Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Major Lifestyle Dilemma

Healthy at 100 by John Robbins is a fascinating book that describes the lifestyles of some of the world's longest-living cultures. The book describes how the Abkhasians of the Caucasus Mountains, the Vilcabambans of Ecuador and the Hunzans of Pakistan live to a very old age while enjoying full physical and mental health . Their secrets are centered around lifestyle, especially a healthy diet. The table to the left taken from Robbins’ book shows that these cultures consumed a mainly plant-based diet, with relatively few calories, and a low percentage of total calories from protein and fat. Salt and sugar consumption was also low.

A friend recently referred me to a book with a similar theme, secrets of long-lived people, titled The Blue Zone by Dan Buettner, which I have not yet read. The table shows that all three cultures Robbins examined lived primarily on a plant-based diet, ate little or no animal foods, kept their fat consumption at 20% of total calories or under, and consumed just under 2,000 calories per day.

I had occasion to look at this table again a few days ago and started comparing my lifestyle to that of the three cultures in Robbin's book. I line up pretty well except for total calories consumed per day. My average since started to measure it with CRON-O-Meter (February 7 - April 23, 2009) is about 2300 calories per day. The three cultures consumed between 1800 and 1900 calories per day, 400-500 calories (approximately 22%) less.

Is this a big deal? Does this mean I am doomed to live less than 100 years? Will this discrepancy affect my health? I am not sure, but my real dilemma is that I love to exercise a lot. When I train I usually ride hard for 2-4 hours. In season, I train 12-18 hours per week. My average calorie consumption per day has jumped to almost 2700 in April mainly because I have stepped up my bike training and am burning lots more calories. My natural hunger has increased. I am surprised that my calorie consumption is not much higher, given how much cycling I do.

These additional calories have not caused a weight gain, nor have I lost significant weight. I remain at 169 -170 on most days, which is about the same weight I had when I was a teenager playing high school football and in later years when I was doing long distance running. Joel Fuhrman, M.D. argues that one's ideal weight is dependent on many variables and that there is no magic formula for determining it. In responding to a question about how to measure one's ideal weight, his answer was, " .....when calculating your ideal weight, lots of factors may come into play besides this. Maybe your bone and muscle mass, your family structure and how much you weighed when you were in your late teens or early 20's and so on. It is not an exact science, so take your best guess."

But, there is research that points to the fact that individuals who restrict their calories, keep their BMI (Body Mass Index) low, between 18.5 and 22.5, and who exercise moderately, rather than vigorously and plentifully (like me), tend to live longer. I will document some this research in future posts. There is also research (which I will also document later) that points to the fact that too much exercise can harm one's immune system and make one more susceptible to illnesses, maybe including cancer. A nutritionist recently pointed me to some research concluding that an individual with a 22 Body Mass Index who consumes 1800 calories per day, will likely live longer than another individual with a 22 Body Mass Index who consumes 2800 calories per day.

So, does vigorous athletic training shorten life span? Does it potentially harm health? If a person loves to train for running marathons, or bike centuries or even Ironman Triathlons are they compromising their health and potential longevity? If the answer is yes, then this poses a major dilemma, a sort of Hobson's Choice. My initial reaction to this dilemma is that I would rather enjoy life and live a somewhat shorter life. Life without long distance bike riding would be of significantly lower quality for me.

I am going to continue to research this fascinating, and somewhat disconcerting, question and will write more in the future.


kneecap said...

Are you taller than average?

kneecap said...

That intake is pretty similar to what I do when I behave myself. :)

Howard Veit said...

I am 5'11". To get to a 22.5 BMI I need to get to 161 lbs. Most days I am at 169.

Vegan Mothering said...

Interesting post. I think there really is something to the calorie restriction.

Overall, how do you feel? If exercising vigorously is something you love and enjoy and isn't impeding your short-term health, I don't think your long-term health is much of an issue, because clearly you are doing all that you can to eat healthfully and make other positive lifestyle choices.

I am really enjoying your blog, btw.

Howard Veit said...

Vegan Mothering,

Thanks for your comments. I feel great. I agree with you that when we do "all we can do" we need to let the chips fall where they may. I can't imagine giving up long distance cycling based on the theory that the extra effort and the extra calories may shorten my life.

The "all we can do" approach to taking charge of our health is what keeps me away from doctors also. Why have a periodic annual physical and get all those periodic tests when, regardless of what they tell me, it is unlikely I will take RXs or do anything different.

An acute illness is another matter all together.

I just checked out your Blog. I'll be a regular visitor.