Healthy at 100 by John Robbins

Healthy at 100 by John Robbins

A Thumbs Down Book Review

Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Most Long-Lived Peoples
By John Robbins
Random House, 2006

Reviewed by Jan Blair and Ron Schmid, ND

John Robbins begins his new book on human longevity with a review of research on several cultures known for their centenarians. He presents his views on why these people lead long and active lives, with great emphasis on his belief that vegetarianism promotes health and longevity. He relies heavily on Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s book The China Study, attempting to correlate its claims with his own conclusions. The importance of exercise and a spiritual connection with others is also presented, the latter in a refreshing and thought-provoking manner that far outshines the rest of the book.

Robbins describes how our beliefs about aging help form our own experience in our later years. In contrast to our culture’s obsession with youth and distaste for age, he describes those cultures which revere long life, respect the elderly, and collectively look forward to the rewards of the later years. Robbins cites a study in which researcher Dr. Beca Levy concludes that “negative thoughts about aging that you pick up from society can undermine your health and have destructive consequences.”1 The study found that these perceptions had more impact on longevity than did blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking, or exercise.

Robbins points out that many of us at all ages are chronically ill, noting that it is not just our life span that is important but our “health span.”3 He stresses the tremendous life-giving and even miraculous healing power of strong social connections and “intimate relationships that are authentic and life affirming.”4

By contrast, “…chronic loneliness now ranks as one of the most lethal risk factors determining who will die prematurely in modern industrialized nations.”5 Love of a significant other increases our ability to prevent stress-induced illness. Astonishing to Robbins was the finding that “those with close social ties and unhealthy lifestyles (featuring smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise) actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more healthy living habits.”6

Robbins addresses the importance of parenting and treating our children with respect and love. We now have indications that our relationship with our parents and the method of parenting has “a significant impact on the incidence of serious disease and premature death decades later in adulthood.” These are the findings of James J. Lynch, PhD, as reported in his 2000 book, A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness.7

Robbins presents us with a study by the Developmental Biology Program of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Human Development. Of forty-nine traditional cultures surveyed, those societies which inflicted physical punishment on their children produced brutal adults. Those societies which lavished physical affection on their children produced happy, healthy adults whose lives were characterized by more pleasure and less violence.8 “In these societies. . . children are remarkably well behaved and discipline is rarely a problem. Having been treated with respect, children naturally respect their elders.”9

Robbins reminds us that eating dinner together strengthens family bonds among the generations. That tradition is quickly fading away, even in France where long meals are a cherished tradition.10

What a contrast our “modern” way of living is to the centenarian cultures, where children start out in a world which equally values them and their elders. Such is life in a connected village, where one looks forward to growing old among family and friends, where one can move about with minimal pain, and look forward to an honorable death.

Had the book’s sections on life-style been Robbins’ whole effort, he would have written a gem. Unfortunately, in the first two-thirds he falls victim to his own warning: “Writers and scientists with already established ideas about healthful lifestyles can tend to look for that which validates their views. People can become gullible when they want to hear what they’ve already made up their minds to believe.”11 Robbins’ dogmatic belief in vegetarianism makes a mockery of his research and his alleged search for truth. He ignores the importance of animal foods in the cultures he cites, contradicts himself as to the nature of diseases in an effort to place the blame for their causes on animal protein, and attempts to create a wildly illogical association between meat-eating and the practice of torture and human sacrifice.12

Robbins often makes references to plant-based, vegetarian, and lacto-vegetarian diets that may include a “rare serving” of meat or fish. But just how much dairy is consumed and just how “rare” are the servings of meat? Some of the research Robbins relies upon was done by vegetarians seeking to validate their philosophy. Other researchers looking at the same cultures have reached very different conclusions.

In fact, all of the healthy cultures Robbins reviews consumed animal foods in some form. The Abkhasians are well known for their consumption of cultured dairy products—and not in small amounts! They enjoyed several varieties daily, in addition to liberal amounts of cheese and curds.13 The “rare servings” of meat are stated in other reports to include one to three or more times a week. They consume eggs, chicken, goat, lamb and beef.14

Robbins concentrates on the celebrated Abkhasians, but nearby Azerbaijan is also noted for its centenarians and their diet includes a larger animal portion. The typical diet of Azerbaijani villagers consists primarily of eggs, cheese, butter, yogurt, milk, curds, sour cream, bread, various vegetables, fruits and herbs. Azerbaijanis are also fond of lamb, mutton and sheep fat. Lacto-fermented foods are also consumed.15

Robbins also reviews the Okinawans. He highlights their rice and vegetable dishes but gives only cursory mention of their extensive use of fish, sea animals and pork. He tells us the Okinawans have two servings a day of soy-based foods, but fails to mention that these are one-ounce servings.16

Dr. Kaayla Daniel in The Whole Soy Story illuminates other aspects of the Okinawan diet. which were omitted by Robbins: “According to respected gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, the most common cooking fat used traditionally in Okinawa is lard. . . Dr. Taira’s findings differ from those of the Okinawa Centenarian Study in that he reports that healthy and vigorous Okinawans eat 100 grams each of pork and fish each day. Finally, the longevity of Okinawans has been attributed to many factors besides soy consumption. Indeed, the three authors of the Okinawa Centenarian Study name caloric restriction as ‘the key to eating the Okinawa way.’”17

Both the Hunzans and the Vilcabambans have high populations of centenarians. Both eat small amounts of meat and larger amounts of dairy. In Rare Earths, Forbidden Cures, Dr. Joel D. Wallach states that the basic Hunza diet is “grains (whole and sprouted), vegetables (raw or steamed), fruits (fruits are dried and reconstituted in water or diced and served in gelatin made from goat and mutton tendon and cartilage). Meat at two to four pounds per week (mutton, goat, yak, beef, poultry, brain, kidney, liver, etc.) is eaten as available; dairy (whole milk, soured milk, yogurt, cheese and butter) is a staple. Grape wine known as Pani is consumed daily.”18 Indigenous wildlife such as the ibex, Marco Polo sheep, geese, ducks, pheasants and partridge provided the early Hunza with meat.19 The Hunza do not cook most of their food due to the scarcity of fuel;20 much of it is eaten raw. They consume sun-dried fruits and vegetables and a large amount of apricots, including the kernels of the pits, which are ground into flours. Apricot kernels contain vitamin B17 and beta-carotene, which may have a significant impact on their health.21 Hunzans also use apricot kernel oil, ghee (clarified butter) and animal fat (tallow) when they do cook.22

The Hunzans eat the least meat of the four centenarian groups reviewed and seem to have the worst health. Clark (1956) noted that while some live to be very old, many Hunzans suffer from a variety of problems, including malaria, dysentery, worms, impetigo, goiter, dental decay, rickets and tuberculosis. It appears that those who survive the harsh early life become immune to many diseases, and live to old age.23

When discussing the Vilcabambans, Robbins minimizes their meat and dairy consumption. The mountain people of Vilcabamba drank milk and ate cheese from cow’s or goat’s milk. David Davies in The Centenarians of the Andes noted that eggs were eaten daily by the centenarians, most of whom lived on the mountainsides above the village and kept their own chickens. The eggs were usually eaten raw or nearly raw. Meat was commonly eaten as well by these subsistence farmers. “When meat was rarer in the diet,” Davies wrote about the villagers, “the children of the family were invariably fat.” Davies also commented that isolated centenarians in Ecuador were invariably fishermen living on the coast.24

Most Vilcabambans had limited amounts of meat, and as in Hunza, the health of many of them was not good. In fact Davies reported that “. . . about 40 percent die before they reach their fourth year,”25 but those who survive often have built up immunity and survive into old age. Also interesting is the fact that tooth decay was found in both the Hunzans and Vilcabambans. Davies noted that most Vilcabambans had decayed teeth, in most cases by the age of thirteen or fourteen, while the gums remained healthy. These observations are consistent with Dr. Weston Price’s work, which showed consistently beautiful teeth and gums in indigenous cultures consuming large amounts of animal foods and no refined foods.

Robbins rightly exposes the importance of avoiding sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods. Certainly fresh vegetables, whole grains (properly soaked, which he doesn’t even touch on), and moderate amounts of fruit are part of the centenarian diets, but the misinformation about their animal protein and fat intake is obviously biased and does a great disservice to his large audience.

In his attempt to convince us that these cultures are largely vegetarian, he omits important information about their consumption of meat and other animal foods—the very foods Dr. Price found most essential in healthy indigenous societies. Robbins spends several pages reviewing Price’s work, noting that after the introduction of refined foods, the health of the indigenous populations studied quickly declined. But rather than discussing Price’s most central finding—that fat-soluble activators found only in animal fats were absolutely essential in every indigenous culture for providing immunity to disease and the ability to “make perfect babies” generation after generation—Robbins makes this statement about Price: “However, it is also important to recognize the limitations of his views.”26

He then goes on to denigrate Price’s research and to present a bizarre argument attempting to link meat eating with overaggressive behavior, including torture and human sacrifice.27

In the next chapter it’s off to the China Study, and there follow several chapters on how a plant-based diet is the only way to save the planet. Dr. Price’s dietary studies are largely irrelevant today, Robbins tells us, for “[w]e cannot go back to a past that can never be again.”

Never mind that grassfed animals and their milk, fish from unpolluted waters, and plant foods together sustained life and health for hundreds of generations. Never mind that Dr. Price was unable to locate a vegetarian culture living in perfect health. Never mind that a grass-based agricultural system could replace today’s unsustainable corporate, industrial agriculture and feed our people a truly healthy diet. Never mind Price’s evidence that nutrient-dense foods rich in fat-soluble activators are vital if human beings are to maintain even the basic ability to reproduce successfully. How is it that Robbins, who appears to mean well, goes so far off the mark?

Upton Sinclair once wrote, “It is very difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” Mr. Robbins has no need of a salary, but a similar process operates in matters of prestige and professional reputation. To paraphrase Sinclair, it is very difficult to get a man to understand something when his entire career is built on understanding the opposing view. Robbins has authored enormously popular books about the benefits of vegetarianism. He is publicly committed to an ideology that promotes plant-based diets as our salvation, for us as individuals and for our culture as a whole.

A certain unbecoming arrogance sometimes afflicts those who are a bit too sure they are right. Robbins’ insights into the important influence of significant human relationships on health and longevity could be a real contribution to the subject of healthy aging. Our opinion is that a perhaps equally important influence is the ability to keep an open mind as one ages, an insight we hope Mr. Robbins might consider. Recall the old saying, “There’s no fool like an old fool.” Mr. Robbins still has a few years left to avoid such an ignoble fate.

REFERENCES

  1. Robbins, John, Healthy at 100: the scientifically proven secrets of the world’s healthiest and most long-lived people, Introduction, New York: Random House, 2006 (qtd. p.xiv); B.R. Levy, et al. Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perception of Aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2002, 83(2):261-70.
  2. Robbins, p.xiv.
  3. Ibid, p.xvi.
  4. Ibid, p.xix.
  5. Ibid, p.218.
  6. Ibid, p.232.
  7. Ibid, p.236.
  8. Ibid, p.243.
  9. Ibid, p.244.
  10. Ibid, p.249.
  11. Ibid, p.59.
  12. Ibid, p.118-20.
  13. http://www.beyondveg.com/tu-j-l/raw-cooked/raw-cooked-3i.shtml. [Benet,1974. p.25]
  14. http://www.beyondveg.com/tu-j-l/raw-cooked/raw-cooked-3i.shtml. [Benet,1974. p.25]
  15. http://www.azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/83_folder/83_articles/83_longevity.html
  16. Daniel, Kaayla. The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food. New Trends, 2005, pp. 15-16.
  17. Ibid.
  18. http://www.alkalizeforhealth.net/Lhunzadiet2.htm. Wallach, Dr. Joel D. and Dr. Ma Lan. Rare Earths Forbidden Cures. Double Happiness 1994 p.207-9.
  19. http://www.hunza.20m.com/.
  20. http://www.hunza.20m.com/.
  21. http://www.healingdaily.com/detoxification-diet/vitamin-b-17-laetrile.htm.
  22. http://www.alkalizeforhealth.net/Lhunzadiet2.htm. Wallach, Dr. Joel D. and Dr. Ma Lan. Rare Earths Forbidden Cures. Double Happiness 1994 p.207-9.
  23. http://www.beyondveg.com/tu-j-l/raw-cooked/raw-cooked-3i.shtml, Clark [1956].
  24. http://www.soilandhealth.org/ Davies, David. The Centenarians of the Andes. London: Barrie and Jenkins, Ltd, 1975.
  25. http://www.soilandhealth.org/ Davies, David. The Centenarians of the Andes. London: Barrie and Jenkins, Ltd, 1975.
  26. Robbins, p.117.
  27. Robbins, p.118-20.

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2007.

Janice Blair, CPA, is the La Crosse WI, WAPF Chapter Leader. She holds a BA in Business Economics, specializing in Natural Resources. Her background includes commercial fishing and cooking for diving and fishing boats in the Pacific. She studied food preparation under Chef Neil Stuart (Pacific Blue Plates), and operated an organic deli, coffee house, and juice bar in the early 90’s. She has taught cooking courses at Wild Oats and through St. Louis Community College. In 2000 she met Sally Fallon and put Sally’s suggestions to work on her new farm, Blackberry Ridge LLC, an organic, biodynamic, bio-diverse, all grass fed, heritage breed eco-farm & ranch (www.blackberryridgellc.com).

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