mac. It was a terrible, delicious slippery slope.
In the two years following that life-changing moment, I went from raw vegan to eating a 10-pack of chicken nuggets for second breakfast. I still recall the day I joyfully — and shamelessly — ate nothing but ice cream, cookies and custard. I was half a kilo of deep fried cheese away from falling outside my healthy weight range. And I was sick – a lot. My ambition to live to 120 was slipping away, fast.
How could I get back on track?
There has been a lot of research into why people live to be centenarians. The length of the chromatid, which protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration, is a major (and some would argue, the only real) factor. A positive outlook on life is apparently imperative, with most centenarians stating it as the number one reason they are still around. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence also suggests that sheer anger at the world keeps some of us kicking on well into our 100th year. Some say it’s just down to luck. Other commonalities among members of the “Letter From The Queen” club are regular exercise and keeping the mind active.
Perhaps their diets held the key? What if I trialled them — one a month, for 12 months — and found the one that suited me best?
On 1 January, 2015, 12 Diets in 12 Months was born.
I would sustain myself on the diets of communities or individuals who had lived until 100 and beyond. Some seemed insane, like the Texan woman eating bacon with every meal. Others made nutritional sense, like the 80 per cent raw food diet of the Hunza people of Pakistan.
All represented their own unique challenges.
Let the challenge begin.
Enlisting the help of clinical and sports dietitian/nutritionist Gabrielle Maston of Changing Shape, I started with the traditional diet of the Indigenous people of the Japanese Ryukyu Islands who routinely live to over 100. It is commonly known as the Okinawan Diet. Lots of dark leafy green and yellow vegetables, purple sweet potato, bitter melon, blueberries, seaweed, tofu and green tea. Miso soup with spinach for breakfast, small amounts of brown rice, fish three times a week, one pork meal a month, and no dairy whatsoever.
The food was delicious and fresh. I felt lighter, started sleeping better, and after the initial “detox” period (the first week was filled with lethargy and headaches) I had much more energy than usual. It wasn’t difficult to buy ingredients, and I didn’t miss soft drink or juice at all.
“On the surface, it seems like a healthy diet,” Maston told me, “But for someone not used to those food flavours it’s probably going to be unsustainable over the long term and may result in deficiencies if you’re not diligent with food variability and potentially supplementation.”
She was right. The diet was restrictive, unsustainable and I was seriously eyeing off my workmate’s Vegemite on toast.
Over the next three months I enjoyed the diet of 106 year old Marge Jetton, vegetarian Seventh Day Adventist (mostly carbs and cheese). I endured the diet of the Hunza people from the hills of Pakistan — who don’t eat until lunchtime, and then it’s fruit, nuts and seeds with a little yoghurt thrown in, followed by dhal with wholemeal chapattis for dinner.
Then came what would ultimately be my downfall. The Bacon Diet.
The Bacon Diet is a ridiculous idea. The Bacon Diet is what happens when a 100+-year-old is tired of reporters asking them the same inane questions over and over again every year until they die, and decides to go full troll on the media.
“What’s your secret?”
(Not this again)
“Bacon, every day.”
Texan Pearl Cantrell may have lived to 105, and there may be some studies that exist to back up her claim it contributed to her longevity, but it turns out switching to a bacon-heavy diet is the worst idea anyone aiming to enter triple figures has ever, ever had.
There were other “terrible” diets I tried throughout the year, mixed in with the obviously far more healthy ones. Like that of 122-year-old Jeanne Calmet, who points to a kilo of chocolate a week and excessive amounts of olive as her “secret”. The Bacon Diet, however, was the only diet I was medically advised to discontinue.
“You need to stop eating bacon. Now.”
They were the words I never wanted to hear but totally knew were coming. Spoken by my highly intelligent and very reasonable super qualified medical doctor, no less.
Three weeks into eating bacon every day, the sodium levels in my blood had risen to the point of affecting my kidney function. The Bacon Diet wasn’t helping me live to 130. The Bacon Diet wasn’t helping me live to 40. The Bacon Diet was killing me softly, with its beautiful bacon flavoured song.
I said goodbye to bacon and embarked on some far healthier options to continue my year-long experiment because clearly, I don’t know when to quit.
The Mediterranean Diet was lovely and balanced — fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean chicken and fish. 115-year-old Walter Breuning avoided junk food, drank two litres of water a day and got in his five servings of fruit and veg as well. Jamie Oliver’s Superfoods cookbook came out toward the end of my experiment and was a brilliant relief. Yay for variety!
Despite my super-healthy eating plans at the tail end of this challenge, I still didn't feel quite "right". I had stomach cramping, a "heavy" feeling, constant bloating, persistent nausea — even vomiting after some foods — and (here's the part where I talk about my poop, sorry Mum) persistent constipation.
Surely this would all fix itself when I finished this ridiculous challenge, right?
I went back to my doctor, described my symptoms, and much to my horror was prescribed another diet to follow.
The FODMAP Diet. For Irritable Bowel Syndrome. (For those who are interested, here's an awesome app I found to help me manage it).
I'd been switching from one extreme diet to another, every month for a year. Despite the vast majority of them being “healthy” and all of them attributed to ensuring the longevity of individuals and communities around the world to well into triple digits, I had managed to destroy my digestive system.
"Of course, you moron (yes, that’s your voice and yes I can hear you) — what did you expect? It’s well documented that yo-yo dieting is a stupid as hell idea."
For weight loss.
No one ever said anything about diets that make you live to 140. My nutritionist/dietitian/long-suffering food coach even said it "Sounds like an interesting project!" when I embarked on this journey — which I'd like to point out is the total opposite of "Don't do this you idiot or you'll have to cut out coffee and then how will you cope with life."
Even today, a full 11 months after finishing this global centenarian food adventure, I can't have onion. I tried, just last week, and had to have a day off work while my body, er, "rejected" it.
So heed my cautionary tale, fellow adventurers. Don't try this one at home.
As for living to 100, I'm not about to give up on my childhood dreams anytime soon. There's not a lot of information out there about how to live to 100, so if I'm ever going to achieve my dream of reading comics and eating ice-cream until I'm 150, I've still got some research (and experimenting) to do.
Just don't expect bacon to a be a part of it.