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Is thin really in?

Remember "Thin Is In" from last year's July issue? According to a new U.S. government publication, "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," remaining thin throughout life may not be as desirable as most of us thought. "Being too thin is linked with ... greater risk of early death in both men and women," it warns. It goes on to say, "Recent research suggests that people can be a little heavier as they grow older without added risk to health."

Dr. Roy Walford, professor of pathology at the UCLA School of Medicine, takes an opposing view. In his book, The 120-Year Diet, he points out that when rats were allowed only 40 percent of the calories consumed by others put on an unrestricted diet, the restricted rats lived 50 percent longer than the unrestricted ones. Dr. Walford doesn't hold much hope that an equivalent age of 150 or so in humans is likely to be achieved through severe calorie restriction. However, he does believe that the average human being could live 30 to 50 years longer than his or her current life span.

Why this apparent controversy? Well, it seems that the authors of the government publication have been influenced by numerous studies showing that very thin people have shorter life spans than those who are moderately overweight. Others point out, however, that the studies in question can be misleading. If smokers, for example, are included in such studies, the fact that they tend to be thinner than nonsmokers must be taken into account, because smokers have a higher risk of death. Similarly, many illnesses cause people to lose weight before the underlying disease is diagnosed, and this may have been why some persons in the studies were thin. Their disease may have been unknown to the researchers, and the disease, rather than their thinness, may have caused earlier death.

Conversely, persons whose excess weight may have caused problems such as diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol are usually excluded from such studies. If one considers such factors, it is possible that the overweight group tends to live longer because it contains more healthy people than the thin group. Perhaps the best evidence in favor of thinness is to be found in the famous Framingham Heart Study. In this Massachusetts city, where the health of thousands of residents has been continuously monitored since 1948, the lowest risk of death is among people who are 11-to-20 percent below the average weight for people of the same height.

Dr. Walford is quick to point out that the rats in his study were put on their low-calorie diets from childhood. He does not recommend such a practice in humans. His diet is for adults only-and excludes pregnant or lactating women. Dr. Walford believes that the key to a longer, more disease-free life is to maintain one's weight at a level of 10-to-25 percent below what he calls the "personal set point." For most people, this is what they weighed at age 25 to 30-provided they weren't overweight then. He admits that the set point is not easy to determine. If it tends toward the lean side, the dieter should keep his or her weight loss nearer the 10 percent level, he says.

Following the diet is not easy, either; you may have to go down to 1,500 calories a day. Because Dr. Walford strongly advises going slowly-taking four to six years to get to the desired level-tremendous discipline is required, as well as vitamin and mineral supplements. And keep in mind that you simply may not be able to lose so much weight and to maintain the loss. Some people seemingly remain overweight no matter how they try.

Reubin Andres, the researcher at the National Institute on Aging who advocates gaining weight as you age, acknowledges that his advice is only for people who are "absolutely healthy." Dr. William Castelli, director of the Framingham Heart Study, thinks that Andres' advice is for no one. "The bottom line," he says, "is that if you gain weight from age 25 on, you're in big trouble."
COPYRIGHT 1991 Benjamin Franklin Literary & Medical Society, Inc.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Words:677
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