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Heavy for a gardener, but not for a 52 year-old American

Friend of Rant Christopher C of Outside Clyde is the rare exception that proves the rule: He grows beautiful vegetables, but feels inept cooking them. (Must send you some cookbooks, Christopher!) But most vegetable gardeners live for the kitchen. They grow the tomatoes because they want to make the homemade sauce. They have the basil the size of boxwoods because they want to produce the perfect pesto on a whim. The really crazy ones–me–even grow the dried peas for the hummus and the dried beans for the chili. Yes, this effort is ridiculous when even organic dried legumes cost nothing, but my own do taste better. Vegetable gardeners are ruled by their palates.

Despite this intense interest in food, however, most of the vegetable gardeners I know look pretty terrific, at least compared to the people in your average shopping mall. We get a lot of exercise. We may not have it all perfectly balanced, especially in a good tomato year–I threw a party last weekend with a total storm of food from my garden, and the first thing my mother did when she walked in the door was to ask why I’m so “heavy”–but it’s generally a system that hums along without a lot of artery clogging or fat accumulation. Exhaust yourself weeding and mulching, cook fabulous meal, eat what you want, exhaust yourself weeding and mulching.

So I cannot tell you how ANNOYED I have been over the years by the supposed scientific evidence that the key to longevity is near-starvation. I know a few truly skinny people, the ones who don’t seem to like to eat, and they do not exhibit the glow of people who dine on sunshine and soil, or rather, on plants grown in the sun and good garden soil, where as many as a million different species of bacteria in every gram are contributing various enchantments to one’s food that will soon, I am betting, be confirmed in the laboratory as essential to good health.

I was so delighted this week therefore to read in the New York Times about a long-awaited major study of rhesus monkeys that found that severely restricting their diets did not prolong their lives, as the “surprised and disappointed” researchers had expected.  All it did was make the monkeys’ lives less joyful.

Of course, there is always something to be annoyed about in the world of science, since far too few scientists are gardeners. And I was intensely annoyed by an recent op-ed piece titled “Debunking the Hunter-Gatherer Workout” by anthropologist Herman Pontzer. Pontzer writes about a study he conducted with some colleagues of the Hadza people of Tanzania, one of the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherer cultures.  The researchers used very precise biological markers of daily energy expenditures and found, surprisingly, that despite covering miles and miles of terrain every day, the average Hadza burned no more calories per day than the average American, even after questions of body mass were accounted for.

The theory is that the Hadza expend fewer calories on the basic processes of cell metabolism, which allows them the energy for physical activity–that across cultures, our bodies generally burn the same number of calories no matter what and just grow more efficient with greater exertion. Pontzer believes this study debunks the idea that our national obesity problem is due to inactivity. He sees fatness therefore as purely a function of diet–it’s not that we don’t move enough, it’s that we eat too much. “Physical activity,” he writes, “is very important for maintaining physical and mental health, but we aren’t going to Jazzercise our way out of the obesity epidemic.”

On the surface, that statement is ridiculous. How many fit people do you know who are obese?

But even if he’s right, even if exercise won’t make us slim, maybe it’s still better for our bodies, our minds, our appearance, our morale, our yards, our world, for the inner processes that prop us up to be conducted so sleekly and efficiently that we have energy to expend outwards. Fortunately, as a counter-balance to the depressing Pontzer, we have Andy Coghlan, whose piece in this week’s NewScientist argues that exercise is “the best medicine.”  He writes

A plethora of recent studies shows that exercise protects us from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.  It even boosts memory.  And it has the potential to prevent more premature deaths than any other single treatment, with none of the side effects of actual medication.

So, in the interest of preventing my own premature death–and the premature deaths of the people I love–I intend to continue to be heavily engaged in two activities, gardening and eating, until the day some 45 years hence that I keel over in a patch of parsnips. And I promise you, I will enjoy many, many great meals along the way.


Posted by

on August 31, 2012 at 11:12 am, in the category Eat This, Feed Me.

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  • Amen! I don’t know much about the Hazda, but in my life I’ve known many people who engage in a lot of heavy physical activity – some for a living and others for a vocation. And those people EAT. And, mostly, they have been pretty fit, though some have had issues with cigarettes, alcohol, etc. There’s a reason for sayings like, “He eats like a longshoreman.” Of course, it matters what and how much we eat, but I can’t imagine anyone can be healthy without a decent amount of exercise.

    Jason 30th June 2017 3:11 am
  • My sister is the avid vegetable gardener in the family. She has extended her garden later into fall and earlier in the spring via covering some of her plants.

    Wendy Sykora 1st July 2017 2:23 am
  • Oh, definitely too much pasta and wine and not enough running this summer. An excellent tomato year in my part of the world! But moral support from a blonde bombshell in her 60’s is always much appreciated.

    Michele Owens 4th July 2017 12:32 am
  • OK, what annoys me is to read misrepresentations of scientific studies. In newspapers, the headline often oversimplifies and distorts the findings. But I think it’s a general rule that if you leave out all the interesting details and nuances, you lose the point of the study — and it’s usually a small point, with lots of qualifiers.

    gemma 4th July 2017 10:05 pm
  • I, too, was thrilled to hear that near starvation does not contribute to longevity. It was an issue that had me worried since I first heard about it a few years ago as there was no way I was going to convince my husband to live off 500 calories a day.

    Norma 5th July 2017 1:14 am
  • I agree with Jason: this post deserves an Amen!

    Chad B 5th July 2017 12:40 pm
  • I don’t think you look heavy at all, Michele. I think you look wonderful.

    Jeff Minnich 6th July 2017 3:00 am
  • Ditto Susan, Chad and Jeff. I should look so good. Maybe I need to pull a few more weeds.

    Susan in WNC 6th July 2017 4:20 am
  • Gotta love your mother Michele. Mine is always asking me if I have gotten skinnier.

    Christopher C NC 6th July 2017 7:46 am
  • You look fabulous, period.

    Tami 6th July 2017 10:45 am
  • Well, obviously I am not gardening enough or hard enough. Cause I am way heavier than my young days when I was not gardening. I wonder if our mothers are long lost sisters, because that is exactly the type of comment my dear mother makes.

    tibs 6th July 2017 11:26 am
  • You look great, of course, Michelle, but you know that.

    kermit 6th July 2017 1:21 pm
  • So if genetic diversity is awed in the world of plants and animals only a moron would think that limiting the variety and quantities of foods eaten by people would be better for longevity.

    greg draiss 7th July 2017 2:49 am
  • It has been said that extreme caloric restriction does not actually make life longer; it just makes it SEEM longer.

    Amy 7th July 2017 12:55 pm
  • I am one of those too heavy people. But I am also pretty darned active and the only middle aged gal that I know that perennially hauls 50 pound bags of amendments all over my acre lot. This year the count is about 150 bags. Not bad for an obese middle ager. Did I mention walking an hour a night with two athletic pit-mixes. If that doesn’t build up arm strength….

    Rhea 7th July 2017 1:10 pm
  • Sometimes there’s no pleasing mothers but they mean well. There’s no greater satisfaction than growing your own food and eating it…I find it always tastes better!

    violet garden blogs 7th July 2017 6:05 pm
  • The phrase “How many fit people do you know who are obese?” is pretty offensive. I’m obese, and go to the gym a hell of a lot more than most people: but if you saw me, you’d just assume I’m not fit because I’m fat, and that would serve to reinforce your stereotypes. You can’t know anything about someone’s fitness based on their fatness.

    Joy 7th July 2017 7:06 pm
  • The most annoying point of those 2 scientific papers, is that they want to find ONE cure: Either it’s the food, or it’s the exercise. Haven’t we already learned there is never a silver bullet? Eat well, garden well, be kind – that’s probably a good start.

    Linnea Borealis 8th July 2017 12:59 am
  • Another fit and fat (okay, maybe just pretty plump) veggie gardener here. I garden every moment I can, and walk the dogs and take hikes and dig post holes and all the rest…and eat veggies from the backyard with grass fed meat. Sometimes body type is just the (bad) luck of the draw, and you have to keep working on cutting out more calories if you care enough about the size jeans you wear. C’mon, Michelle – you never have been heavy, right? And neither has your mom. You got both the good genes AND the veggie loving and the gardening yen. Its a wonderful gift! You look great! Those of us who look less great don’t necessarily love gardening less.

    LC 8th July 2017 10:10 am

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