By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Magazine
Britain's oldest woman Florence Baldwin, who turns 113 on Tuesday, puts her longevity down to a daily fried egg sandwich. It's one of many dietary tips from those who have reached three figures.
Everyone wants to live to a ripe old age - and it doesn't take a dietary expert to know that eating healthily does that ambition no harm.
But ask anyone who has actually reached the magic 100 how they got there, and their dietary tips don't always square with the official advice. So we asked Dr Elisabeth Weichselbaum, of the British Nutrition Foundation, to cast an eye over a selection of centenarians' staples.
1. HERRING AND ORANGE JUICE
Dutch woman Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper, who lived to the ripe old age of 115, swore her longevity was down to a daily dose of herring and a glass of orange juice.
Herring is a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, "which are really good for your heart and the whole cardiovascular system," says Dr Weichselbaum. "And that can help you avoid heart attacks for a long time."
"Orange juice - if you only drink a glass a day - provides you with Vitamin C and a lot of antioxidants."
The traditional mealtime exhortation to "eat your greens" has the ultimate champion - "120-year-old" Israeli Arab Mariam Amash, who has allegedly notched up six score years thanks to lots of vegetables.
No admonishment from Dr Weichselbaum, who says: "Green vegetables provide you a lot of important vitamins and minerals like iron and carotene and dietary fibre, and vegetables reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Make sure you eat a full range of coloured vegetables in a balanced diet."
3. CUSTARD CAKES
One out of left-field by Japanese centenarian Mitoyo Kawate, who ascribed some of her 114 years to a regular intake of custard cakes. Japanese custard's health-giving qualities (we're basically talking a straight-up-and-down recipe of sugar, water, butter and vanilla extract) do not figure prominently in the world's good eating guides. An oversight?
Herring aid: Fish gets the thumbs up
The brow of Dr Weichselbaum furrows: "It depends on how many she'd eaten. It's probably not the custard cakes that made her live so long, but if it was as part of a balanced diet then there's no need to cut out the sweets."
Mrs Kawate, it appears, has gone to her grave giving custard the credit for all the hard work green tea and sashimi were doing.
There's no shortage of volunteers happy to lay the secret of a long life on the odd tipple. Lucy d'Abreu, for instance, who passed away in Scotland aged 113, believed it was her "customary sun-downer of brandy and dry ginger ale" that helped her avoid an early death.
According to Dr Weichselbaum, alcohol in moderation "has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease but it can increase the risk of some forms of cancer." Perhaps it was the ginger ale...
5. SAUSAGE IN BREAD
Rural Ukrainian Hryhoriy Nestor's greatest extravagance was a slice of sausage in a bread roll - he ate a simple diet of home-made food like cabbage and sausage and warm potato and herring. He never married and led an active life on his farm in the west of Ukraine to the last.
Dr Weichselbaum is resistant to the suggestion of sausage as a lifesaver. "I would say eat processed meat in moderation - eat sausages in moderation in a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables."
6. BREAD, DRIPPING, SALT
Yorkshirewoman Ada Mason's longevity tip is a one-woman two-fingered salute to the healthy-eating brigade. She lived to 111 thanks to "eating bread and dripping every day - lots of it with lots of salt on," according to her grand-daughter.
"In this case I'd say if she ate a lot of this she managed to become 111 despite the dripping and salt," exclaims Dr Weichselbaum. "Dripping is not only pure fat but high in saturated fats which raises the risks of heart disease, and the lots of salt leads to high blood pressure which is also a heart disease risk."
The traditional Scottish breakfast has many a cheerleader in the healthy eating camp, and Scot Annie Knight was no stranger to an oat-based start to the day - she claimed it helped her reach the age of 111.
Mariam Amash: Champion greens eater
"Food like this should make up a third of our diet," says Dr Weichselbaum. "Porridge is a great source of fibre - and if you have it with milk it's a great source of calcium too."
8. BOILED RICE AND CHICKEN
No booze for retired silkworm breeder Yukichi Chuganji, who lasted until the respectable age of 114 despite an aversion to vegetables. Meat and milk were on the list, but his favoured dish was boiled rice with pieces of chicken.
"Rice is a great source of starch, and if it's wholemeal rice it's a very good source of fibre, vitamins and minerals," says Dr Weichselbaum. But she adds: "It is important to have a variety of vegetables in your diet." That's you told, Mr Chuganji.
9. COTTAGE CHEESE
Sakhan Dosova is, Kazakhstani authorities say, the world's oldest woman. She has allegedly just turned 130 - a good 16 years older than the next-oldest person on the list. She stays away from sweets and instead is partial to cottage cheese.
"Cottage cheese is a good source of calcium, which is great for your bones and teeth," says Dr Weichselbaum. "Its fat content is relatively low compared to other cheeses - it contains about half of the fat you find in cheddar cheese. I can't really comment on bacterial strains they may have used in this region."
10. DONKEY MILK
You might have a to wait a while to find this in the aisle of your local Tesco, but apparently Ecuadorian Maria Esther de Capovilla's age of 116 was down to her regularly drinking the milk from the family donkey as a child.
Cue the sound of heads being scratched at the British Nutrition Foundation... "I can't really comment on this," Dr Weichselbaum admits.
• But how crucial is diet to a long life? Experts agree that the food you eat can only go so far in affecting your life span.
Dr Aubrey de Grey, whose Methuselah Foundation is funding research into regenerative medicine for aging through stem cell and gene therapy research, cautions against adopting the centenarian diet plan wholesale.
Eating sausages is not a traditional key to a long life
"My favourite answer is one given by the person who has lived the longest, Jeanne Louise Calment. She was asked what's your secret every year for years from a million journalists. When she was 120 she said it was because she gave up smoking - when she was 117!
"The problem is we don't really know. There are things we know shorten your life, such as smoking and if you're overweight."
The average number of people dying at, for instance, the age of 85, is less today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. But people now living to a grand old age - 100 years and over - are doing so thanks to things in early life, such as their mother's good nutrition when carrying them and lack of stress in very early life, says Dr de Grey.
It's these early factors which are likely to have the most dramatic effect, rather than popping supplements and cod liver oil, he says.
Good food and exercise only build on the start we get in life. And even if it may not be as important as what happened very early on, Dr de Grey says, the members of this long-lived club also seem to share another trait.
"If there's one thing we can say about centenarians, it's that nothing bothers them."
Below is a selection of your comments.
I believe it's genetic. I'm told I look young for my age, as do my two grown-up children. They both eat very healthily. I don't eat red meat by choice, I do eat fish/chicken on the odd occasion and don't drink. Have recently given up smoking and feel better for it.
I am sure that none of them ate a grim diet "that is good for you". It seems they all ate a simple, local traditional diet they enjoyed.
Ash, Atlanta, Georgia
Something I've noticed with people who live a very long time, is they all say they eat or drink the same thing each day. Just look at the list. So maybe it is not what they are eating, but that they have it regularly. Maybe the body can tune into a diet that has some central staples in it.
However you look at it, people who live into their 100s are statistical anomalies. So while some may have smoked or eaten lots of saturated fat, think how many more people failed to live to 70, let alone 100, because of their unhealthy lifestyles.
Jonathan, Didcot, UK
I always despair at this question. Just think of all the first-hand experiences, historic events and technological developments these people must have witnessed in their lives, and the only question the media can ever think to ask them when they hit the ton is "What do you put your old age down to?". What about "What was your earliest memory?", "What can you remember of the early 20th century monarchs?", "What was your role in the wars?", "What do you think is the most important event in your lifetime?" etc. Infinitely more interesting answers would result I'm sure.
All we hear these days is the constant rantings from the so called "experts" on how this is bad for you, this is really bad, this will kill you, don't eat this, don't drink that etc etc etc. Well I have always eaten and drank what ever I like and taken no notice of these experts due to the fact that I have that little thing called common sense. Toast and dripping is still one of my favourites. There's a clue to my age.
Kevthebrit, Rochester MN USA
We are stuck with what we are born with. It's possible to influence our lifespan by eating well, taking exercise etc; or by eating rubbish, smoking and drinking to excess. But I believe these influences are marginal.
Leonard Elwell, Telford
My grandad, lived till he was 109 (he was in the Guinness book of records as Britain's oldest man in 1996) and swore by a daily drink of whiskey, orange juice and honey. He was a steam train driver in his working years so all the pollution from the coal etc didn't seem to bother him.
Iona Livesey, Manchester
The examples of Mason' dripping and Calment's smoking habit simply proves that genes are as big a factor in a person's lifespan as their diet/exercise/habits/etc. Some people can just simply live on processed foods and still live for a lengthy amount of time whilst some people are eating healthy, exercising regularly etc. only to die at a worryingly young age in comparison. Life's very unfair like that, and it shows that we should just enjoy and cherish it, no matter how long it lasts.
WAW, Shetland Isles
My grandfather used to have either two boiled eggs or a full English including fried bread for breakfast everyday. He used to say to us when we were children 'I had two chickens for breakfast'. He died at the age of 90 from an aneurysm -not natural causes which was sad. I think he could have gone on for at least another 20 years or so he was so fit.
D Avery, Bushey UK
I have a long-lived family and although some have died from cancer or heart disease most died whilst in their 90s of old age. Your genetic make up must also play a factor in how long you live.
These stories are fabulous but the main ingredient is missing and to me the best that is LAUGHTER. It visibly knocks years off your face.
Noeleen Butler, Finchley, London UK