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Aging is not for the faint of heart. Bosoms droop, jowls develop, bladders leak, joints creak and crow’s-feet appear overnight. However, at a recent family reunion where we celebrated the 90th birthday of my Aunt Theresia, it was evident my Dutch relatives had something figured out. My mom will be 80 this year, my godmother 88, two more aunts will be 89, and it keeps going. The amazing thing is that they have good skin, functioning minds and can still walk on their own steam. In fact, if you get in the way, they will give you a shoulder shove and stand their ground.
The Dutch Secret to Staying Young: Kale
I was hoping to discover their secret. Ultimately I did. While the Dutch genes may have something to do with it, it turns out every one of them comes from thrifty farming lifestyles where they ate what the good earth produced. Sugar was not in their vocabulary. Their favorite vegetable? Boerenkool. Translation: kale. Kale was eaten morning, noon and night because it was a vegetable that wouldn’t quit and it was cheap. Even in a heavy snowfall, you could harvest kale, and if you stepped into the next row of their substantial gardens, you would find leeks and onions, too. These were staples in their diet.
My aunts reminisced about how much kale they ate and, of course, the recipes poured out. A traditional and filling dish, boerenkool stamppot, or kale hash, is made with kale, mashed potatoes and smoked sausages. This way of eating was necessitated during the hardships of wartime in the 1940s and the ensuing years of hunger. As it turns out, relying on greens grown straight from the earth was a saving grace. Nutritious cruciferous greens like kale, abundant with calcium, soluble and insoluble fiber, as well as vitamins A, C and K and the minerals copper, potassium, iron, manganese and phosphorus, are powerhouses for the entire body, including the skin. Vitamin C particularly plays an important role in skin health as it aids in the formation of collagen, a protein in the body that is a major building block for skin, cartilage, bones and tendons.
Eating for Brain Health
But the skin isn’t the only body part we worry about as we age. While chatting with my aunts, I realized they are witty, smart, fast-paced talkers and thinkers. Their brains, despite their age, were on fire. My oma, who lived to 96, also had a marvelous brain, completing crossword puzzles daily and challenging all who dared with scientific facts. Eating for brain health is an idea that has taken root of late since the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are skyrocketing. Today, 1 in 9 Americans aged 65 years and older have the disease, with some segments of the population hit harder than others. My aunts scoffed at the idea of refined sugar in their diet. Their idea of a sweet was an apple, little realizing their decisions to eat as they did were shaping an aging process that would protect them from the ravages all too prevalent today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unless today’s lifestyle trends improve, diabetes could reach epidemic proportions by 2050, with one out of three people developing diabetes in their lifetime. In fact, “type 3 diabetes” is an emerging term being used for Alzheimer’s and dementia as a form of diabetes, as the brain suffers an inability to process sugar in the face of excess.
It was remarkable to digest these facts – facts to me because the living examples stood right in front of me – and to know how powerfully our lifestyle choices affect us.
I will continue to serve happily as your guide in the self-care-is- health-care revolution. My aunts and extended family members and I are here to prove it!
When nutritional therapy practitioner Tosca Reno was raising five children under one roof she still managed to write numerous books. Her New York Times best seller is Your Best Body Now (Harlequin, 2010), and Tosca Reno’s Eat Clean Cookbook (Robert Kennedy Publishing, 2009) was nominated for the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Award. Order copies of her books at toscareno.com.