“The Longevity Code” by Kris Verburgh, MD – Book Review

“The Longevity Code,” by Belgian doctor and science writer Kris Verburgh, covers at least three related topics, each of which might easily have been a separate work.  By trying to cover too much ground, however, the book only partially succeeds in any one of its topics. Subtitled “Secrets to Living Well Longer from the Front Lines of Science,” it covers the biological roots of aging and, briefly, gives an overview of new research proponents believe will lead to discoveries that will “reverse the aging process.”  But at heart “The Longevity Code” is a diet book, with lots of valuable information in its pages if you want, as I do, to understand the role of our food choices in healthy aging and retirement.

If you’ve ever read a diet book from cover to cover, you know the formula.  There’s a chapter at the beginning presenting the scientific theory behind the diet, followed by several more chapters laying out the day-by-day and week-by-week program the author wants you to observe, followed by recipes, recipes, and more recipes.  Verbrugh turns this formula on its head, devoting most of the book to the science of what on his website he calls “nutrigerontology,” “which studies the impact of nutrition on the aging process and aging related diseases.”  In the back of the book, almost as an appendix, there are twenty pages of recipes.

The core of “The Longevity Code” is a methodical journey through the science of how poor food choices age us faster and cause age-related diseases.  The first part of the journey is a straightforward discussion of, in turn, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The second part steps into more complex topics like how diet affects the structure of our cells and of our DNA as we age.  The third part sets forth what Verburgh calls “The Longevity Staircase,” moving from practical advice on “avoiding deficiencies” to coming breakthroughs that may (I’m skeptical) “reverse the aging process.”

The most accessible and valuable part of the book explains the role of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in aging, and any reader of this section will come away resolved to make better dietary choices in each area.  

Proteins

“As time goes by,” Verburgh writes, “our cells become so filled with aggregated protein that they no longer function well.  That causes them to age:  Heart cells no longer contract properly; nerve cells do not transmit signals efficiently; digestive cells do not absorb food as well as they used to.  Finally, many cells simply die, strangled in a web of proteins.” But there’s hope:  “… certain substances in our diet, and our diet itself, can slow down the agglomeration of proteins in our cells.”  There’s a clear hierarchy:  white meat is better than red meat, omega-3 fatty acid fish (like salmon) is better than white meat, and vegetable protein—from nuts, tofu, beans, green leafy vegetables, and mushrooms—is better than fish protein.  

Carbohydrates

“The intake of carbohydrates, and particularly of fast sugars, triggers the production of all kinds of hormones that accelerate aging.”  These sugars spur the production of insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) that cause cells to age and grow. Cutting out soda and candy is a no-brainer, says Verburgh, but that’s only the start.  Whole wheat is better than white bread but, for best results, get your carbs from foods like oatmeal and fruit that release sugar slowly into the bloodstream.

While Dr. Verburgh’s writing tends to be stiff, he occasionally finds a telling anecdote.  Most of us have read in the press or in weight loss books that diets high in carbohydrates can make us fatter than high-fat diets, but Dr. Verburgh’s story about goose liver pate drove that message home.  To make pate, geese are force-fed grains, not fat.  Remember that next time you sit down to a plate-full of pasta!  Do you really want to do to your body what French pate farmers do to their geese?  

Fats

As we age our fat moves from under our skin to places in our bodies where it can do great harm, like to our abdomens.  “That abdominal fat produces all kinds of inflammatory substances that are released into the bloodstream,” writes Verburgh.  “These substances make the blood vessel clog up faster, putting you at greater risk of a heart attack and dementia. People with abdominal fat have three times a greater risk of dementia.”  The solution is to eat more “good” fats like walnuts, because “people who eat a lot of walnuts have a faster and healthier brain. In addition, walnuts are good for the heart and the blood vessels.”

“Desert Island” Retirement Foods

“The Longevity Code” swings from technical (and not always clear) discussions of organic chemistry and cellular biology and justified rants against the food industry, to straightforward advice about the foods you should eat and supplements you might consider.  As someone who want to know why I should or should not eat certain foods, I found much of it very valuable, and it has already changed the way I eat and think about food.  

The book made me think about what are the absolutely best foods to eat if you want to live longer and healthier, and I’m working on another blog post tentatively titled “20 Desert Island Retirement Foods.”  Here’s the idea: if you could only eat 20 foods for the rest of your life, and wanted to create a list that would be both healthy and pleasurable, what would be on it? Look for that post before the end of April!

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