If she were alive, my mom would have turned 62 years old this week. No matter how hard I try I can’t picture her looking older, and not just because it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen her.
Even on her 52nd birthday she hardly had a wrinkle on her face, nor did I ever see her with a single gray hair. She spent hours in the gym each week, had legs most 30-year olds would kill for, and felt perfectly at home in spandex and bikinis––the smaller the better. She loved organic vegetables, avoided the drive-thru and always took her multivitamins. Although my mom and I really didn’t have much in common, I definitely got my penchant for health from her.
My mom lived like she was in this for the long haul, and in that way she was the complete opposite of my dad. When they were young my dad lived his life like the future would never come. He took big risks, had a fabulous time, and threw caution to the wind with things like health and money. As he has reflected back over the past several years the most common thing I’ve heard him utter is, “I never thought I’d live this long.” (I know, straight out of The Simpsons).
My dad has only recently started coming to terms with this disappointment, but as their first child this life lesson wasn’t lost on me. Much of my philosophy on food and health comes from seeing first hand that life is short and precious, and that we cannot rely on our own vision of the future. Young, healthy people die every day from things outside their control, while the wild and reckless may live into their 80s.
Always the scientist, my tactic is to optimize. As I explain in Foodist, “My philosophy on food has nothing to do with fat, carbs or calories. I approach food and health with only one unshakable belief: that life should be awesome.”
An awesome life requires understanding what is important now. This includes eating amazing food and sharing it with the people you love. It means exploring the world and delighting in new experiences. It means eating in a way that fills you with energy and satisfaction, and doesn’t leave you feeling deprived. One of my biggest beefs (pun intended) with the paleo diet, despite its many health merits, is that restricting all grains, beans and dairy isolates you from virtually all cuisines on earth. Eating Chinese food without rice and Mexican food without corn may be possible, but something about it feels inauthentic and sad. Since you can also be very healthy while continuing to eat these foods, why be so restrictive? Life is too short.
On the flip side, an awesome life also includes the possibility that you’ll become a centenarian (don’t confuse this with centurion). Having a long life can be a wonderful gift, but only if you remain active, alert and free of pain. Chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer detract tremendously from your quality of life, and are all associated with your eating and exercise habits.
Striking this balance requires some soul searching, since what makes your life awesome isn’t necessarily the same as what makes my life awesome. I doubt my mother would have done much differently, since she seemed to genuinely enjoy her workouts and veggie garden. My dad, on the other hand, wishes he had started eating better much earlier, especially now that he knows how much he enjoys it and how hard his ailing health has been on him.
If long term health and quality of life are important to you, as I hope they are, building a set of rewarding home court habits is the key. Choose the easiest habits for you to implement that have the biggest impact on your health, like eating a nutritious breakfast, eating more vegetables and walking 10,000 steps per day. No one needs to eat like a saint 100% of the time to live a long, healthy life.
Finding healthy things you enjoy now is the secret to ensuring your future health and happiness.
What does an awesome life mean to you?
Originally published Oct 7, 2013.