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What is the long-term health of the Kenyans

Answered on September 12, 2014
Created November 01, 2010 at 9:16 PM

Popular opinion has it that their high-carb diet allows Kenyans to train hard enough to develop their innate running talents. After their usually brief running careers, what is their health like? I hoped for both opinions and directions as my searchs for long-term studies of Kenyan athlete health yielded nothing.

I can't help but think of Icarus versus Daedalus. Maybe a high sugar diet (supposedly 20% of their diet is from white sugar) allows a genetically blessed few to be the fastest in the world- with the price of a horrrible subsequent health (the fall from the sun to the water).

But, maybe not. Sherlock Holmes once said: "It's a capital mistake to theorize on something about which you have no facts."

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on November 03, 2010
at 01:04 PM

I remember recently hearing that a side effect of bisphosphonates, a common anti-osteoporosis drug, is osteoporosis. To be clear, the bisphosphonate-induced kind reportedly stems from a different altered osteoclast activity than the one associated with the more prevalent form.

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on November 03, 2010
at 01:02 PM

Hi Cheryl, Thank you for posting such an interesting article. It reminds me that, even as our ignorance of nutrition continues we do understand some mechanistic aspects of sports performance quite well. Mike

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on November 03, 2010
at 01:00 PM

Hi Matthew, Thanks for the article. It is interesting albeit speculative. The current matter aside, it highlights how carefully one needs to think about the interplay between society and physiology to avoid errors in reasoning.

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3 Answers

2
0bc6cbb653cdc5e82400f6da920f11eb

(19235)

on November 02, 2010
at 01:03 AM

I have no information on the long-term health of Kenyan marathong runners.

However it reminded me of an interesting theory for why so many good marathon runners come from Kenya, aparently particularly from the Kalenjin tribe. From here http://www.aafla.org/SportsLibrary/SportsHistorian/1997/sh172d.pdf

Still, while there is something in each of these - altitude, diet, poverty - that helps explain the phenomenon of Kenyan running as a whole, none of them begins to account for the hugely disproportionate success of the Kalenjin. For that, we have to look more closely at circumstances unique to the tribe.

An obvious thought is that the Kalenjin might be endowed with some sort of collective genetic gift. This is touchy stuff, of course, and there is nothing like replicable scientific data to support the idea. But the primafacie case for a genetic explanation makes some sense: the Kalenjin marry mainly among themselves; they have lived for centuries at altitudes of 2,000 meters or more; and, at least by tradition, they spend their days chasing up and down hills after livestock. So it is not unreasonable to suggest that over time some sort of genetic adaptation has taken place that has turned out to be helpful in competitive distance running.

This notion gets some flimsy support from the fact that linguistic data link the Kalenjin to tribes elsewhere in East Africa that have turned out a majority of their countries??? world class runners: these groups, all of them historically pastoral as opposed to agricultural, include the Oromo in Ethiopia, the Iraqw and Barabaig in Tanzania and the Tutsi in Burundi. There is a temptation to imagine a race of lean, cattle-herding uebermenschen wandering up and down the Rift Valley.

What I find more intriguing, however, is the possibility that some of these peoples??? customs might have functioned indirectly as genetic selection mechanisms favoring strong runners. I am thinking specifically of the practice of cattle theft - euphemistically known as cattle raiding. It was common to all these pastoral peoples, but in Kenya, at least, the Kalenjin were it is foremost practitioners. Of course they did not regard it as theft; they were merely repossessing cattle that were theirs by divine right and happened to have fallen into other hands. Never mind that those into whose hands the cattle had fallen often felt the same way. Anyway, Kalenjin raids often called for treks of more than 100 miles to capture livestock and drive them home before their former owners could catch up. The better a young man was at raiding ??? in large part, a function of his speed and endurance - the more cattle he accumulated. And since cattle were what a prospective husband needed to pay for a bride, the more a young man had, the more wives he could buy, and the more children he was likely to father. It is not hard to imagine that such a reproductive advantage might cause a significant shift in a group???s genetic makeup over the course of a few centuries.

No evidence but it's an fun bit of speculation.

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on November 03, 2010
at 01:00 PM

Hi Matthew, Thanks for the article. It is interesting albeit speculative. The current matter aside, it highlights how carefully one needs to think about the interplay between society and physiology to avoid errors in reasoning.

2
3d09749e929dca0e58b2452f57ff5bc8

on November 02, 2010
at 12:17 AM

The premise of the question may be somewhat off. Elite Kenyan runners do not have higher VO2-Max scores, lactate thresholds, etc than other elite runners. So if the Kenyan diet / training was favoring them particularly, the standard measures of endurance fitness fail to show it. Nor are the other people who train for this kind of thing shy about eating carbs. What has been proven about Kenyan runners is that they are bio-mechanically more efficient (IE their running form is better).

A popular theory for why Kenyan runners are fast is because: 1) They are a culture of runners (much like you expect countries that celebrate soccer to produce the best players). So the best runners are found. 2) A large amount of barefoot running leaves the runners with perfect form.

I'd suspect the long terms affects of the diet are the same for Kenyan runners as they are for anyone else.

0
2b8c327d1296a96ad64cdadc7dffa72d

on November 01, 2010
at 09:47 PM

I was reading this today: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/unbeatable-body.html.

I don't believe it adequately answers your question, except that I think no studies have been performed on a Kenyan athlete. However, it is postulated that there is a higher than average incidence of osteoporosis. I hope that the osteoporosis diagnosis is not based on a pharma company's aggressive stance on BMI, body fat or bone density readings.

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on November 03, 2010
at 01:04 PM

I remember recently hearing that a side effect of bisphosphonates, a common anti-osteoporosis drug, is osteoporosis. To be clear, the bisphosphonate-induced kind reportedly stems from a different altered osteoclast activity than the one associated with the more prevalent form.

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on November 03, 2010
at 01:02 PM

Hi Cheryl, Thank you for posting such an interesting article. It reminds me that, even as our ignorance of nutrition continues we do understand some mechanistic aspects of sports performance quite well. Mike

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