Stay out of the sun, they used to say, and be ever vigilant about every calorie and fat gram. Wanna live forever? Stay inside on the couch and sip water, fret about radiation. That never made a lot of sense to me. It seemed like you'd just miss everything and end up pale and skinny.
Even from those who were being paid big bucks to convince us to always do the right thing, the payoffs they projected for a lifetime of food denial and lifestyle caution looked mighty skimpy. Stay ceaselessly on track, keep off the weight, give up decades of juicy charcoaled New York Strips and super-sized midnight pizzas with extra pepperoni and, according to a report in March in the New England Journal of Medicine, what you get in the end is a jackpot of four extra months. Instead of 82 years and six months, it's 82 years and 10 months, and those last four months are no picnic.
The good news is now there's been some high-level recalculation. Aside from faculty fights over whether the president of the school is a pig, the big news out of Harvard is that a top research team has concluded that sunshine is a real cancer-beater, and, as icing on the cake, the new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that plump and hefty kills off fewer Americans each year than puny and skinny.
In what the Associated Press is calling a "startling new calculation" by the CDC's statisticians, white and bony turns out to be significantly more lethal than fat and tan. Healthwise, in short, a quick spin in the noonday sun over to Bruster's Ice Cream in the convertible for some Chocolate Lover's Trash might well be less hazardous than being holed up inside with a Perrier.
What Harvard researchers found was that sunshine and vitamin D appear to help people who've had surgery for early-stage lung cancer. Patients who had surgery in sunny July and had high intakes of vitamin D before the operation were twice as likely to pass the five-year survival mark as those who had low intakes of vitamin D prior to surgeries in low-sun December.
"This study showed a pretty strong relationship between seasons and vitamin D intake and disease-free and overall survival," explains Dr. David Christiani, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.
With weight, the new analysis from the CDC states that "obesity" causes an estimated 112,000 premature deaths per year in the United States, but that "overweight" is preventing 86,000 deaths per year. With fat, in short, it all depends on how much: too much is bad, but some is better than none. By definition, a 5-foot-8 person weighing 180 pounds is classified as "overweight," while a 5-foot-8 person weighing 215 pounds is considered "obese."
At the other end of the scale, the CDC reports that 34,000 premature deaths occur per year in the United States because of weights below normal. Trim and thin, in other words, is killing more Americans than a healthy amount of flab.
As by way of comparison, the CDC's new numbers show that below-normal body weights in the United States are responsible for a death toll, each year, that's over 10 times bigger than the total number of Americans killed in the attacks of September 11.
What's odd about all this is that the Agriculture Department rolled out its new MyPyramid, which is really TheirPyramid, at exactly the same time that the CDC was saying that "overweight" is saving all those thousands of lives per year. The MyPyramid contraption is one of those things the government comes up with from time to time in order to get us to eat more nuts and berries and look like what Tom Wolfe called "social x-rays" in The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Explaining MyPyramid's bells and whistles, Eric M. Bost at Agriculture, the Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, warned that 65 percent of American adults, ages 20 to 74, are too fat. In point of fact, more than half of that government-targeted 65 percent are "overweight," but not "obese," the exact weight classification that the CDC is saying is responsible for stopping 86,000 American deaths per year.
The Agriculture Department, in short, is saying we should die sooner, if we're to believe the CDC's numbers, by moving from "overweight" to "normal." So what's the deal? The right hand in D.C. doesn't know what the left hand is doing? Or is this their new way to save Social Security, by way of larger amounts of dead and skinny boomers?