We observe a long-lived dining protocol in our household that involves steamed broccoli and speed. Once the cruciferous treat lands on your plate, you are at liberty to dig in. No small talk, no appreciation of the presentation, no mindful engagement with the gastronomic moment. Eat it before it gets cold.
I’ve never quite understood why broccoli tends to chill more quickly than, say, green beans or kale, but new research suggests that slowing down enough to actually smell that broccoli — or whatever else is on your plate — could help you live a little longer.
There’s a catch, of course: Enjoying the mealtime aromas only extends your lifespan if you limit what you put on your plate.
Scientists for years have been pointing to reduced-calorie diets as a key to longevity, an epiphany that has produced all manner of laughable initiatives but little in the way of explanation beyond vague allusions to some sort of metabolic magic. Last week, however, a team of researchers from Florida Atlantic University (FAU) released the results of a study suggesting that a process called autophagy may be key to slowing the aging process.
Cellular autophagy essentially works to clean up the body’s metabolic debris while opening a communication channel between the gut and the brain. When the process occurs in the GI tract and in the olfactory neurons, cutting your calories can extend your life, explains lead study author Kailiang Jia, PhD, an associate professor of biological science at FAU.
“If you want to extend the lifespan of any animal, after limiting their diet, you have to have functional autophagy in this animal, otherwise you won’t see this lifespan-extending effect,” Jia said in a statement. “This is especially true for autophagy in the olfactory neuron, since it appears that it mediates this effect for the smell of food. Autophagy in the GI tract also is required for this lifespan-extension mechanism, which indicates that the nutrients we absorb into the GI tract also regulates autophagy and, in turn, controls the aging process.”
In other words, the autophagy that I hope occurs while I’m smelling my fast-cooling broccoli triggers my olfactory neurons to tell my brain to ease up on the whole aging thing. This may be difficult for nonscientists to picture, so I like to imagine that the aroma of the tepid florets somehow inspires a sympathetic response at the cellular level, as compassionate neurons travel to parts of my cerebellum that store memories of cold, limp stalks and lobby for some compensation on the aging front.
I don’t need that kind of neuronal assistance when I’m staring at a steaming bowl of clam chowder or a sizzling piece of bacon, so I figure the years I’m losing by wolfing down the unsmelled broccoli are probably countered by the years I’m gaining by any olfactory engagement I’m able to manage with other less heat-challenged dishes.
At least I hope so. I’m familiar with the many benefits of mindful eating, and I have long subscribed to the notion that living completely in the present moment is one of the most reliable routes to a satisfying life — and a lovely dining experience. But steamed broccoli doesn’t play by the rules. I don’t care how many years it may cost me; put it on my plate and it’ll be gone before you know it.