My Family’s Diet and Longevity Experiences

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 I live in a very rural, farming area of NC and, after adopting a whole-food, plant-based way of life a number of years ago, people kept saying, “But, my grandfather grew up on a farm eating meat and drinking milk his whole life, and he lived to be 87 years old. So, how can it be bad for me?”

That was a stumbling block for me until I did my own investigation a couple of years ago.

Interviewing family members

I have three living family members (1 biological, and the other 2 by marriage) that are 85, 86, and 90 years old. All of them are women and still living on their own and driving, visiting, and shopping! All three ladies grew up around this area on farms, so I took this question to them.

I asked them, “Growing up on a farm in your childhood, how many times a week did you eat animal products?” I was stunned at the uniform answers from each one because, though they are all my family, they are not related to each other, and definitely didn’t grow up together.

Each one said they averaged eating meat only once a week, almost always on Sunday, usually when the preacher came after church.

They said that, though they raised their own cows and chickens, they did not slaughter and eat them as much as I had originally thought. They didn’t have refrigerators and freezers like we do today, so storage was more difficult.

Mostly vegan 86-year-old is healthiest

To this day, the 86 and 90-year-olds do not eat much meat or dairy. The 86-year-old declares she is mostly vegan and has been her entire life. She is the healthiest of the three and has never had any major illnesses. She played softball up until her 70’s. She told me she just never liked the texture of meat and didn’t care for milk or cheese.

As added evidence, she has a twin sister that has always indulged in meat and dairy and has had many, many more health problems, while she herself is spry and loves to walk and stay very active. She is more energetic than most 60-year-olds I know!

The 90-year-old is my biological grandmother. She eats some meat and dairy, but not a lot. Retirement wasn’t even considered until she was in her 70’s. She’s had some heart issues in the last two years and had a pacemaker put in. But, she still lives by herself and is completely independent.

Youngest is least healthy

The youngest, and least healthy, is the 85-year-old, my mother-in-law. She is the biggest meat and dairy eater. She grew up not eating much of it because her family was poor especially during the Depression, but as an adult she went to the other extreme, indulging daily.

She has had two open-heart bypass surgeries, multiple stents, a heart attack, and has Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. She still lives on her own but takes many medications. She stays weak a lot and gets out of breath very easily, and is now on oxygen at night. Unfortunately, she is deteriorating very quickly.

My own family’s experiences match up with scientific research. It speaks volumes of the secrets to longevity.

Always exceptions

I realize that there are stories of people living into their 80’s and 90’s on the very unhealthy Standard American Diet and smoking their whole lives, but those stories are not the norm. My maternal grandfather was a heavy smoker his entire life and lived to be 93, and very healthfully until the final two years. But, I still believe smoking causes cancer.

UPDATE: August 2020

The mostly vegan family member is now 91 and still running at full speed ahead. Walking and playing with her great-grandchildren.

Unfortunately, we lost my mother-in-law at 89-years-old to heart disease and diabetes on April 13, 2020.

I interviewed my grandmother, now 96-years-old, on camera in this video, Diet & Longevity: What Did They Really Eat A Century Ago. Her answers will surprise you! She is currently suffering from cognitive impairment, heart disease, and macular degeneration.

What the Research Suggest

The secret of eternal youth; teaching from the centenarian hot spots (“Blue Zones”), Indian Journal of Medicine

A survey of the dietary nutritional composition of centenarians, US National Library of Medicine, NIH

Other inspiring stories

About Terri Edwards

Hi guys! I am the content creator behind EatPlant-Based and a licensed Food for Life instructor with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. I am passionate about sharing healthy recipes and tips to empower others to get healthy.  I’m so glad you’re here! Read More…


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  1. Thanks Terri for this. Some people told me this argument and I never knew how to answer. They say such and such a person lived till they are 90, and had no problem. I never replied because it would start an argument. But obviously if I dig more I would find out they have some problems. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Andrea! I love hearing other people’s story too. We all learn together, as we go. I like that!

        1. EXACTLY!! Almost ALL foods these 80 and 90 year olds ate (my parents and uncles) and even we 40 and 50 year olds now. What we ate in the pre-1980s before High Fructose Corn sysrup and also the nuclear 90s AND THE gmo mutated corns and modern wheat and all the livestock not to mention the disease and infections and trillions of doses of antibiotics.

          Most of my parents generation died because of environmental and social issues. Our generation is dying from a “food borne illness” and “diseasecare”.

  2. Wonderful information. I have an exception in my family also. Paternal grandfather lived to 99 after smoking all his adult life. He was on a bowling league and kept a garden until he was 94. He was an Italian immigrant. although I don’t know his specific dietary pattern I know he ate lots of vegetables, greens, and beans. He hunted and gathered too. Knew all the wild berry patches and fruit trees. Meat was more of a flavoring for stews and soups, not a main item of their menu. My Dad changed all that in our home. He became a meat and potatoes kind of american eater. He lived into his late 80s but had many health problems the last 20 years of his life.

    As a nurse I saw my share of people with lung and heart disease attributed directly to smoking and my argument to smoking family members who cited grandpa as an example/excuse to smoke was: he beat the odds but you probably won’t. The evidence is overwhelming.

  3. I really enjoyed your article. My grandfather was a dairy farmer and his story is similar. I had always wondered how he was so healthy till his old age being a dairy farmer. Your article cleared that right up. I get asked. These same questions all the time and it always stumps me. Now I fell confident in replying and starting strong in the Plant Based evidence.
    Thank you
    Host of the Whole Food Plant Based Cooking Show on Youtube.

    1. Jill, I am glad to hear the article was helpful. When I did my investigation with family members, it really did make so much sense. BTW. I just took a peek at your site, and it’s terrific!

  4. totally makes sense – I also think a very small portion of people have the magic genes. I don’t want to play that game. I am committed to a whole food plant based diet and I really appreciate your blog because through education I am stronger in my convictions. Thank you.

    1. Gina, I don’t want to play that game either–too dangerous and too much at stake. I love that my blog is making you stronger in your convictions!

  5. It’s true. My dad is 88 and had good health. He grew up farming. But says they only killed one chicken in Sundays. A man came by in a wagon with large milk canisters regulally and bought milk from them. And they would sell any cow they raised for income. So they really lived on mostly veggies.

  6. Yes, my mother grew up on a farm & ate all those foods & worked in the fields & garden. She is 95 but she only “lived” to age 90, two weeks after her 90th birthday she suffered a stroke & she has been “dying” for the last 5 years. She was very independent & has really hated her life for the most part these past 5 years

    1. I am so sorry about your mom. Her story strengthens my resolve to not just live longer, but to live better! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Great information; thanks for sharing! My family has “long living” genetics, but I, too, have seen the difference in daily health in those that partake of an all or mostly plant-based lifestyle, vs those that exist on meat and animal products. Another difference from our grandparents to us is the addition of processed foods, gmo’s, non-organic sprays and fertilizers, and such. So much of our food supply is completely different than that of our grandparents that it is difficult to compare. Our family strives for the natural, plant-based lifestyle and encourage others to try it, too.

  8. I truly believe that everybody has their time when we are going to go. But the question is what is the quality of life that they will have. If they eat lots of meat and dairy they will have lots of problems on the other hand if they eat WFPD they will be much more healthier and have a great quality of life however long their life will be .

  9. Terri, thank you for reposting this great article that debunked one of the questions that quiet so many who really do not know how to respond with facts like you have here. Your work is an example of “helping people understand the connection between diet and most disease encountered today”. I pray you continue to reach out and show by example that your diet today can improve your health tomorrow! You are doing a great work!

    1. Thank you, Greg! You are are an inspiration as well. So glad that our paths have crossed and hope we have more opportunities in the future.

  10. There are a small percentage of people whose genetic make up enable them to eat the Standard American Diet (SAD) and live long lives. These people are at the tail end of the normal distribution curve. People at the other end of the distribution are the group that have health problems at an early age and have shorter life spans. The great majority of us are in the center of the distribution and have all of the chronic health conditions associated with poor diets. The question is how lucky do you feel. Do you think that you are among the few tenths of a percent of the population that can eat anything? Are you willing to bet your future health on it? It is all about risk management. I believe that I am average and therefore I will stick with my Whole Foods Plant Based Diet with no added Salt, Oil or Sugar and reduce my risks as much as I can.

  11. The elderly of today didn’t begin eating the SAD or modern convenience foods until they were in their 40-50’s…so by the time they are 80, people just chalk heart issues & failing health to ‘old age’.

    Today in 2020, the young adults of 40-50 don’t know anything but SAD & convenience foods…they grew up on it & heart issues & failing health begins around 40-50yrs old. Their plaque began at birth vs w/ our elders it began much later.

    I have a mother in her 90’s, still going strong, but I would never look to her longevity as a blueprint for my lifespan. We lived totally different nutritional lives just because of the convenience foods of today.

  12. I like to respond by saying some people win the lottery, but most people don’t! Those that live a long life despite having unhealthy habits are the exceptions, the majority are not so lucky.

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