"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Food: The Crazies Could Be Right (part 1)

Whenever athletes stop talking about training and start talking about nutrition, I stop listening. I've always believed that, as long as you got all essential nutrients in adequate amounts, it doesn't matter how you get them; there is nothing you can swallow that will make you faster. Then I had to make an exception for carbohydrate loading. Then I had to accept that ketogenic diets might work well for ultradistances. Now, while it won't make you run faster, there is some tantalizing evidence that there is a diet that can substantially reduce the risks of several common ailments that shorten lifespan.

In 1972, Alexander Leaf wrote in National Geographic about three areas that were storied for how long people lived. He investigated them and found that they had several things in common: they were in remote mountainous areas, the societies revered the elderly, people were physically active and they ate a diet that was barely adequate in calories and was low in protein, low in fat and nearly vegan. Further studies found that the ages of people were exaggerated in these places, but they did seem to live longer than their near neighbors. The exact reasons for this increased longevity could not be determined.

A generation later, Dan Buettner did a similar study and found several areas he termed "Blue Zones" where people commonly lived long healthy lives. Instead of thinking of what similarities they had, his idea was that there were multiple strategies for life extension and that each of these had something different to teach. The first problems I saw in the work stem from chaos theory and from ecology; if people of great age are randomly distributed, there will be artificial "islands" of old people clustered together and it only a mathematical quirk; also, there are "island effects" - there is greater genetic drift in isolated populations and what is true for these groups may not be true for larger populations. For example, there is a village in Italy where heart disease is almost unknown and people live a long time though they eat what cardiologists would consider a very poor diet for heart health; those who live the longest are all descendants of a Danish ancestor (last name Bau) who appears to have had a mutation that is protective against heart disease and diabetes - what works for them will not work for you.

The one commonality of all these groups was diet: low calorie, low fat, low protein, nearly vegan. How much of this is coincidental and how much necessary? Because of an ever-growing number of animal studies that showed that near-starvation diets increased longevity, it was becoming commonplace to believe that it was strictly a matter of calories. Only recently has there been a study where caloric restriction did not work and that may hold the key to what is really important. Being eternally hungry has never seemed like a good answer, especially when you consider People like Jack LaLanne and Joe Weider.
LaLanne - lived to 96

Weider - lived to 93
Though late in life, LaLanne changed what he said people should eat, most of his life he advocated a lot of natural food and a lot of protein. Weider made a career of selling supplements to bodybuilders, especially protein powders. Were they just exceptions, or is there a way to combine such widely disparate ideas?

I'm beginning to think there is.

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