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What are the benefits, if any, to the diet, physical conditioning and body-engineering typically associated with sumo? Can an individual intentionally build large amounts of fat in a way that could be considered responsible, healthy, and useful outside of this sport? What are the limits to this?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

First, for those unfamiliar with the Sumo wrestler's diet, you can get a rough idea in this article. A main staple of the diet is chanko-nabe. A couple quick points from the first article:

  • Average life expectancy is 60-65 years (10 years younger the average Japanese male)
  • The lifestyle does carry with it increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and high blood pressure.

To say the diet is "healthy" would be wrong. However, it isn't as bad as it could be. Another article sites that the majority of the fat in a sumo wrestler is subcutaneous fat, and as such is less of a health risk. Quote follows:

While commonsense would dictate that Japanese sumo wrestlers, who eat upwards of 5,000 calories a day and are obese by most weight standards, are setting themselves up for a barrage of obesity-related health problems, studies have found that this is not the case. Why? MRIs of sumo wrestlers have shown they have hardly any internal fat.

"They have low cholesterol, they have low insulin resistance and a low level of triglycerides," said Bell. "Their fat is all stored under the skin, on the outside."

Meanwhile, someone who appears thin on the outside, yet doesn't exercise nearly as much as a sumo wrestler, may be at risk of a host of health problems because their fat is being stored on the inside, and in the organs.

"This is particularly true of men who have a slim build but who do little or no exercise," Bell said. "We know now that 40 percent of people have fat infiltration of the liver, which is linked to so many other health problems."

At first glance, it looks like the two articles contradict each other. However, understand that there are differences among individuals, and some are more prone to diabetes vs. heart attack, etc. Any time you have an excess of fat, your body has to work harder to move. Adding weight too fast will cause your heart to not be able to keep up with the new demands of a heavier frame.

To answer your questions more directly:

  • Are there any benefits? The fat is mostly subcutaneous which is the less lethal variant.
  • Chanko-nabe is reasonably healthy, and is high in protein.
  • As to large amounts of fat being responsible, healthy, and useful outside the sport? That would be a very hard sell.

In sumo wrestling, more mass usually means more of an advantage in the ring. The number of applications where the person having high mass being beneficial is very limited. Another place I can think of where high mass can help is with power lifting, but if you gain too much mass your body proportions will limit your overall total.

I can agree that if you are going to have the mass of a sumo wrestler, the way they go about doing it is probably the best and most responsible approach. That said, even if the amount of visceral fat is low, having large mass can be harmful in its own rite. While hardly a sumo diet, the cautionary tale of C.T. Fletcher highlights the danger of increasing your mass too much.

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