Sometimes, the most important news is not on the front page. Such is the case with the disturbing story about resveratrol that I found buried deep inside Thursday’s Globe Life section. Resveratrol is the magic ingredient that makes red wine so healthful. It protects your neurons from decay and your heart from bad cholesterol, and is even credited with lengthening your life. “Those misguided teetotallers,” I often mutter as I pour myself another glass.
But now, it turns out that a leading resveratrol researcher has been accused of faking his research. The university that employs him has laid out its case in a 60,000-page report. There goes the wine drinker’s favourite alibi. There goes the one thing I actually enjoyed doing to improve my health.
The improvement of one’s health has become the chief imperative of modern life. Anyone who fails to monitor and regulate her LDL, her HDL, her blood pressure, her lipids, her bone density and her BMI is judged to be shockingly negligent (and no doubt a future burden to the system). If any of these vital indicators are too high or too low, a responsible person will take steps to fix it. If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, then eternal vigilance is also the price of health. Each day brings fresh advice from experts to increase my flavonoids, decrease my sodium, detox my dinner party, ingest more whole grains, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, tone my triceps and exercise about a hundred times more than I want to.
“This is discouraging,” I told my girlfriend the other day. We were on the stationary bikes in the gym, going up and down imaginary hills. After 20 minutes of awfully hard work, I had burned up 138 calories, according to the computer. It also reported my distance, my RPMs, my heart rate and my wattage. (I can pedal hard enough to power a none-too-bright light bulb.) After we were done, we restored ourselves with cappuccinos and chocolate-covered biscotti.
Everyone says exercise is good for you, but I’m not so sure. My grandma’s idea of exercise was a stately walk around the block with her dachshunds as she urged them to do their duty. Today, someone my grandma’s age (me) is expected to run marathons and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, or at the very least go in for Bikram yoga. But I know these things can backfire. A friend ran marathons until her toenails turned black and fell off. Another friend got altitude sickness, whose symptoms are too unpleasant to describe.
Even yoga can be dangerous. In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, an incredibly detailed article described how even the fittest people can wreck their bodies doing yoga. The road to inner harmony is paved with slipped discs, degenerated hip sockets, torn Achilles tendons, even strokes. One master practitioner was quoted as saying that “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether.
As someone who never managed to progress beyond the Downward Dog, I found this news incredibly heartening. For years, I’ve felt vaguely guilty about not doing yoga. But now I realize I may have saved my life! No doubt other things that are bad for your health will turn out to be good things, and vice versa. Today’s health wisdom has a way of becoming tomorrow’s bunk. It’s even possible that everything we think we know about fat is wrong, too. That’s the view of science writer Gary Taubes. He argues that obesity is not the result of eating too much food and sitting around too much. Instead, it’s ultimately the result of a hormonal imbalance caused by ingesting way too many carbs.
This may help explain why all the standard diet and exercise advice is worthless. Eating less doesn’t work, because whatever weight you lose will almost invariably come back, and then some. Exercise doesn’t work, either, because it hardly burns up any calories, and you just work up an appetite. Yet, as Mr. Taubes says in Why We Get Fat, “faith in the health benefit of physical activity is now so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that it’s often considered the one fact in the controversial science of health and lifestyle that must never be questioned.”
Countless research studies prove that, for most of us, exercise and diet don’t result in long-term weight loss. And yet the public-health nannies continue to dispense their completely useless advice, then blame us when it doesn’t work. Obviously, it’s our fault for not trying hard enough.
So is the obesity epidemic irreversible? Are you and I doomed to live with our expanding middles? Maybe not. Mr. Taubes counsels the Atkins approach. Stop counting calories. Eat lots of fat, meat, protein and leafy greens. Cut out the white flour, sugar, soda and starchy veg, and exercise strictly for fun. This approach appeals to me because I like meat and hate counting calories. Also you’re allowed to drink red wine, an essential part of any diet even if resveratrol is a crock. Especially when consumed on a comfy couch with someone nice. The road to inner harmony and health is different for us all. And that’s mine.