Travesty : Taylor Townsend, the number one ranked junior girls’ tennis player in the world, the reigning Australian Open singles champion and the junior Wimbledon doubles champion, and last Thursday she won two matches at the U.S. Open’s junior tournament, was recently forced to pay her own way to a tournament because “her coaches had declined to finance any tournament appearances until she lost weight.” Even though she was performing at a consistently high level they not only refused to pay her expenses but demanded that she drop out of the girls’ nationals competition earlier this summer and “embark on a more strenuous fitness program” to focus on losing weight. She withdrew. Ultimately the USTA cited health concerns saying their priorities are Townsend’s ”long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player.” But is her health really in jeopardy?
According to new research, the answer is pretty definitively no. But Townsend’s case highlights the disconnect between what we think we know to be true about diet, exercise and weight and what the research is actually telling us. Three research studies over the past few weeks dispute the conventional wisdom and previous research and have basically made gray matter explode in scientific brains all over the country.
I know, I know, research scientists contradict each other as often as magazines cite “a friend close to the couple” when reporting salacious rumors (definition of “friend”: someone who does not spread salacious rumors to gossip mags). But these studies going down are some of the granddaddies of research on the subject and some of the most cited, reported and repeated.
To begin, let’s agree on our end goal: To live a long, productive life with as many healthy years in there as possible. (Disagree? Feel free to tell me your end goal in the comments.) The trick of course is how to achieve that. On the surface it’s simple: Don’t fight a land war in Asia! Wax on/wax off! Fail to plan, plan to fail! This is what bumper stickers were invented for. But when you eliminate the obviously deadly stuff like smoking, drugs and texting while driving you’re left with a nuanced glut of information that leaves you with more questions than answers. Enter science. Prepare your brain to pop.
What you think you know: Calorie restriction by any means extends life and health. (Or: Calories and weight loss is just simple math.)
New research: What you eat is more important than how little you eat . (Or: All calories are not created equal.)
In the realm inhabited by lab coats, mice and regression analyses it takes a lot for something to become iconic but if science really does mirror art then the rhesus monkey studies are the Andy Warhol painting John Lennon singing Amazing Grace of scientific literature. (Do I win for worst analogy you’ve read all day? Not yet? Keep reading, I’ll try harder.) For the past 30 years scientists have been monitoring two different studies looking at the effects of mild starvation in rhesus monkeys. And for the past 29 years they’ve been concluding that the underfed monkeys lived longer than their sated counterparts. These studies have been the basis for dozens of diet plans, the launch pad for other studies and the entire ideology of the Calorie Restriction Movement (yeah, there is such a thing).
The problem is that now that the studies are completed, a confounding variable has been discovered and it changed everything. The monkeys in the studies were fed different diets. The first study used a refined diet – the Ramen noodles of monkey food, if you will. The second study used a more natural monkey diet. What they found was that the natural hippie monkeys lived way longer than their processed-food peers, regardless of caloric intake. “In physics, a calorie is a calorie,” says one of the researchers. “In nutrition and animal physiology, there is more and more data coming out that says that the state of the animal is going to depend more on where the calories are coming from.”
Another interesting finding was that while the researchers were able to extend the monkeys’ lifespans somewhat, they had much more control over their “healthspan” or healthy years of life. So you may not necessarily be able to control how long you live but the years you have will be healthier.
The good news: You don’t have to starve yourself to be really healthy. The bad news: the big problem with the Ramen monkeys? Too much sugar in their diets. So this may be a case where you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
What you think you know: Your workouts need to be sweat fests to be effective
New research: People who exercise moderately live longer than people who don’t exercise and people who exercise a lot.
Moderation – the bane of my existence! Yet again my old foe extremity has come back to haunt me. According to two new studies – one a case study, one longitudinal – there is definitely a “sweet spot” for exercise.
The good news: A little goes a long way; You don’t have to kill yourself working out to increase your health and longevity! The bad news: Um, oops…
What you think you know: Overweight and obese people are less healthy and more likely to die than their normal weight peers.
New research: Overweight and mildly obese people have better health outcomes in fighting disease than do their lighter peers.
Actually this research isn’t super new nor is it the first study to come to this conclusion but people seem to still be perpetually shocked by it. Carrying a few extra pounds (extra as defined by the BMI scale) may actually be protective of our health. The New York Times writes of the so-called “obesity paradox”:
The Times piece sites several more studies:
The clincher (for those of you about to argue that surviving illness is not the same as living longer or healthier):
Flegal was actually so reviled for reporting the conclusions of her research that it took her years to even find anyone who would publish it. She became a pariah in the scientific community. But I think the most telling piece – both of the emerging research and the attitudes toward it – lies in the headline change of the Times article. Currently it is entitled “In Obesity Paradox Thinner May Mean Sicker” but according to the URL it was originally titled “More Data Suggests Fitness Matters More Than Weight.” Same findings, subtle shift in slant.
The good news: “Whatever the explanation for the obesity paradox turns out to be, most experts agree that the data cast an uncertain light on the role of body fat. “Maintaining fitness is good and maintaining low weight is good,” Dr. Lavie said. “But if you had to go off one, it looks like it’s more important to maintain your fitness than your leanness. Fitness looks a little bit more protective.”
The bad news: That is a message that may take a long time to reach your family physician, however. “Paradigm shifts take time,” Ms. Bacon said. “They also take courage. Not many people are willing to challenge the weight conventions. They’re just too culturally embedded, and the risk of going against convention is too high.”
Taken together I think these three studies not only show the how misguided Townsend’s coaches are but also paint a very interesting picture of what it means to be healthy and what direction our public health policies should take. Instead of focusing on weight loss (and the attendant fat shaming), we should be encouraging people to eat unprocessed whole foods and exercise moderately. It sounds so simple when put like that. Where’s my bumper sticker?!
What do you think of Townsend’s case – have you ever been punished for gaining weight? I have lots of scientist readers (love you guys!) – did I miss anything or misinterpret anything? What do we need to do to get people to internalize the message that the thin-at-all-costs mentality is literally killing us?