Fruit Flies for Fitness

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With the discovery of performance-boosting chemicals in food, scientists are breaking new ground in the realms of health and fitness.

In a study published in early 2016 by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, a team of researchers found that a phytoestrogen called prunetin extended the lifespan and boosted the physical performance of male fruit flies.

The scientists fed fruit flies a diet rich in prunetin, which is found in both soy and lima beans as well as many other vegetables and fruits.

Dr. Anika Wagner, who worked on this team, explains that the study was inspired by the elevated life expectancy in countries such as Japan.

“This extended life expectancy may be due to a diet rich in soy and soy-derived products,” explains Wagner, “as well as root vegetables including yams and kudzu.”

While Wagner is aware of many studies that have analyzed the effects of various dietary compounds on fruit flies, her team was the first to specifically test prunetin in this context.

Prunetin, according to Wagner, was chosen for this study because it functions perfectly as a “representative” of isoflavones, the phytochemicals that produce results in the body similar to those of estrogen.

During trials, the scientists monitored both lifespan and physical performance, by timing the flies as they climbed transparent tubes and checking daily for dead flies.

According to the team, the flies that ate prunetin-heavy diets outperformed others by 54% and lived an average of three days longer.

The increase of prunetin did not appear to influence performance or life span of females, both of which were already higher than their male counterparts, but did drastically impact male flies.

As female flies generally outlive the males, there is a possibility that the presence of prunetin in a male’s diet causes increased lifespan due to “feminization” via estrogenicity.

This type of study opens the door to more experimentation involving food and physical performance, says Wagner, who points to a similar trial wherein green tea was found to boost lifespan of male fruit flies.

But will these results translate to human bodies? And if so, can we expect to see miraculous results from ingesting increased levels of soy and green tea?

“Naturally, fruit flies are not humans,” explains Wagner, “and these effects cannot be directly transferred into humans.”

In order to explore the effects of prunetin on human health, human trials that address “potential adverse reactions” will be necessary.

Potential reactions to look for, for example, may include another finding yielded by the green tea trial, in which researchers observed a negative impact on the fertility of male flies after ingesting green tea.

Once again, these results were seen only in the male group rather than in female subjects.

Conducting human trials will be vital to furthering our knowledge on the subject.

While a strict observance of eating antioxidant-rich super foods may positively lengthen our lives and improve physical traits, for instance, these types of claims often aren’t scientifically proven in humans.

In this way, fruit flies serve as a good jumping off point for these studies. According to Wagner, they have a brief lifespan of 60 to 80 days, and therefore we can quickly observe changes to their physical states throughout a lifetime.

Even when scientists cannot technically prove that a diet brimming with healthy foods will specifically lessen our physical limitations from one day to the next, Wagner does stress the importance of sticking to a well-balanced, nutritious diet.

“People generally overeat foods containing high amounts of sugar and saturated fat,” she says, “which in turn will lead to diseases,” as well as other conditions which absolutely detract from lifespan and athletic performance.

So if obsessively eating soy and lima beans won’t technically extend your life or drastically push you beyond prior athletic milestones, this habit can contribute to a diet that promotes a healthier and happier body over time.

The good news, meanwhile, is that humane studies on fruit flies and other animals may eventually lead to new discoveries in our own bodies; and while we wait for these advances to take place, adding more lima beans to our diets can’t hurt.