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Living well may be the best revenge

Editor's note: What's so bad about being pear-shaped? Is a slice of chocolate cake really harmful? Come on, why not have a cup of morning coffee? Maybe humankind's guiltiest indulgences are not really 100 percent bad. For example, some researchers say that people with wide hips are at lower risk for heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure than people who are apple-shaped. And chocolate can improve a blue mood. What's more, there is some indication that coffee drinkers over age 60 have better sex lives than non-coffee drinkers. Maybe leading a healthy life needn't be a totally spartan, joyless affair. In this article from the February McCall's, Bruce Schechter _ a New York-based science writer with a Ph.D. in physics _ lists 20 "bad" things that are actually not so bad, after all.

When Miles Monroe, the hapless jazz clarinetist in Woody Allen's 1973 comedy Sleeper, awakes after 200 years in the deep freeze he is, quite naturally, famished.

And like a true child of his times, he orders a breakfast of wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk.

His doctors are puzzled, until one recalls "these were the charmed substances that some years ago were believed to contain life-preserving properties."

What about deep fat, steak, cream pies or hot fudge? asks a colleague.

"Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true," the first explains.

"Incredible!" is the reply.

Not so incredible, really.

History is full of hastily changed opinions on matters of healthful diet and living. For example, for centuries, the tomato was thought to be poisonous. But today we consume more tomatoes than any other fruit or vegetable except the potato.

Sir William Osler, a 19th-century medical historian, observed, "The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities ofthe next and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow."

Things many of us enjoy but try our best to avoid, such as coffee and chocolate, an occasional drink or a between-meal snack, have recently been re-examined by medical researchers _ with new results.

Surprisingly _ or maybe not _ many of the original alarms have proven false. In fact, some things, such as a daily glass of wine or a night without sleep, can actually be beneficial.

In fact, many of our guiltiest indulgences are not as sinful as we might think.

Still, it's a good idea to keep in mind the advice of the Roman dramatist Terence that has remained unchallenged for more than 2,000 years: "moderation in all things."

1. A steaming cup of coffee: Too much caffeine has been linked to any number of health problems. But experts largely agree that moderate coffee consumption _ fewer than four cups a day _ is safe.

Better still, Navy researchers have found that even if you slept well the night before, a morning cup of coffee makes you more alert and puts you in a better mood.

2. The bliss of a chocolate kiss: The next time you reach for a sinful slab of chocolate cake, don't feel guilty. Sure, the calories can be a problem, but they are also a source of energy.

Cocoa butter, the primary fat in chocolate, is not absorbed by the body like other saturated fats, so it has little or no effect on blood-cholesterol levels, according to researchers at Pennsylvania State University.

Moreover, numerous studies show that chocolate does not cause acne.

But will it "rot your teeth?"

Chocolate is less likely than hard candies to cause cavities. The tannic acid found in chocolate may reduce the risk of tooth decay and periodontal disease.

Last but not least, as anyone who has indulged after a bad haircut or the breakup of a romance knows, chocolate can improve your mood.

3. Reading by candlelight: "You'll ruin your eyes that way," is the convention.

But according to Robert Rubman, M.D., co-author of Future Vision, "If you can see the written page, there's no problem."

So the next time you and the love in your life go out for a romantic candlelight dinner, the only thing to worry about while squinting at the menu is whether to have the filet mignon or the veal a la Oscar.

4. A forced smile: Yes, it's phony, but it sure comes in handy when Aunt Mildred asks how you liked the toilet-tissue caddy she knitted for your birthday.

What's more, experimenters at Mannheim University in West Germany found that subjects who were asked to grasp a pencil between their teeth, thus simulating a smile, felt happier than their straight-faced counterparts.

The reason seems to be that smiling forces you to breathe through your nose and it exerts pressure on certain muscles in your face. This forces cooler blood to a region of the brain called the hypothalamus, which in turn may cause the release of endorphins, the brain's natural feel-good opiates.

5. A few extra pounds: Stop worrying about dropping that dress size.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, men and women who are too thin actually increase their risk of early death.

Studies on weight and longevity show that people can gain a little weight as they grow older without increased health risks _ about a pound a year after age 30 _ according to Reubin Andres, M.D., clinical director of the National Institute on Aging.

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.'s height/weight table also reflects this _ the figures in the latest edition are a few pounds plumper than before. In fact, repeated losing and gaining those same few pounds _ yo-yoing _ is at least as harmful as being slightly overweight since it can cause hypertension.

6. A fine wine: A glass or two of wine before dinner is not only civilized but sensible as well.

One or two drinks a day _ a 12-ounce can of beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine or a 1-ounce shot of liquor _ can reduce the risk of heart disease.

In a recent study of 28,000 men, conducted by Harvard researchers, those who drank between one-half and two and a half drinks a day reduced their risk of heart disease by 26 percent.

However, other reliable studies indicate that alcohol may increase the risk of breast cancer in women of childbearing age, so if you have a family history of the disease or other risk factors, it's best to drink only occasionally or not at all.

7. Fatty foods: While people who get more than 30 percent of their calories from fat are indeed more likely to die of heart disease, those eating a low-fat diet are actually more prone to accidental death, suicide and even to being murdered.

The reason may be, some studies suggest, that low cholesterol levels may make people more aggressive and excitable: They become lean and mean.

Women who consume less than 25 percent of their calories in the form of fat also run the risk of irregular menstrual cycles and decreased bone density.

8. A snack between meals: You may have been warned not to "spoil your dinner" as a kid.

But psychologists at Tufts University recently found that a snack late in the afternoon can improve your ability to do tasks that require sustained attention. A snack before traveling can also prevent motion sickness.

9. Garlic: Known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as "stinking rose," garlic was considered powerful medicine.

But they viewed garlic breath as a mark of the lower class, a belief that lasted well into the 20th century, points out Michael Castleman in The Healing Herbs: The Ultimate Guide to the Curative Power of Nature's Medicines (Rodale Press Inc., 1991).

It may not make you popular, but what is spaghetti without garlic bread?

Plus, evidence is mounting that garlic reduces cholesterol and blood pressure. And when it's eaten by all at the table, its pungent aroma offends none.

10. Giving in to a blue funk: Being in a blue mood occasionally isn't necessarily a sign that something is wrong with you.

More likely it is a sign that you are normal, according to Mark S. Gold, M.D., author of The Good News About Depression (Bantam, 1988).

It's natural to be mildly depressed from time to time, and it can be helpful to get in touch with these feelings instead of flicking on the television or reaching for a drink.

When you're in the doldrums you tend to see the world more realistically than in an upbeat mood. In the long run, this can be helpful in accepting _ or fixing _ whatever got you down in the first place.

11. Staying up all night: Sleep "knits up the ravel'd sleave of care," wrote Shakespeare.

But psychologists have observed that depressed patients who are deprived of a night or two of sleep often find their spirits lifted.

The reason: Biochemical changes brought about by sleeplessness possibly mimic those brought about by anti-depressant drugs.

12. Gossiping: Gossip is a form of free entertainment, an outlet for inner tensions, and it can cement social relationships by establishing an element of trust between those sharing privileged information, says John Sabini, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and co-author of The Moralities of Everyday Life (Oxford University Press, 1982).

Also, discussing personal problems with a trusted friend can help you relieve anxiety and gain a new perspective.

13. Talking to yourself: We tend to think of talking to ourselves as the mark of those who don't quite have all their marbles.

But an occasional chat with yourself can help you to grapple with a problem or to prepare for an important meeting or speech, according to Harriet B. Braiker, a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles.

14. Goofing off: "Idle hands are the devil's plaything" the old saying goes.

But taking time to stop and smell the roses nips stress in the bud and prevents burnout, according to Bruce A. Baldwin, psychologist and author of It's All in Your Head: Lifestyle Management Strategies for Busy People (Direction Dynamics, 1985).

A few hours to yourself each week can also increase motivation and productivity.

15. Having sex during your period: While religious and cultural taboos about the "cleanliness" of menstruating women date back to the days of the Old Testament, there is no medical reason to abstain from sex during your period.

Some women report heightened sexual desire during that time of the month. In addition, many women report that orgasm relieves cramping, according to sex researcher William H. Masters, M.D.

16. Chewing gum: According to researchers at the University of Indiana School of Dentistry, chewing gum helps fight cavities by increasing the flow of saliva.

This in turn helps to neutralize the tooth-decaying acids in plaque and to remineralize tooth enamel. And if it keeps you from smoking or overeating, even better.

17. An afternoon nap: Experimenters at the University of Virginia Medical School proved what Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and other famous nappers knew all along.

Napping improves alertness, efficiency and overall mood.

18. Flirting when you're married: Mild flirtation with someone other than your husband or wife is healthy, benign _ and great for your marriage, notes columnist Sonya Rhodes, a psychotherapist and a marriage counselor.

Reveling in your sexuality at social events is fun and can channel positive feelings back into your marriage.

Just don't cross the line from flirting into seduction, she cautions. And don't forget to flirt with your partner too.

19. Being pear-shaped: You may never find work as a fitting model, but being "hippy" or "bottom-heavy" could prolong your life.

If you are the classic pear shape, you are at lower risk for heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure than "apples," who carry their weight around the middle.

20. Walking in the rain: Don't worry about getting your feet wet. Despite warnings to the contrary, you won't catch your death of cold.

The viruses that cause colds are spread by hand contact with infected persons or through the air when someone coughs or sneezes, not through exposure to cold or moisture, according to Jack Gwaltney, M.D., who researches colds at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

All of which goes to show that living a healthy lifestyle need not be a spartan, joyless affair.

Mark Twain once wrote that "the only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like and do what you druther not."

To that we'd like to respond with another time-tested bit of advice:

"Rules were made to be broken."

The New York Times Company. From McCall's.