The Granny Diet

Nanny in her kitchen

My grandma in her kitchen. How would you like to look this good at 91?
(Photo by Brianna McGurran)

NANNY IS A KNOCKOUT. She will tell you she was more beautiful when she was younger, but don’t listen. Her short white hair, flecked with silver, pops against her creamy olive skin. She’s got bright almond eyes and cheekbones to die for. She may be 91, but she could easily be 65.

She likes to look good. “I won’t go out without makeup. Sometimes I put some on just to go to the mailbox,” she says. She was born Anne Marie Mastellone, but to me she’ll always be Nanny. She’s my grandma. And she’s the healthiest person I know.

But why is she in such great shape? My mom, who works at a cardiologist’s office, sees patients much younger than Nanny who take 30 or 40 pills a day. Why is the only medication on my grandma’s bedside table a bottle of baby Aspirin?

Nanny has a theory: her diet. She didn’t get it from a book or a magazine article or a segment on “Oprah.” It’s what she’s always known, and it happens to be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Nanny grew up in Washington Heights, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Her father and uncle owned a fruit and vegetable market on Gansevoort Street, and Mastellone Brothers Produce kept the family well-fed and well-heeled through the Depression.

“They had a damn good business,” Nanny recalls on a recent Saturday afternoon in her cozy living room on Long Island. “We really ate well. That’s why Mama was heavy.”

Nanny’s mother, my great-grandmother, cooked elaborate Italian meals almost exclusively with fresh food from the Gansevoort Market stalls, and Nanny picked up pointers along the way. Throughout her life, she has stuck to a few golden diet rules. And that’s the main reason she’s in such good shape.

“I think what’s kept me alive is olive oil and garlic and tomatoes. And all vegetables, green vegetables,” she says.

She steers clear of bread and most processed food — she doesn’t trust the ingredients.

“Where is this FDA?” she says. “I think they’re jerking off, in plain English.”

And she doesn’t drink alcohol. Not like she used to, when she and her friends would walk all the way to the West Village from Washington Heights to go dancing until 4 or 5 in the morning. “Everything in moderation” is her motto when it comes to indulgences like sweets and booze.

“Once in a while I’ll have a little sherry,” she says. “I like a little sherry.”

I wanted a window into an exceptionally healthy 91-year-old’s routine. I asked Nanny to write down everything she ate for a week. She typed it on her iMac and printed it out for me before I showed up to interview her. Here’s what an average day looks like:

• • • • •

• 6:00 a.m. Coffee with two Anisette Toast biscotti
• 9:00 a.m. Slice of toasted cinnamon raisin bread with orange marmalade, glass of orange juice
1:00 p.m. Cheese crepe with peach slices, glass of apple juice
• 6:30 p.m. Chicken cutlet, mashed potatoes, boiled zucchini drizzled with olive oil and garlic powder, tomato salad with olive oil and garlic powder
• 10:00 p.m. Tea with a slice of Entenmann’s pound cake

• • • • •

All of her rules are there: at least four servings of fruits and vegetables a day, lots of olive oil and garlic and enough sweets so she doesn’t feel like she’s depriving herself. She also eats often, a little bit at a time.

I call some experts to figure out just why all of these habits are good for you. Nutritionist Ruth Frechman says the timing of Nanny’s meals helps her stay slim.

“From a weight standpoint it’s better to eat smaller, less frequent meals,” she says. “It maintains the blood sugar level so you don’t get too starving.”

One of Nanny’s favorite lunches is a cheese crepe, made with one egg and two slices of white American cheese.

And all of those fruits and vegetables let Nanny feel satisfied for longer, says Boston University nutrition professor Joan Salge-Blake.

“Having more fruit and vegetables in your diet can help you feel full at your meals without over-consuming your calories,” she says. “A higher intake can help you better manage your weight because they’re full of fiber and water.”

But what about that cinnamon raisin bread and pound cake? Eating sweets isn’t such a big deal as long as you’re keeping it in check, says Salge-Blake.

“It really depends upon the amount that you’re having and your calorie needs,” she says. “The problem comes when you’re sitting down and having an entire box of cookies or eating an entire cake.”

Diet might be the biggest reason why Nanny is healthy, but she stays that way because she wants to keep participating in the life going on around her. She’s optimistic and intellectually curious and she keeps up with current events. She’s active on Facebook. She watches awards shows.

Nanny also loves politics. During our visit she tells me she is keeping a close eye on the upcoming congressional races.

“I want Congress to go back to the Dems,” she says. “That keeps me going.”

She looks at me meaningfully. “And also to see if I ever get great-grandchildren.” ■

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