What you eat is important but so is when you eat it

We have notions of what healthy eating means, but it all gets very confusing and the advice seems to shift constantly. Sometimes the confusion occurs because there wasn’t any real evidence to support what we have been told by experts and also because new research points us in new directions.

Ultimately, any advice, however well-meaning, is only going to help if it fits with our personal preferences and tastes.

It seems to me that it’s not always clear what we mean by ‘health’. Is it the absence of ill health and disease, whether that’s a diagnosed condition or simply that we don’t feel 100% well? It could mean thinking about the kinds of foods that will give us the energy we need to keep active or to keep our skin in good condition. And it might be that we are interested in keeping our weight and body dimensions stable.

So, where do we start?

Some personal guidelines

Health isn’t about diet alone and as we age it matters whether we are interested in our quality of life, avoiding chronic diseases such as diabetes, or longevity. And bear in mind that only 25% of the variation in life span is determined by genetics. Follow this link for more information about longevity.

As I am not a nutritionist, I have looked to others for guidance and there is plenty of it out there. But much of the research does seem to be consistent in recommending the foods and eating habits that might help us as we age.

At present, I don’t have any major concerns about my health and I seem to have plenty of energy to do the things I want, but that hasn’t always been the case. I do attribute this to taking more care about what I eat, particularly as I have always been prone to gaining weight easily.

Generally, I follow a Mediterranean-style diet because it seems to have a lot going for it. Essentially this means eating ‘colourfully’ i.e. 7–10 portions of fresh plant-based foods daily in a variety of colours.

This approach to eating, which also includes beans, pulses, fish, eggs and meat, is advocated by Elizabeth Amini, a social entrepreneur who, with a team of neuroscientists, has reviewed over 17,000 studies to compile the ‘Top Ten Tips to Keep Your Brain Young’ to reduce the risk of early memory loss.

This is also pretty much in line with the foods that tend to be eaten by those living in the so-called Blue Zones, places across the globe that have a high proportion of centenarians (people living over the age of 100 years) and that’s good enough for me! Follow this link for some Blue Zone food guidelines.

One of the issues that has concerned me is that, as we age, we can develop a tendency to gain weight and it also becomes harder for us to lose weight. This is for a variety of reasons and does not affect everyone the same way as our metabolisms can slow down at different rates. This variation is influenced by our activity levels and the foods we choose to eat.

When should I eat?

Earlier this year I heard about the benefits of time-restricted feeding and intermittent fasting, which I admit I wasn’t too keen to try. I was reluctant because a few years ago I followed the 5:2 diet and struggled with hunger on my low-calorie days. However, because of the possible health gains, I thought I’d give it a go.

My choice is to fast for 16 hours a day, generally from 9 pm until around 1 pm the following day, so I no longer eat breakfast on 6 days out of 7. I do drink black coffee in the morning and have tea and water during my fasting hours but that’s all.

After lunch, I sometimes have a snack late afternoon before my evening meal at around 7 pm, usually cheese and a piece of fruit or some nuts but occasionally I’ll snack on a pastry.

Most importantly, I don’t ban any foods and will eat anything I fancy during my 8-hour eating window but I make an effort to eat mindfully and make sure I never feel overfull.

I do occasionally get hunger pangs but they pass quickly and I still have plenty of energy; I’m still able to exercise in the morning during my fast without any obvious ill effects.

So, while I don’t yet know whether this style of eating will help to lengthen my life, it does seem to suit me and I have noticed my clothes are looser and that always feels good. Try it for yourself and let me know how it works out.