October has brought chilly weather to the northern hemisphere, and our bodies have just one thing on their minds. No, not that. I'm talking about getting fat. Luckily for us, the holiday season begins at the end of the month with that feast of food, frights, and foolishness known as Hallowe'en. In honour of which, I present this salute to overeating.
Here's a newsflash: we Americans have the broadest bums on the planet and we're getting fatter all the time. This probably doesn't surprise anybody with a pair of eyeballs. Even if you're unobservant, news stories about oversized coffins, bigger seats in movies theatres, and fat people having to buy two plane tickets to accommodate their bulk should clue you in. The government and various 'concerned scientists' have decided to weigh in (heh, heh) on this hefty issue (heh, heh, heh), with much hand-wringing and finger-pointing all around. In case we've missed the point, they're letting us know that we're lard-butts because we eat too much and exercise too little.
Imagine that. Overeating makes you fat. Who knew? Apparently not the folks who have been suing McDonald's for selling them food that tastes good and makes them want to eat more. Perhaps they want food that tastes bad? To date the lawsuits have been dismissed - on the grounds that McDonald's isn't force-feeding anyone - and we (and the lawyers' bank accounts) keeping on growing.
'My weight is always perfect for my height, which varies.'
- Sylvia by Nicole Hollander
Anyway, I shouldn't make light of this (chuckle, snort). We're definitely bigger, which wouldn't be so bad, but we're also a lot less healthy as a result. Our super-sized meals serve up hefty portions of heart disease, stroke and cancer on the side. Diabetes is epidemic in the United States. Even our pets are fat, if the appearance of low-calorie pet foods in the supermarket is any indication.
This makes me suspicious. Pets!? Do they sit in front of the TV, remote control in one paw and a bag of chips in the other? I don't think so. Something else is going on - (Conspiracy Theory Alert!). I think a hostile nation has perfected the stealth fat cell. It sneaks up on us while we're asleep and attaches itself to our thighs. Eventually we'll waddle ourselves to death, or we'll sink the continent. Canadians, you'd better stock up on life preservers. We Americans, on the other hand, will be fine because fat floats.
Our forebears would no doubt be disgusted by this - they had to worry about getting enough to eat and certainly didn't regard food as their enemy.
While a lot of us worry about the effects of recreational eating, a few determined individuals are trying to live forever and are prepared to starve themselves if necessary.
'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.'
- Woody Allen
We humans have been seeking immortality since the day we realized death wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Our efforts have ranged from heroic and poignant to downright wacky. Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon hacked his way through what would become the state of Florida in search of the 'Fountain of Youth', which was rumoured to be in the recently-discovered New World. The rumour apparently was baseless, Florida now being home to 'gators, geezers1 and hanging chads. For those who don't know, a 'hanging chad' isn't anything obscene, but it is an indicator of 'voterus interruptus'. Thanks to a surfeit of hanging chads, George W Bush was named President of the US, and (sarcastic political comment alert) we've been taking it in the shorts ever since.
Where was I? Right: immortality. In the pursuit of same, humans have ingested all sorts of dubious items: elixirs of jade, radioactive waters, crushed dog gonads. In recent years the Food Police have been encouraging us to eat diets rich in fruits and vegetables and to cut back on things like meat, candy, and alcohol. This is known as the 'If It Tastes Good, Spit It Out' diet. Unfortunately for those of us who like to eat, it appears that the only promising way to pursue a longer life is by pretty much starving oneself to death.
In many studies done over the years, researchers have extended both the average lifespan and maximum lifespan of every species they've studied by keeping the critters hungry. The animals being studied are fed a low-calorie but highly nutritious diet, with the total calories somewhere around 65% of normal. Not only do they live longer, the calorie-restricted animals are much healthier as well. Researchers have noted that they2 are active and very interested in their meals. Well, yeah - the little boogers are hungry. The big question for us humans is whether cutting way back on our food intake would similarly benefit us. There are currently studies underway to test the effect of calorie restriction (CR) on primates. Final results won't be available for many years, given the long lives of most primates, but preliminary results corroborate findings in other species, and scientists conclude that CR is most likely to work in humans as well.
CR may or may not make your life any longer, but it will certainly make it feel that way. It takes a special mindset to voluntarily remain hungry for the rest of your life. And what about the poor folks who have to live with you? Remember, Julius Caesar was killed by the 'lean and hungry' guys, not their roly-poly buddies who were more interested in finding the nearest banquet than running the country.
'Inside every skinny woman is a fat woman crying for some .'
What about the 99.9% of us that find the idea of a never-ending diet unbearable? Is there any hope for us?
Well, maybe. Some researchers are hoping that by studying hungry monkeys they can find a way to provide all the health benefits of CR while allowing us to inhale all the pizza and beer we want. New research suggests that the low insulin levels caused by CR diets are responsible for the increased longevity rather than the caloric restriction itself. So far one scientist has identified a compound that affects the PPAR-Delta receptor in the body's cells and improves its response to insulin and glucose. The compound is now in early testing by Glaxo.
More Information Than You Probably Want
If I can be serious for a moment, the one thing that research into obesity and longevity has taught us is that obesity is a complex condition, and controlling it isn't simply a matter of getting up from the dining table and hitting the gym. Our weight is determined by our genetic makeup (blame our forebears) as well as our behaviour. People who claim to gain weight simply by looking at a candy bar are probably telling the truth. Adding insult to injury, the overweight are often the butt (no pun intended) of jokes and the victims of discrimination and unfair treatment.
Here are some links about obesity, longevity research, and - just for fun - chads.
- The American Federation for Aging Research provides information on calorie restriction and how it affects the aging process.
- The American Obesity Association, an advocacy group, provides the latest information on obesity research.
- If you and your pet are both looking a little chunky, why not take Fido for a run?
- A computer science professor from the University of Iowa has created a Web page devoted to hanging chads, dimpled chads, pregnant chads, chad jams, and just-plain-ol' chads. Who says computer geeks don't have a sense of humour?