Book of the Week: food that makes you younger
AUT food researcher George Henderson examines a new cookbook which claims the right food can make you "grow younger"
A diet book with an empirically testable claim is the only type worth reading. If an author says they can make your skin smooth, shift your fat, or improve your endurance, then within a few months you’ll soon know if they’re lying. Whereas if they say they can prevent cancer or heart disease, or show you ”How not to die”, you will in fact die - and die not knowing if that advice and the effort you put in had anything to do with your good or bad luck.
The new healthy-eating cookbook Grow Younger with Great Food promises youth and beauty, which seems attainable. Well, the feel-younger claim anyway. My old injuries didn’t hurt any more after I cut sugar, flour, and refined seeds oils from my diet, and my skin stopped burning and tearing easily. And when I had Hep C, I went through a phase of using all the antioxidant supplements that were recommended, and people often said I looked younger, which was always a shock. So it doesn’t seem implausible to me that the signs and symptoms of ageing can be reversed, for a useful amount of time if not forever, by better nutrition.
Grow Younger with Great Food is really a cookbook in the Gayelord Hauser tradition. This improbable name belonged to one of the earliest healthy-diet publicists, as dietitian to the stars of the 1940s through to the 60s (he weaned Greta Garbo off a vegetarian diet and became her lover). He was onto something way back then. He promoted whole proteins, vegetables and a few supplements like brewer’s yeast, blackstrap molasses and wheatgerm (remember wheatgerm?) in titles like Gaylord Hauser’s Treasury of Secrets and The New Diet Does It.
Generally, he warned against sugar and flour, go easy on fat but have some – even when he caught the cholesterol bug later in his career he didn’t flip out completely, but suggested blending equal amounts of butter and sunflower oil to make Sunbutter (it spreads easily, and you can do this with olive oil).
The authors of Grow Younger with Great Food, Dr Catherine Stone (who specialises in cosmetic medicine) and nutritionist Jessica Giljam-Brown, provide over 90 recipes. The recipes are so relatively low in the more addictive carbs that you’ll be less likely to over-eat them; so yummy that you’ll be at lower risk of under-eating them; and so nutritious, with most of the ingredients being whole or minimally processed, that it won’t matter so much if you do.
Their discussion of dietary fats is spot-on, and in line with recent research showing that higher intakes of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats are associated with skin cancer. It may or may not be a coincidence that the skin cancer death rate in NZ doubled after margarine was legalised in 1972 and persists at this higher level despite all the slip-slop-slap campaigns.
Particularly welcome, despite the trendy plant-based focus and bewildering profusion of seeds, nuts, and pseudo-grains (this is a gluten-free cookbook), is the inclusion of red meat in some recipes and the recommendation to eat organ meats occasionally.
There’s a 1980 essay by Gloria Steinem called The Politics of Food (in the collection Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions) which every foodie, feminist, and food researcher should read and remember. In it she describes some of the cultural constructs by which women are deprived of the good nutrition which men use to stay dominant. The belief that men need to eat red meat more often than women may have been true when the average man was more likely to have to survive an attack by a wild bear than the average woman, but today it’s mainly women who suffer from serious iron deficiency. The rate - and the cost to the health system - is increasing in New Zealand as more women give up meat.
Iron deficiency anaemia in early pregnancy is associated with neurodevelopmental disorders in children. Maternal meat-avoidance and soy consumption are both associated with early substance use in children (soy seems to be inconspicuously absent from Grow Younger with Great Food, another plus), and meat-avoidance is associated with depression and anxiety in more than one population similar to ours. Do trends to eat less meat, whether from poverty or policy, play any role in our current mental health crisis? Does anyone in Public Health New Zealand care to check?
Stone and Giljam-Brown are strong on the hormonal and behavioural aspects of ageing. There’s a lot more here than just nutritional advice: at one point, they suggest the use of cosmetic interventions for vaginal rejuvenation post-childbirth and post-menopause, whereas the FDA and skeptical expert (and scourge of Goop) Dr Jen Gunter are more wary. I’m a bit unsure whether a cookbook should really be leading in this direction – botox and food have historically been an uneasy combination - but the overall discussion of cosmetic surgery itself is reasonable enough. Some women will indeed seek these procedures, and if they're properly fed, chances are they'll fare better on the operating table.
Anyway, the recipes. This book is aimed firmly at the Domestic Goddess, in complete control of her kitchen and wanting for nothing. (Thank heaven for small mercies: the salmon and asparagus quiche allows for canned salmon). My own Domestic Goddess and I decided on the lamb tagine. It requires 2cm x 2cm cubes of lamb shoulder, which we bought from Pak’nSave.
Actually, this recipe can be made with cheap stewing beef – and it ended up being an affordable and very easy to prepare recipe. It wasn’t as spicy as we like our food, so I’d add chilli in future, but the ginger, orange zest and plum (we used prunes) makes a nice change. It’s hearty yet interesting fare, and low-carb if you skip the suggested side of herb quinoa (we made basmati rice with mint).
I have a few minor quibbles. Green leafy veges may contain calcium but it’s bound with oxalic acid. A better non-dairy source of calcium is the bone in your soup or stew. Eating a large amount of spinach or silverbeet may well increase your need for calcium, if only to reduce the risk of kidney damage that has sometimes resulted from green smoothie over-indulgence.
The only type of fibre that really removes cholesterol from the body (assuming you want to do this) is the viscous fibre found in psyllium, flaxseed, basil seed, okra and so on. Psylllium husk, everyone’s favourite laxative from the What The Fat cookbooks, also makes an appearance in the recipes in Grow Younger with Great Food, along with the similar flaxseed meal.
But by far my biggest grumble is not with the authors, but with the publisher regards the “coloured print on a coloured page” idiocy that afflicts so many modern publications. It makes the book practically impossible to read in the old-fashioned way of just running the eyes easily across the page, as we did back in the days when books were black on white with serif fonts. An existentialist might point out that words taken in with strong intent will have more meaning than those acquired passively. But that assumes you can see them at all - maybe I just need to eat more Great Food, and Grow Younger eyes.
Great Food and Grow Younger by Dr Catherine Stone and Jessica Giljam-Brown (Aotearoa Books, $39.99)