Man finds long life nibble by nibble

Bob Kay eats 15 to 20 times a day. The 79-year-old attributes his health to the eating habit.

October 26, 2010 

PHILADELPHIA -- Bob Kay was not planning to reform his diet. He was just lazy.

Fourteen years ago, when a live-in relationship broke up, Kay became a full-fledged bachelor. Making big meals for himself was too tedious and time-consuming, so the busy psychiatrist began feeding himself by nibbling, noshing and grazing. In short order, the practice became habitual.

Today, Kay, 79, has completely forsaken the conventional three squares a day. Instead, he eats 15 to 20 times a day, grazing and nibbling in the manner of our primordial ancestors.

He eats a wide range of foods -- vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, nuts, meat and fish -- and his diet is based on no particular model or principle other than eating what he likes.

"I eat what primates eat," Kay says. "I eat a good deal of protein because that's what monkeys are supposed to do."

Not that Kay is a monkey or aspires to be one. Indeed, his opinion of evolution and how far we're removed from our putative simian roots is irrelevant. What matters is this:

"I feel good," Kay said.

Over the years, Kay has kept an eye open for scientific evidence that supports the virtue of his peculiar mode of nutrition: a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that nibbling reduced cholesterol; a Columbia University study showing that a bountiful plate or table encourages overeating; a book ("Health Secrets of the Stone Age, by Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.) that postulates that nibbling might inhibit a hormone (ghrelin) that drives appetite.

But to Kay, who does not profess to be an expert on diet and nutrition, the most interesting and persuasive case study is close at hand -- himself.

His philosophy: "If one person survives on the nibbling paradigm, that's all you need to know."

Actually, Kay is more than surviving; he's thriving.

Since becoming a nibbler, Kay has shed 25 pounds. His current weight: a trim 152 (maintained in part by four to five half-hour sessions at the gym each week).

His blood pressure also has dropped significantly, and the angina that used to strike once a week now afflicts him every two months. Despite a family history of cardiovascular disease, he takes no medication these days, and feels the better for it.

In eating frequently throughout the day, Kay is following a practice advocated by proponents of so-called paleo, caveman or Stone Age diets. Many athletes and bodybuilders also believe in the benefits of numerous small meals rather than the conventional "big three." Devotees of the Body for Life program, for example, have been able to fashion spectacularly lean physiques in 12 weeks by eating at least six times a day. Such a routine not only suppresses cravings but also stabilizes blood sugar and insulin levels, factors in diabetes and the accumulation of fat.

Typically, Kay begins his day about 7 a.m. with coffee, half a glass of orange juice, and a hard-boiled egg, sans yolk.

At 11 a.m., he might eat a bowl of lettuce, topped with wheat germ, ketchup or honey mustard sauce.

At 2 p.m., perhaps some precooked fish bits, broccoli and another hard-boiled egg.

At 5 p.m., a slice of turkey ham and a baked potato.

From 8 to 10 p.m., he indulges in "serious grazing," snacking every 15 minutes or so on such foods as hummus, broccoli, polenta, cherry tomatoes, oranges, dried fruits (dates, prunes, raisins), seeds and nuts and, for dessert, yogurt balls covered with chocolate liqueur or a bit of ice cream.

He spends no more than 10 minutes a day in the kitchen, he notes proudly.

Other favorite foods: whitefish salad, smoked oysters, sardines, rare steak, avocados, sauerkraut, coleslaw, olives, beans, olive oil, yogurt, oatmeal, rice pudding, and chocolate-covered espresso beans or blueberries.

He drinks small amounts of water, as well as green tea, milk, wine and chocolate liqueur. Twice a week, he treats himself to two full meals, usually one at a buffet restaurant, the other at a friend's house. He tries to avoid animal fats, and in the course of a year, he'll allow himself only two servings of french fries and five slices of pizza.

He is not alone. He compliments his lady friend for being "flexible" and becoming a nibbler as well.

But the likelihood of sparking a nibbling revolution, he acknowledges, is remote. Sitting down to a big meal is not just about ingesting nutrients; it's also a social rite, embedded universally in human culture and tradition.

On the other hand, there's what Kay calls "the happy housewife issue."

"I speculate," he said with professorial gravity, "that there would be a lot more happy housewives if they didn't feel obliged to produce three square meals a day."

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