Saturday, April 08, 2006

Food critic, of course.

Be Merry, Not Ancient

By FRANK BRUNI

BECAUSE we all needed yet another set of rules to follow, because we had not yet been sufficiently bombarded with dictates about the colors of the fruits and vegetables we should eat and the ideal intake of alcohol and the optimal frequency of low-impact exercise, the Journal of the American Medical Association came along last week to tell us that serious calorie restriction might best serve the quest for a long, disease-free life.

The number of calories in the daily diets of some participants in this latest study was — gulp — 890. Which, by my nonscientific research, is less than the average teenage or adult American who lives within a half mile of a Burger King and has not had gastric bypass surgery consumes for dinner. That might be considered a helpful target, except that it's so ludicrously unattainable, in professions other than modeling and zip codes other than 90210, that there isn't anything helpful about it.

It's also hard to see the point of it. If living to 99 means forever cutting the porterhouse into eighths, swearing off the baked potato and putting the martini shaker into storage, then 85 sounds a whole lot better, and I'd ratchet that down to 79 to hold onto the Häagen-Dazs, along with a few shreds of spontaneity. It's a matter of priorities.

Do we really want as many years as we can get, no matter how we get them? At what point does the pursuit of an extended life — a pursuit that pivots on the debatable assumption that habit can outwit heredity, not to mention chance— become the entire business of a life? Is longevity all it's cracked up to be?

Scientists and medical doctors are certainly obsessed with it, charting a tedious path of pleasures assiduously portioned and rituals steadfastly maintained. Cut back on caffeine. Stop after a glass and a half of red wine. Make an enemy of red meat. Make friends with flossing — which, it turns out, may have benefits that go beyond admirable dental hygiene to the prevention of heart disease and diabetes.

Month after month brings study after study, and the only thing more addling than keeping track of all the information is resolving the contradictions it seems to contain.

Take the matter of weight. If memory serves me (it may not, given my failure to toe the line on wine) and a Nexis search isn't failing me, we received a different set of instructions just a year ago.

Last April, a study also published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, more commonly known as the Journal of Utterly Mixed Signals, demonstrated a correlation between being very thin and an increased risk of death. The study indicated that people who are overweight but not obese might be better off, at least in terms of attaining the coveted status and Pensacola retirement home of the nonagenarian.

I'm no expert on metabolism, but I bet that the 890-calorie-a-day diet followed by some participants in the new study would lead, over time, to a condition that looks an awful lot like extreme thinness. So what should I have for breakfast? A cup of low-fat yogurt or a salt bagel with a schmear?

Yes, I'm painting with a broad brush; the studies in question are more nuanced and less definitive than I'm making them out to be. The cap of 890 calories a day was a short-term fix, not a long-term prison. There might be allowances, down the road, for a Whopper with cheese. Followed, of course, by some vigorous flossing and a brisk 40-minute walk.

But the larger point remains. We are awash in behavioral strictures, many of them conflicting.

After years of being schooled in the transcendent virtues of low-fat diets, we were informed two months ago — in, you guessed it, the Journal of the American Medical Association — that this education might be flawed. An eight-year, $415 million federal study of nearly 49,000 women found that those who maintained low-fat diets had the same rates of breast cancer, colon cancer and heart attacks as those who ate what they wanted.

So, I'll have that bagel with a schmear, but not simply because one study among many gave me a green light, at least for the moment. I'll have it because it makes me happy, which has to count for something.

And even if the new study is wrong and the old studies were right and the schmear robs me of some time on the tail end of my days, I may not have enough money in my 401(k) to go the full distance, and I'm definitely not counting on Social Security to pick up the slack.

Which raises additional concerns. What happens to all of us, as a society, if 100 becomes the new 80? Plastic surgeons may get even richer and the populations of Florida and Arizona may swell, but will pension funds still be there for us? Will prescription drug benefits?

Each of us can individually hunker down for the long haul, squirreling away our money instead of spending it on hedonistic vacations, exercising faithfully so that our limbs stay as limber as our nipped-and-tucked faces are taut. But doesn't the quality of our days matter as much as the quantity of them?

Pondering this question, I riffled through some obituaries.

Richard Burton died at 58 — no doubt fewer years than he or anyone else would want — but wasn't his a swashbuckling, gallivanting life that was in many ways worth envying, Liz or no Liz?

Strom Thurmond died at 100. "In those last years," according to the obituary by Adam Clymer in The New York Times, "he had to be helped onto the Senate floor by aides, who also told him, in voices audible in the Senate gallery, how to vote."

Of course neither man planned it that way, and that may be the most important lesson of all.

We can't really predict tomorrow. We can't guarantee its arrival with a specified number of calories or a given allotment of sleep, with milligrams of dark chocolate or ounces of fiber. But we can often determine the measure of joy we wring out of today.

I also riffled through a book of quotations and immediately found this proverb: "He lives long who lives well." I don't think those last two words are really about blueberries, broccoli and green tea. And I'm not sure the first three are about anything as literal and prosaic as a tally of years.

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