It’s a familiar claim: If we eat healthy food, we should avoid cancer and other diseases which should give us a longer life. The problem is those “shoulds” are not coming to pass and research is beginning to show there are some very good reasons why.
This past weekend’s NYTimes Magazine featured David Murdock, an 87-year-old billionaire—who believes he’ll live to be 125—with a penchant for proselytizing his views on healthy eating. And he puts his money where his mouth is, having once paid a contractor a $100,000 bonus to lose 30 pounds (of course the poor guy has gained 22 of it back).
I imagine many in the Paleo/Primal blogosphere might criticize the finer points of his food choices (see a visual guide to his daily intake here). To me, it doesn’t actually look that bad. Sure, there’re plenty of grains and beans, but there’s no junk, no sugar, and no over indulgence. I have to admit that America would be better off if they actually followed his diet. He tops out at a tightly controlled 1500-1600 calories a day, an easy task when you can pay staff to manage every aspect of your food life for you. Aside from the grains and legumes, what our community probably disagrees with most is his avoidance of red meat, poultry, and egg yolks.
Which is all fine and dandy, but I say let the old rich man eat what he wants. What interests me most is the power he wields by virtue of that fortune. I think we may be looking at the next W.K. Kellogg, and look where that got us. Aside from promoting almost a century of cereal consumption, Kellogg’s empire now includes Keebler, Pop-Tarts, Eggo, Cheez-It, Nutri-Grain, BearNaked, Morningstar Farms, Famous Amos, Club and Kashi, among others. It’s a huge carbohydrate-fueled machine and it’s deeply ensconced in our public consciousness and our pantries.
Murdock’s obsession is at least partly rooted in the death of his third (and apparently favorite) wife from ovarian cancer in 1985. Because her cancer didn’t appear hereditary, he decided it must have something to do with their diet. How he separated that out from a bjillion other possible environmental culprits is beyond me, but we humans are very good at assigning causation to correlations. After some research, he settled on the foods he continues to eat to this day.
Hmm…what kind of nutritional research was available in the mid 80s? I shudder to think.
But let’s return to the idea of him putting his money where his mouth is. He poured $500 million of his dollars into building the North Carolina Research Campus, “a scientific center dedicated to his conviction that plants, eaten in copious quantities and the right variety, hold the promise of optimal health and maximal life span.” (Bold mine) Herein lies the crux.
Let’s imagine you’re a researcher. You toil away for hours everyday in a windowless basement, worried that your grant application will be rejected again. Or, you can accept a position at a shiny new campus with state-of-the-art laboratories, marble floors, and nuclear magnetic resonance machines at the ready. As Mary Ann Lila, “a world-renowned blueberry authority,” puts it, “Normally, when you have a lab and someone’s wheeling in liquid nitrogen, you don’t have to worry about them hitting a Ming vase. But we have a different paradigm here.”
Indeed. So let’s say in the course of your research, you discover that blueberries aren’t all you’ve made them out to be. What are you going to do with that information? Are you going to tell your megalomaniac sugardaddy what you’ve found? The paradigm I’d like to see is one that starts from the cellular level and works its way up from there, not from an idea being imposed upon our cells. What do our cells need for optimal function? How can we provide it?
Oh wait. That’s Paleo. That’s Primal. Lucky me!
Murdock’s approach is Nutritionism at its worst (Did I mention he owns Dole, the world’s largest fruit and vegetable producer?). As Michael Pollan asserts, the foods we eat are valuable for more than their isolated molecular offerings. The truth is we have no idea what happens to most foods once they are digested by our bodies. We can observe results but teasing out the cause-and-effect of it all is beyond our current capability, largely because mice aren’t humans and it’s so hard to learn how it all works from the view of a petri dish through a microscope. Even the very foundation of Paleo and Primal is largely theoretical. There is still great debate about whether insulin is the villain, a cohort, or an innocent bystander. But to me, it makes sense to defer to what has nourished us for millions of years, and modern research is beginning to agree.
But we have to maintain the healthy skepticism that brought us here. If you’re curious about something, follow the money. Then follow the motivation. And then follow your nose to the steaks on the grill at my house. Welcome, would you like a beer?
On a personal level, this quest for longevity just doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m all about quality of life, not quantity. It seems like old folks divide into two camps: those who want to live forever and those who want to die as soon as possible. The second camp seems to be filled with those who keep going even though everyone they know and love is gone. Maybe their health is bad, but just as often it seems fine, if in slow decline. The first camp has plenty of historic precedence. There were those crazy Taoist alchemist monks in China who tried to find a pill for the emperor that would make him immortal. Instead, they just ended up slowly killing him with substances like cinnabar and arsenic. Then there was that whole Fountain of Youth thing, which may explain the numbers of retirees in Florida. Today’s variation is gene research which can now apparently predict with 77% accuracy who has the best chance of living into their 90s and beyond. I wonder if Murdock has seen this data. Then he might begin to suspect that his father living to be 90, and not necessarily all those blueberries, might have something to do with this business of longevity.