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Recent history links diet and health

Published September 12. 2011 08:28AM

"The world does not require so much to be informed as reminded."

Yes, I've used that quotation by Hannah More in a column or two before, which is exactly why I'm using it again. At the end of every summer, you see, I devote a couple of days to reading or at least skimming all the printouts and photocopies crammed in the 100 or so manila folders that house the health and fitness info that fuels this column.

The folders' titles can be as trivial as "Telomeres," as expected as "Exercise," or as unusual as "Idebenone," but as I read each, the goal is the same: to eliminate the outdated or no-longer-needed material. This year, however, I realized that some of the old stuff is still good stuff, that helpful information really has no expiration date.

And then I remembered that line about those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it and penned this column.


If there's one health and fitness constant that you should be reminded of on a consistent basis, it's that there's an inexorable link between what you eat and your health even if you exercise regularly. If this sounds too obvious, you probably aren't old enough to remember the running boom in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Back then, many claimed to run long distances not only for their health but also for the "runner's high," a secretion of endorphins that creates a euphoria similar to using morphine, heroine, and cocaine since they also trigger the same secretion.

But for many the real running high was the pig out they allowed themselves afterwards. Even at a moderate pace, running long distances burns tons of calories, so many people running 50 or 60 or 70 miles a week could eat whatever and in large amounts and still look super fit.

That included Jim Fixx, the guy who lost 50 pounds at the age of 35 by running long distances and became the unofficial spokesman for the running boom. His 1977 book, The Complete Book of Running, spent 11 weeks as the New York Times number-one bestseller and has sold more than one million copies to date.

Fixx is the guy who repeatedly quoted doctor Thomas Bassler on talk shows and at conferences, saying any nonsmoker who could run a marathon in four hours would never die from a heart attack. The guy who called Nathan Pritikin about "Run and Die on the American Diet," a chapter in Pritikin's book, Diet for Runners, and complained because Fixx was sure it wasn't true. And who once ate four donuts moments before a speaking engagement and explained to the other slated speaker that he did so because he hadn't had time for a proper breakfast.

Guys like Fixx were why Dr. Dean Ornish's "Lifestyle Heart Research," which also began in 1977, became so crucial. It battled the exercise-a-lot-to-eat-anything-you-want mentality in reverse. It demonstrated severe coronary heart disease could be reversed through lifestyle changes, including moderate exercise and especially a healthy diet.

By February 1984, Ornish had published Stress, Diet, & Your Health, a book that chronicled this groundbreaking research and clearly established that proper eating staved off disease and was essential to optimal health.

By July 1984, Jim Fixx had, in essence, done the same. That's when the guy, who used to boast that he could eat two desserts with any meal and not gain weight, died in the middle of a run from a massive heart attack.

Although Fixx's death shocked the running community, it was still seen as a bit of an aberration. After all, Fixx had been a heavy smoker until he took up running in middle age, and there was a history of heart disease in the family.

Furthermore, the diet that Ornish advocated in his eventual New York Times bestseller, Eat More, Weight Less, limited fat so severely and featured grains, vegetables, and fruits so prominently that many people sad to say preferred drugs or surgery to following that diet.

That's why further studies, such as the one published in the August 2003 issue of Journal of the American Medical Association about cutting cholesterol by diet alone, were so helpful. They reinforced that Ornish had been right, albeit a bit draconian for the typical fast-food fan.

In the study, 46 men and women with high cholesterol levels adhered to one of three diets: a low-fat diet that permitted some meat, the same low-fat diet with a daily 20 milligrams of the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin, or a low-fat vegetarian diet. In one month, the group using lovastatin dropped their LDL or "bad" cholesterol level by an average of 30.9 percent.

Yet the vegetarian group nearly matched that without the use of drugs, reducing their LDLs by 28.6 percent.

The difference was slight enough for the medical world to declare a draw, and more and more medicos began to believe that many drugs commonly prescribed really didn't need to be if people began to use food as medicine.

Read next week's column for more history that shows the inexorable link between what you eat and your health as well as some stats that speak volumes about America's health.

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