Last week, we looked at the sleeping habits of three study groups whose lifestyles roughly match up with the discovered living conditions of the Paleolithic period. What were these people doing while they were awake, you might ask? Like ancient tribes, they were hunting, gathering and eating a version of the Mediterranean diet — a diet rich in fish and vegetables. Of the members of the study groups, virtually none suffer from obesity and many live long lives. They also have no problems sleeping.
It stands to reason that a good diet may have something to do with these positive results. Now, a recent study by Columbia University published in the journal Neurology is taking it a bit further than that. Their findings suggest that a Mediterranean diet may improve brain health. They claim that having fish regularly, eating little meat, and consuming vegetables, legumes and nuts is good for your brain. People who follow such a diet slow down the aging process. Their eating habits may help forestall shrinkage of the brain for as long as five years; something that happens as we age and can lead to dementia.
However, not all experts agree.
"This study delves further into the potential benefits that diet could have, but it does not prove that a Mediterranean-style diet can stop your brain from shrinking as you age," says Dr. James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society.
People hoping to reduce their risk of developing dementia should also quit smoking, exercise regularly and keep their blood pressure low, he adds.
Even the authors of the study cautioned that their findings do not prove conclusively that the Mediterranean diet prevents brain shrinkage. It is merely what they call an "association."
Once again, conflicting or inconclusive information on nutrition has left us scratching our heads, wondering what to make of it all. One minute, experts have us tossing out the butter; the next, they are praising it as "good" fat. They first claim abstaining from drinking coffee is beneficial to our health, and before you know it, we can't get enough of its rich antioxidants.
No wonder folks get confused. No expert will dispute that diet and exercise are important to sustaining good health, but lack of scientific consensus makes it hard for us to count the ways. The only point of agreement seems to be that public health professionals can agree on very little.
Thank goodness they at least agree on one thing: Being fat is bad for you. Wait a minute. Hold the phone. I hate to break it to you, but we are now being told that some research suggests that being fat could be good for you.
A scientific review published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that being in the least-severe overweight category, meaning just a few ticks above what is considered normal weight, may actually reduce your chances of dying prematurely. Conversely, being in the lowest obesity category seems to have no effect on risk of death at all.
Not surprisingly, this study has more than a few critics. Scientists point out that those at the highest risk of death are the sick, and sick folks tend to lose weight, which could throw off projections. In addition, obese patients tend to get more focused care from doctors than many other categories of patients.
Turns out, the scientific go-round on this subject is even more complicated than that. Beyond the potentially protective effects of a little belly, the authors of the study suggest that being obese has been linked to higher survival rates for people who have heart failure and other cardiovascular problems. The problem with this conclusion, others say, is that it does not distinguish between symptom and cause. Obesity is just the most visible symptom of unhealthy eating and sitting too much. It is possible to be fit and fat at the same time, experts say. When examining obesity, you can't talk solely about fat, but must factor in the chronic health problems associated with diet and lack of exercise that are characteristic of people with this condition.
So what's to be gained by arguing about whether or not obesity is actually good for you? Not much. According to a thesis by Benjamin Spoer a Ph.D. student at NYU's College of Global Public Health, instead of worrying about our collective waistlines, we need to focus on making it possible for everyone to eat well and be active. If we do that, he says, obesity and its related health conditions should take care of themselves.
While debates similar to this one continue to fill many pages of the public discourse among health experts, there is important progress being made that should not go unnoticed.
According to the International Journal of Obesity, two large, long-term studies are making major strides in understanding the genetic basis of disease, specifically genes involved in susceptibility to obesity. Known as the Framingham Heart Study and the Women's Health Initiative, researchers have identified a common genetic variant related to self-reported time spent sitting. It is believed that understanding how genes, such as this one, interact with lifestyle characteristics could lead to determining which interventions are most effective in helping people achieve a healthy weight.
"Even deep among scientists, people underestimate the extent to which behavior is genetically controlled," says lead author Yann Klimentidis of the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.