Why Do Seventh-Day Adventists Live Longer Than Most Americans?

Britta Pedersen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

I was reheating some leftover cottage cheese loaf the other morning, savoring the phrase “cottage cheese loaf” as I anticipated its delicious, savory crunch, when I wondered if anyone had written a love letter to this or other classic Seventh-Day Adventist dishes.

My wife made this loaf. She grew up Seventh-Day Adventist and introduced me to what I call #LoafLife. Although her parents left the denomination by the time she was 14, much of its community-mindedness stayed with them, along with its food. A healthy diet and exercise are central Adventist tenets, because the group believes in a relationship between physical and spiritual health. This often means vegetarianism. My wife didn’t eat meat regularly until high school, and even after that, she’s always eaten it conservatively. The family’s love of vegetables and salads remains strong. They still make the veggies piled on chips called Adventist haystacks. They still make oatmeal-walnut patties. The cottage cheese loaf is a simple mixture of chopped onions, walnuts, parsley, salt, pepper, butter, and cottage cheese bound together with eggs and Wheaties for a nice wholesome texture.

To learn more about the ideas that produced so many wonderful meals for me, a non-practicing Jew, I did some sleuthing and found a few illuminating articles about the Seventh-Day Adventist diet. Howard Markel wrote a good short Smithsonian article entitled “The Secret Ingredient in Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Is Seventh-Day Adventism.” But my favorite is journalist Emily Esfahani Smith‘s 2013 Atlantic piece “The Lovely Hill: Where People Live Longer and Happier.

Smith focuses on Loma Linda, California, which has one of America’s largest Seventh-Day Adventist communities and, not surprisingly, is known for the health and longevity of its residents. For the Biblical origins of the sect’s dietary practices, Smith quotes Pastor Randy Roberts of Loma Linda University: “In Corinthians, Paul speaking of the human body says specifically, ‘you are the temple of the Holy spirit.’ Therefore, he says, whatever you do in your body, you do it to the honor, the glory and the praise of God.”

Interestingly, the diet closely resembles the Mediterranean diet. Smith includes some incredible findings about the benefits of eating nuts, avoiding fast food, and the role meat plays in heath:

Adventist men who do not eat meat outlive American men by seven years. Adventist women who do not eat meat outlive American women by five years. Many Adventists do not eat meat, but even those that do outlive their peers thanks to the amount of vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods they eat. Meat-eating Adventist men live 7.3 years longer while the women live 4.4 years longer than other Californians.

But the correlation between diet and health goes beyond the body, also impacting depression and a nurturing sense of positive well-being:

Ford and her team at Loma Linda University examined the eating patterns of over 9,000 healthy Seventh-Day Adventists in North America over a four-year period. How often did they eat fast food? Did they eat meat? What kinds of dairy products were they consuming? What about nuts? Desserts? Fish? They then examined their self-reported feelings of positive and negative emotions—how often did they feel inspired? Excited? Enthusiastic? Upset? Scared? Distressed?

The researchers found that those who eat like Greeks feel more inspired, alert, excited, active, inspired, determined, attentive, proud, and enthusiastic than those who consume a more typically American diet consisting of highly processed foods, soda, and sweets like cookies and doughnuts. People who eat foods associated with a Mediterranean diet also experienced less negative emotions like being afraid, nervous, upset, irritable, scared, hostile, and distressed. The more people ate those foods that are more typically American — specifically, red meat, sweets, and fast food — the less of these positive emotions they felt.

Smith describes a Loma Linda centenarian named Marge Jetton whose gusto is impossible not to envy, even if you’d rather not share her diet or schedule.

At 100 years old, Jetton, a former nurse, would wake up at 4.30 am each morning. After getting dressed and reading from the Bible, she would work out. When she completed her mile-long walk and 6-8 miles on the stationary bike, she had oatmeal for breakfast. For lunch, she would mix up some raw vegetables and fruit. Occasionally, she would splurge on a treat like waffles made from soy and garbanzo beans. That wasn’t all. The centenarian volunteered regularly, barreled around town in her Cadillac Seville, and pumped iron. She also tended to a garden that grew tomatoes, corn, and hydrangeas.

I’ve always known my wife would outlive me, and not just because I’m older and exercise less —meaning, almost never — but because vegetarian dishes are her comfort foods. Old habits are hard to break: In my family, comfort food is Oklahoma country food like biscuits and gravy, cream pie, and the Sonoran-style Mexican food we grew up on in southern Arizona. For my wife, comfort food is cottage cheese loaf, haystacks, and oatmeal-walnut patties. Although I’ve eaten pretty healthily since college, my time eating her family’s Adventist holdovers has only made me see how much room my lifestyle has for improvement. This particular morning loaf and Atlantic article made me realize that, in midlife, I need to catch up with my wife’s enviable standards of self-care. I’ve been slacking during the last decade.

I was a vegetarian for three years in college, and a vegan for one, so my palate is primed for the Adventist nutty-loafy-patty menu. I shopped on Craigslist for a used stationary bike, I researched machines to make homemade soy milk, and I made a pact to eat less meat and way more tofu. She was like: Duh, I already do.

I always loved the loaf for its flavor, but now it’s a gateway to healthier habits that would likely please Seventh-Day Adventist co-founder Ellen G. White. And when my wife asks, “Want to make cottage cheese loaf this week?” I always say “Hell, yes.” No religious reference intended — I’m just a cursing heathen who wants to live a long life.

Read the story