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Small Good News: Skinny Monkeys Might Want a Second Helping

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Those underfed, longer-lived skinny monkeys are the hit medical story of the moment because they eat less and live longer, and what works for them might work for us, which is all we really care about.

Calorie-restriction diets have been around for a long time. Periodically, someone with concave cheekbones and cadaverous eye sockets who is not a twenty-year-old celebrity with an eating disorder steps forward to endorse the notion that less is more when it comes to food and mortality, and scientists have been working the idea with lower life forms, rats and worms and the like, since the 1930s. But now we have primates, whom some of us consider to be distant cousins, and experts in white coats, and formal data, to make the case for never again ordering a latte or, heaven forfend, using a piece of toast to mop up the remnants of that scrambled egg.

Makes me hungry just to think about it.

Anyhow, the really cool thing about the new 20-year-study is that some broadcasting wag asked the quality-of-life question: Are those old skinny monkeys happy? Or would they gladly trade in their extra months or years for the chance to sit down to a meal that wasn't designed with a calorie calculator and a measuring cup?

A disclaimer before we go any further: I avoid fast food, I eschew high-fructose corn syrup, I want to weep when I see children so heavy and sedentary that they can barely move, and the diabetes epidemic is on my short list of public health nightmares. I do not endorse emotional eating, but to live the rest of my life without a single bite of summer rhubarb and strawberry pie? An early adopter of restricted calories once described to me his Thanksgiving dinner of weighed and measured skinless poached turkey breast and steamed vegetables - which convinced me only that excess restraint is as marginal a behavior as binge eating.

The point here is that someone thought to challenge the results of a medical study, even in jest, a good thing, in this era of pharmaceutical companies as big as small countries and a boomer population that's finding out just how invincible we aren't.

So let's look at the monkeys some more, just to get our analytical juices flowing. First off, it's nowhere near a sure thing. About 37 percent of the regular eaters died of age-related ailments, as opposed to only 13 percent of the restricted eaters. But what about that unlucky 13 percent, the ones who moved on to that big jungle in the sky without ever sneaking a second banana for dessert. All that self-denial and no reward. How cheated did they feel?

And how come 13 percent of the skinnies failed to profit from the regimen? Everyone has an enviable friend who eats like the proverbial horse and never seems to gain an ounce, and a food-challenged friend who gains weight walking past a bakery. We don't know what role metabolism plays, or genetics. Until we have a better understanding of the other variables, it might be a bit much to ask us to forego foods we love, forever.

Remember, there were endless studies in the early days of hormone replacement therapy that credited it with everything from smoother skin to stronger bones to sharper minds, and we all know how that one turned out.

Maybe the healthiest thing we can do is raise an eyebrow and demand more answers before we go off half-cocked and two-thirds fed. Moderation in all things is a harder regimen to maintain than a more absolutist diet, but it feeds us in ways that caloric restriction or its antonym, face-stuffing, never can: It allows us to experience the real pleasures of the table, which have as much to do with sitting down with family and friends as with the food we share. Until those skinny monkeys convince me that they're happy as can be, I'm taking the latest news with a grain - not more than a grain, because too much can lead to blood pressure problems - of salt.

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