Healthy Sumo Wrestler: an oxymoron

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

April 2006

It's hard to imagine just how large a sumo wrestler can be. Konishiki, a Hawaii-born champion, weighed 660 pounds by the end of his career. A six-foot seven-inch American sumo champion, Emanuel Yarbrough topped out at 770 pounds, about 5½ times as heavy as most of us. The myth is that in spite of their excessive weight their athletic training makes them healthier than persons of average or even lower-than-average weight.

It's true that you can be overweight by a few pounds and still be quite fit. Sumo wrestlers have more muscle, less fat and quicker reflexes than non-wrestlers of the same weight. They are fit, but are they healthy? Not by a long shot. Even younger wrestlers can develop weight-related knee problems that lead to poor performance and falls during matches. Another performance-crippling effect of obesity is sleep apnea, which occurs when an accumulation of fat in the throat area leads to abnormal breathing at night. The result is poor daytime concentration and a higher risk of injury.

The Japanese are among the longest-lived people on earth. Life expectancy for a Japanese boy born in 2006 is 78.6 years; a girl can expect to live 85.5 years. The life expectancy of sumo wrestlers is much shorter than that of the spectators that watch them do battle. Most of them die of coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes in their 50s. During their final years they suffer from gout, high blood pressure and the complications of type 2 diabetes.

If you suspect that it requires a special diet and lifestyle to transform a normal but overweight male into a 400-pound hulk you are correct. A wannabe sumo champ lives in a special academy where he skips breakfast because he sleeps until noon, eats only twice a day and goes to sleep immediately after a large meal.

If you want to keep your weight in the normal range I suggest that you do exactly the opposite of what sumo wrestlers do.

First, eat a filling, sugar-free breakfast every day. It should include some protein and some fruit so that you'll make it past that first coffee break without reaching for a Danish pastry or a donut. You'll also notice that your mind is sharper on the days when you eat breakfast.

Second, eat foods that fill you up, not fill you out. You can do without potatoes, rice or pasta for a couple of meals a week. Instead, enjoy a larger salad and an extra vegetable.

Third, eat three meals a day plus a couple of snacks. Sensible snacking isn't so tough and it's easy to make it a habit. Keep an apple or two or a protein bar in your desk at work. Fresh fruit and a variety of nuts in the family room in place of chips and candy will stave off cravings, especially when you're watching TV.

Fourth, take a short walk after lunch and dinner, not a nap. That will keep your blood sugar low and use up calories that would otherwise migrate to embarrassing places in the form of fat.

Finally, don't fall for the fable that a few extra pounds don't matter. They do, although you might not find that out until 30 years from now.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.