Am I missing out on life?
March 5, 2012 6:13 PM   Subscribe

Will my health-nut friend live longer than me (all other things considered equal)? Will her life be better?

My friend was describing her morning routine to me recently and it seemed pretty intense. She has a fairly extensive set of multivitamins and supplements that she takes in the morning usually in smoothie form. These things include probiotics, multi-enzymes, L-Glutamine, olive leaf, L-tyrosine, and NAC (N-acetylcysteine?). She also follows a very strict diet (including low carb and no meat).

I on the other hand, I don't do any of these things. I don't particularly watch what I eat, but I do passively strive for balance in my diet. I also have not heard of half the supplements that she's taking.

Assuming that we both exercise regularly and have no negative family medical history, will my friend live longer than me? Will her life be qualitatively better than mine in the long run? (at least health-wise). I hope this question makes sense.
posted by Geppp to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
There is no way to tell, honestly. So many long-term diseases that can be affected by diet (cancer, heart disease, etc.) also have genetic and environmental components. Chronic pain can hit the healthiest of people, and some folks are spry and on top of things at 100 eating hamburgers and smoking every day.
posted by xingcat at 6:16 PM on March 5, 2012

Yeah, this is pretty much impossible to answer. Everyone is different. Some people need to exercise and watch what they eat to feel good- other people can be healthy and feel good with a minimum of that stuff.

The only way to tell whether he life is "qualitatively better" than yours is to ask her how she feels and what her life is like, and compare to yours. But even that is hard to measure.
posted by bearette at 6:18 PM on March 5, 2012

A population of health nuts is likely to live longer than a population of not-health-nuts, all else being equal, but I don't you can generalize that to specific people.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:20 PM on March 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

"a fairly extensive set of multivitamins and supplements" - Unless these are from natural sources with little interim processing, their efficacy can be quite limited.
posted by Ardiril at 6:21 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you had two million people with different genetic make-up and half of them lived like you and half of them lived like her, you might be able to see some statistical difference. But there would also be so much variation within the two groups that comparing random individuals would not show very much - maybe she has a 55% of living longer than you instead of the 50% chance if you both lived the same live style. (or maybe it's less or more!)
posted by aubilenon at 6:21 PM on March 5, 2012

It is a very hard question to answer in the specific, because even were somebody with her lifestyle to live a longer and healthier life than a person with yours, she may not live a longer nor healthier life than you.
posted by Jehan at 6:21 PM on March 5, 2012

In general, I regret not taking supplements sooner, including a good multi. I'll be 42 in a month, old enough to feel stuff slowing down. I'm a lot healthier now that I take supplements. I haven't had a cold or the flu in 2 years, which was when vitamins came back into my life.

YMMV. IANAD. This is not health advice.
posted by jbenben at 6:22 PM on March 5, 2012

No, not necessarily.

My dad was a biochemist. He studied nutrition quite extensively, and always ate very "scientifically." He hate the healthiest of anyone I know - lots of veggies, occasional meats, low salts, nuts, fruit, rarely processed sugars, whole grains, vitamins, took flax seed oil, fish oil, drank kefir, rarely ate out, etc. He had always exercised regularly, including swimming 2-3 times a week and general light jogging and calisthenics every day up until the morning he died - he was active and independent. Didn't smoke, didn't drink. Got good sleep. Good blood pressure, good cholesterol, passed all his heart exams. He died last summer from a massive heart attack. Ironically, he was grocery shopping at Whole Foods at the time. He was 71, which is a "young old" but is survived by pretty much all of his friends - many of whom have smoked for a long time, eaten very poorly, not exercised, etc - including his two other brothers who had far worse lifestyle habits. Nothing is a given in life.
posted by raztaj at 6:25 PM on March 5, 2012 [9 favorites]

A population of health nuts is likely to live longer than a population of not-health-nuts
Do we actually know that to be true? I mean, is there evidence that taking vitamins and supplements and following a strict low-carb, no-meat diet makes people live longer and be healthier, on average?

But yeah, there's no way to know about specific individuals.
posted by craichead at 6:25 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't take vitamins and certainly don't eat particularly well. I have not had a cold or fever or flu since, well, I don't remember. I have had some heart issues so there is that.

My point is that instead of comparing yourself to another person, try comparing yourself to yourself with or without the supplements. Do you think you would be better off yourself if you took them?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:26 PM on March 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

probiotics, multi-enzymes, L-Glutamine, olive leaf, L-tyrosine, and NAC (N-acetylcysteine?)

I'm not a doctor, but I'm in school to become one. Most of this stuff is of little value. Eat a balanced diet, exercise daily, go for regular annual visits with your primary care doctor and follow his or her advice carefully. Take a plain-Jane Centrum-type multivitamin if you think you are not getting enough variety in your diet. Done and done.
posted by killdevil at 6:28 PM on March 5, 2012 [8 favorites]

Questions like these aren't at all impossible to answer; they're plain statistics. Whether anyone here has the data to answer this question is another matter, but it is not at all an unanswerable question.

I can help with part of it; as far as I know there is no evidence that her crazy vitamin and supplement diet will help her live longer. Hell, I'd be concerned that the opposite may be true.
posted by Justinian at 6:32 PM on March 5, 2012

Response by poster: A population of health nuts is likely to live longer than a population of not-health-nuts

I guess this was more of the question I was asking. On average, do people who would follow her lifestyle live longer than someone following mine?
posted by Geppp at 6:33 PM on March 5, 2012

Oh, what would help a "health nut" live longer, on average, than a non health nut; a decent amount of cardiovascular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight and physique. Very little of what you listed is necessary for any of that. Being a "supplement nut" isn't the same as being a "health nut".
posted by Justinian at 6:33 PM on March 5, 2012 [15 favorites]

I agree with killdevel. There is way to much pushing of these supplements. It is almost like a long-term infomercial. Anyway.... My doctor has me taking fish oil for the omega-3, a baby aspirin, a plain multi-vitamin. I maintain my weight, I exercise some, I get a flu shot annually. I am 82 and very spry. So I won't change a thing for me.
posted by JayRwv at 6:44 PM on March 5, 2012 [26 favorites]

There's really two separate parts here. One, she is following a more strictly-regimented diet than you are (low-carb, no meat). Whether that is "healthy" depends on individual factors of what is needed for her, specifically. There is no one true healthy diet because it's individual. There are general guidelines. Assuming she's getting sufficient protein, hers sounds like it falls within the guidelines, but may be no more or less healthy than your diet is for you. How healthy for you does your diet feel?

The second is the supplements. Aside from taking a multivitamin, I'm inclined to agree with others that being a 'supplement nut' is not the same as being a 'health nut'. A lot of these supplements have not been scientifically proven at this time.
posted by asciident at 6:44 PM on March 5, 2012

My aunt, the slim health nut, died at 55 from breast cancer. Her sister, the overweight diabetic, had rolled past 60 and keeps going.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:38 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

The only thing that's been worth it for me is doing stretches. Some of us aren't naturally spry.
posted by kettleoffish at 7:42 PM on March 5, 2012

Best answer: This is the sort of thing where anecdotes (people's personal stories) mean nothing - you asked a scientific question about two populations, one that eats like her and one that eats like you (assuming no genetic/environmental/exercise differences). Parts of that question can be answered by science and parts cannot.

I am a doctor (NYD, and not a nutritionist nor am I particularly schooled in herbal medicine), as far as I know there is no solid evidence for any of the supplements that you mentioned in the scientific literature. In fact, the literature can be pretty conflicting even about the few supplements that doctors do recommend (such as vitamin E, or omega 3s, although I still think omega 3s are promising). So as regards to supplements, I feel I can fairly definitively answer the question in your title "are you missing out on life?" - no, you're not. No one knows if that stuff keeps you alive either longer or better. And not much research gets done on them because drug companies have no interest in proving the health benefits of herbals, and they're not regulated by the FDA as a drug (link: Mayo Clinic's herbal supplements safety page), which conveniently leaves the companies who make herbals able to keep selling their stuff without having to prove that it works any better than a placebo.

As for eating a vegetarian diet, there is quite a lot of evidence to support that as a healthy lifestyle, as long as you are getting B12 and protein (the low carb part is newer, trendier, and has less available data to be judged on). Check out Forks Over Knives, The China Study, etc. for more information. However, you don't have to be a vegetarian to get a lot of the benefits of a healthy diet as long as you eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Check out an excellent essay from the New York Times giving background on Michael Pollan's short dictum "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:01 PM on March 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

Will someone who eats a dramatically different diet than you do live longer than you?
It's a tossup. Without knowing the details of both of your diets.

Would a person who lives a proactively healthy lifestyle live longer than someone who doesn't?
Would they live healthier longer?

Your friend is not a health nut, they're just a nut. A health nut is someone who rather religiously follows established and proven health and fitness guidelines. Your friend is just self-medicating with lots of crazy stuff that has dubious health value at best.

Eat balanced meals and get some cardio a few times a week and you'll live years longer, and be able to do more with those years.
posted by Ookseer at 8:02 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

It would be very difficult for your friend to be both low-carb and no meat. Almost all plant foods are high in carbohydrate. This sounds like a diet composed primarily of coconut, avocado, and eggs. Is that right?

Also, when the China Study is mentioned, it is obligatory to link this very well-performed series of analyses of the sometimes dishonest or sloppy conclusions drawn.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 8:31 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Following treehorn+bunny's reference material, you might like to check out this excellent diagram by the infographic pioneer David McCandless: Snake Oil?
posted by greenish at 3:07 AM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

The keyword here is genetics. Your friend and you do not have identical genes.
Take N-Acetyl-Cysteine, which is an antixoxidant, a.o. protecting for osteoblasts against oxidative stress. If your friend would have a inherited (genetic) disposition for osteoarthritis NAC could be a useful supplement for that purpose. Even if you DID share such a disposition: for you taking a supplement in the evening could be more effective than in the morning.
So indeed the question is, with current technology, unanswerable.
posted by Eltulipan at 4:44 AM on March 6, 2012

As others have said, the influence of genetics plays a far greater role than most people imagine. And luck, for that matter.

I've had any number of "health nut" friends over the years, and if there is one thing I've observed it's that many of them tend to follow this path to unhealthy extremes. 100% raw vegetarian diets are a good example. I had a friend who was on a diet so low in bioavailable calories and nutrients that you could clearly a dent in the left side of his stomach where his body had consumed the muscle. My experience is that these people claim that their magic diets make them super healthy and they are "never sick," but in fact look sickly, have low energy (failure to thrive) and are almost constantly fighting off one illness or another. I have no doubt that I have a better chance to live a long life than these friends.

I think the best advice is: eat a little bit of everything in a varied diet, get some exercise, don't get gigantically fat, don't abuse your body (e.g., with drugs or dangerous environmental conditions), visit a doctor regularly and take the doctor's advice. If you do these things you have a good chance to roll your own particular genetic dice and come up with a good result.
posted by slkinsey at 5:33 AM on March 6, 2012

do people who would follow her lifestyle live longer than someone following mine?

Lifestyle-influenced health problems are things like heart disease and type II diabetes. Maintain a healthy weight, get exercise, and have a moderate diet, and you can lower your risk of these problems. You muscle mass starts to decline once you get above 30 or so, and regular strength training can abate this process.

If you have an intense exercise regimen, you will need to maintain your body more than you would otherwise, so that's where you might find some "health nuts" pursuing a special diet. That's not necessary for most people, even those with a regular but moderate exercise regimen.

I'd say the most important part of these lifestyle choices are simply the fact that it builds habits now that are hard to develop later. You're going to realize that the diet you ate in your 20s is much harder on your body when you get into your 30s. It's better for you to get into good habits now so that the adjustment process isn't as hard, later.
posted by deanc at 8:29 AM on March 6, 2012

I would wonder what this individual's anxiety level is, and if the constant obsessing about food is having more of a negative impact on his life than any positive benefit from the obsession.
posted by radioamy at 8:42 AM on March 6, 2012

It's definitely a tricky question because a lot of the people who are obsessive about diet and supplements were driven to it by a medical diagnosis or chronic ill health. I really like looking up research on individual supplements at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (part of NIH), but even there the results are usually ambiguous at best.

Personally, I take a few supplements that I think might help prevent specific diabetes related complications. I don't go all overboard though, because money stress from paying for outrageously expensive supplements would definitely be bad for me.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:08 AM on March 6, 2012

I do think that anyone living above a certain latitude should consider closely monitoring their vitamin D levels and intake. The best paper I read on this was in Scientific American several years back. The takeaway for me was that although vit. D has not been shown yet to be a causal issue in certain illnesses, but the amount of correlative data is mounting steadily, especially with MS. When you consider the types of conditions you see in northern latitudes, i.e. awful - MS, Parkinson's, ovarian Ca - , it seems reasonable to spend a bit more time pushing D.

Here in Oregon we see routine examples of healthy adults who come in absolutely run down due to deficiency, with levels below 10 that previously we only saw in elderly shut-ins.

I generally think modest supplement use has a positive effect on people's overall awareness and interest in taking care of themselves, and that is always good. The exception, really, is the person who by every metric is atrociously unhealthy in every way but allows magical thinking and supplements to help them live in denial.
posted by docpops at 12:29 PM on March 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Unless I'm misunderstanding the correlations, though, you need to monitor and supplement vitamin D levels in adolescence for a bunch of those conditions. Not that, as you say, people at higher latitudes may not benefit anyway because of deficiency, but you aren't going to prevent MS by starting a vitamin D regimen at age 25.
posted by Justinian at 1:19 PM on March 6, 2012

As for eating a vegetarian diet, there is quite a lot of evidence to support that as a healthy lifestyle, as long as you are getting B12

Eggs and cheese are good B12 sources; an ovo-lacto vegetarian has no more worries about B12 than an omnivore. A vegan should think about how he or she is getting B12, though.

According to this study, vegetarians' mortality rate due to ischemic heart disease is noticeably lower than that for omnivores, but it wasn't correlated with a difference to other causes of death. (Vegetarians did better than vegans, but vegans still did better than omnivores.)

If I can judge from your profile that you're male, that, of itself, is grounds to expect your friend to live about five years longer than you... but as lots of people have said, these expectations may bear out across large populations, but they have little application to making predictions about individuals.
posted by Zed at 4:10 PM on March 6, 2012

Zed, good point, but some lacto-ovo-vegetarians do end up with B12 deficiency from what I've read.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:18 PM on March 6, 2012

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