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Is it possible to stay strong as we age – or are we doomed to a life in which each birthday leaves us feeling a little weaker, a little less resilient and a little more exhausted?

These may seem like existential questions best pondered late at night over a glass of wine, but there’s really no need for all that brooding, says John La Puma, MD, founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Medical Nutrition and Healthy Weight. As far as he’s concerned, the answers have already been made clear.

La Puma treats people for the very symptoms that plague successful, aging Americans – exhaustion, obesity and cardiovascular problems – and he says he has found that whether you age with increasing fatigue or whether you stay strong is almost entirely influenced by exercise and diet.

Of course, he also knows that most Americans are loath to adjust their diets to include healthier foods. That’s why La Puma put himself through cooking school and is now helping people eat not just healthfully, but deliciously, too. The recipes he developed through his medical and culinary training can be found in Cooking the RealAge Way (HarperCollins, 2003), a cookbook he and Michael F. Roizen, MD, released in conjunction with their RealAge program of healthy living.

“Many people are overworked and sleep deprived. And they kind of feel as though taking blood pressure medicine, having your joints hurt and not sleeping as well are all just expected aspects of aging,” says La Puma. “But they’re not. We’re lulled into thinking that feeling this way is normal because other people around us seem to feel this way and have the same complaints. However, you can and probably should expect to feel better.”

It’s easier for us to believe that our daily choices affect our well-being, La Puma notes, when we see dramatic examples, like the documentary Super Size Me, in which the formerly healthy subject gains 30 pounds in 30 days eating only fast food. “He ends up with liver damage, early warning signs of cardiac damage, and so on,” says La Puma.

In real life, he notes, most of us don’t experience those sudden extremes. Rather, “that buildup of energy-zapping food occurs over time, quietly, and carries no drama with it whatsoever – until you end up in your doctor’s office with a diagnosis you don’t want.”

A perfect example, La Puma says, would be a high-powered executive he recently treated for a whole constellation of unpleasant symptoms – high blood pressure, a large waist, high blood sugar, low healthy-cholesterol levels, and so on – all of which significantly increased his risk of heart attack or stroke.

“He came to me because he wanted to lose weight,” La Puma recalls. “At the time, he was drinking three bottles of wine a week, eating croissants for breakfast and steak for dinner. He was a top executive, and I told him that if he changed what he ate, he would have more energy to make deals and would be able to control his medical problems. First, I got him to sit down for 10 minutes in his beautiful home every morning and eat a breakfast high in bran, switching back and forth between steel-cut oats he cooked himself and high-fiber boxed breakfast cereals such as Kashi GoLean and Fiber One.

“I also asked him to stop drinking as much,” says La Puma. “With just those two changes, he lost 6 pounds in six weeks and started sleeping better. It really surprised him. But it didn’t surprise me. I told him if he wanted to go further, he needed to learn to do a couple of simple things in the kitchen. Now, this is a guy who can afford to have a private chef 24/7, but there are simply some things that no one else can do for you. He needed to learn. So I gave him our book and told him to pick out a recipe and try it.

“After about 12 weeks of experimenting with the recipes, a couple of interesting things began to happen,” La Puma continues. “One, his wife became interested in cooking again – she had stopped once their kids left home. But because he had taken the initiative, it was no longer about feeding the kids, it was about trying to be healthy together. After 12 weeks, he lost 18 pounds, and she lost 3 pounds as well, though she didn’t need to.”

Soon, the couple was cooking all sorts of things from La Puma’s cookbook, such as the delicious mushroom and polenta recipe reprinted here.

“A year later, he had lost 50 pounds and was on lower doses of all his medicines,” notes La Puma. “He tells me: ‘You know, John, I have the energy of a 30-year-old. I didn’t believe I could do this.’ And this is a guy who could do anything in the business world.”

“Learning a little bit,” La Puma says, “can go a long way for all of us. Small changes make a difference, and nothing makes as much difference as cooking.”

Golden Polenta With Exotic Mushroom Ragout

Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Serves four

3 1/2 cups low-salt chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup (6 ounces) cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
2 tsp. olive oil
1/2 cup sliced shallots or chopped yellow onion
1 1/2 cups thickly sliced carrots
2 packages (4 ounces each) mixed sliced exotic mushrooms (a combination of crimini, oyster and shiitake)
1 1/2 cups (4 ounces) sliced button or crimini mushrooms
2 tbs. dry sherry
1 tbs. chopped fresh thyme or 1 tsp. dried
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (2 ounces) crumbled herbed feta or herbed goat cheese

To prepare polenta, combine 3 cups broth and cornmeal in a large saucepan. Mix well with a wire whisk. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, whisking occasionally. Simmer uncovered over low heat 15 to 18 minutes, or until very thick, whisking frequently. Remove from heat; cover and keep warm.

Place a large, deep skillet over medium heat until hot. Add oil, then shallots and carrots; sauté five minutes. Add mushrooms; sauté five minutes. Add remaining 1/2 cup broth, sherry, thyme, salt and pepper. Simmer uncovered five minutes, or until carrots are tender, stirring occasionally.

Spread polenta over four warmed serving plates. Top with mushroom ragout and cheese. Garnish with additional chopped fresh thyme and freshly ground black pepper, if desired.

Recipe excerpted from Cooking the RealAge Way by Michael F. Roizen, MD, and John La Puma, MD (HarperCollins, 2003).

Nutritional Analysis of Golden Polenta with Exotic Mushroom Ragout

274 calories per serving, 29 percent from fat

Total Fat (g) 8.9 Sodium (mg) 782 Vitamin A (RE) 36
Fat calories (kc) 80 Calcium (mg) 89 Beta-carotene (RE) 0.4
Cholesterol (mg) 13.3 Magnesium (mg) 32 Vitamin C (mg) 6
Saturated fat (g) 2.9 Zinc (mg) 1.6 Vitamin E (mg) 0.55
Polyunsaturated fat (g) 1.0 Selenium (mcg) 0 Thiamin B1 (mg) 0.2
Monounsaturated fat (g) 3.0 Potassium (mcg) 611 Riboflavin B2 (mg) 0.6
Fiber (g) 3.6 Flavonoids (mg) 0.7 Niacin B3 (mg) 7.0
Carbohydrates (g) 40.6 Lycopene (mg) 0 Vitamin B6 (mg) 0.3
Sugar (g) 2.2 Fish (oz) 0 Folic acid (mcg) 51
Protein (g) 11.9 Nuts (oz) 0 Vitamin B12 (mcg) 0.

Substitutions: If sliced exotic mushrooms (a combination of crimini, oyster and shiitake mushrooms) are not available, substitute 8 ounces of fresh shiitake mushrooms. Save the tough stems for stock, and slice the caps for the dish. Cubed unpeeled sweet potatoes — Garnets are some of the sweetest — can substitute for carrots.

Tips: Look for exotic mushrooms in the produce section of your supermarket. Mushroom stock — homemade or purchased — adds depth and flavor. For even more intensity, find mushroom soy sauce. The authors love Pearl River brand for it’s deep, dark layers of flavor.

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