Gut Length: Are You an Endomorph, Genetically Destined to Put on Weight?

People come in a multitude of different shapes and sizes. Some are tall and thin; others short and stocky. Many are blessed with narrow hands and tapering fingers, while others have to make do with pudgy paws and stubby fingers. These differences are genetically programmed. Short of having reconstructive surgery, there’s little you can do if you’re born with a hooked nose. A high proportion of these differences are of purely cosmetic significance; but some can affect the way we think and feel. That was the firm belief of William Herbert Sheldon, an American psychologist, who had great influence in the1950s, when I was undergoing my training in physical medicine. Sheldon developed an idea which had been around for centuries, that there are three basic bodily types, which he chose to call ectomorphs, mesomorphs and endomorphs. The ectomorphs have long thin, bean-pole figures, and are not inclined to store fat or build bulging muscles. The mesomorphs, on the other hand, have athletic figures. They’re powerfully built with wide shoulders and narrow waists They easily develop muscles, but are not inclined to store fat. This leaves the endomorphs, who are stocky, heavily boned with broad waists and a definite tendency to pile on the flab. This tri-partite classification is by no means new, since it was noted by Plato in The Republic and incorporated in the tridosha system of traditional Ayurvedic medicine. However, Sheldon gave the ancient classification a novel twist when he claimed that the three body groups were associated

with differing personality profiles and variations in gut length. These, he believed, explained their different risk of accumulating fat. In his book, ectomorphs were intellectuals given to worrying and introspection. They had a long thorax and a relatively

short abdominal cavity. This meant that, while they made excellent distance runners, they had a short intestinal tract and so found it difficult to amass either muscle or adipose tissue. The endomorphs, on the other hand, were happy-go-lucky extroverts. They had a short thorax and a large abdomen, which meant they could house a long length of intestine. That saddled them with the risk on absorbing every calorie they ate and so getting fat. This made them competent shot putters and weight lifters, but hopeless marathon runners. The mesomorphs fell somewhere in between, having plenty of beef and not too much dripping.

That was the basis of Sheldon’s theory. But while post mortems reveal that gut length can vary widely from 17 to 35 feet, there’s no evidence whatsoever that these variation are related to body shape. Biologists have found that herbivores have a bowel length which is at least three times greater than carnivores. So, since you don’t know the exact length of your gut, you won’t go far wrong if you treat yourself as a herbivore and step up your intake of fruit and vegetables. Since these foodstuffs are rich in roughage, and low in fats, they’ll be hastened through your bowels with a far lower uptake of calories than if you’re on a diet of burgers, bangers and bacon.

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