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Longevity Diet

Should You Be On This "Longevity" Diet?

By Steve Edwards
From the Million Dollar Body Club - Join Today and Workout to Win!

MonkeyLast fall, an article appeared in The New York Times about a prescription that could extend life. The article featured two monkeys that seemed to be aging at different rates. The key to the one aging more gracefully, it stated, was something called calorie restriction (CR). In this case, CR involved feeding one monkey approximately 30 percent fewer calories than what researchers considered normal, but ensuring the diet had plenty of nutrients. According to some scientists, it's the only proven means for extending life in a variety of species.

CR is not a new phenomenon. It's been practiced voluntarily for decades and involuntarily for eons. But lately, aided by some interesting science, it's been gaining steam as a new solution to many of society's ills, including diabetes, heart disease, and, well, dying.

So let's take a look at calorie restriction now that it's hit the best-seller list and why you may, or may not, want to make it part of your life.

1. What is Calorie Restriction?

PortionsAs the name implies, CR advocates eating fewer calories than normal. But when you look closely at the details you'll see that "calorie restriction" is a bit of a misnomer or, at least, misleading. By definition, CR limits caloric intake, but only to the point that all vitamin, mineral, and other nutrient requirements are still met. Therefore, it's much more like a calculated diet than a random reduction of calories. For this reason, it's also known under many other titles, including the "high/low diet" (high on nutrients/low on calories) and the "longevity diet," perhaps its most accurate title since most of its practitioners seem to be aiming for a longer existence.

Whatever the title, CR's catchphrase is that we eat too many calories and its proponents all agree that it not only increases your life span but helps you live a much healthier lifestyle.

2. What is the difference between CR and anorexia?

People who practice CR tend to be thin—much thinner than society deems healthy. But it should not, in any way, be confused with anorexia. The difference is that CR practitioners don't diet to help or change the way they look. It's all about feeling better. Therefore, there is no weight number as a goal or "look" that is acceptable. If a CR practitioner is losing weight too quickly, they eat more. The goal is simple: to improve the way the body performs. According to April Smith, a CR celebrity blogger, CR and anorexia are completely opposite: "The focus of CR is health. Nobody here is trying to figure out how to eat less and disappear. The constant thought is, 'How can I pack more nutrition into my calories?' and that's not something an anorexic is doing. Anorexia is slow suicide."

3. What is the difference between CR and fasting?

Many CR practitioners fast, but fasting has nothing to do with CR. They are completely opposite, since fasting's aim is to cleanse the body of toxins and CR's goal is to maximize the nutrition of your caloric intake. But that is only by definition. Many fasters actually consume a lot of calories in an attempt to maximize their caloric intake to facilitate a process. In this way the two are quite similar. But fasting is still something that's done only in phases, whereas CR is something you do as a lifestyle.

4. Isn't it just another weight loss diet?

Weight Loss BooksAs stated before, weight loss is not a goal of CR; it's a result of committing to the lifestyle. But again, once we get the pure definition out of the way, CR is a weight loss diet. If done correctly, it should be the healthiest weight loss diet you can choose.

But here's the catch. CR practitioners are fastidious to a degree that makes reading The Zone seem like perusing the Sunday funnies. Each gram of food is weighed and calculated as to how its nutrients fit into the overall scheme of one's diet. Because you are undereating, it's vital to get the most out of each morsel of food you ingest. Therefore, while it would certainly be an effective weight loss "diet," it's likely that anyone with the willpower to do it would not have a problem with overeating in the first place.

CR advocates have loftier aims than being thin. They want to live a long time. Some even talk about immortality and, okay, this is pretty kooky, but, in order to create enough urgency to want to weigh every item they put into their mouth for an entire lifetime, it stands to reason they'd want a lot of upside.

Not all of them are this extreme. In The Times article, Dr. David A. Sinclair, a molecular biologist at Harvard, states, "The goal is not just to make people live longer. It's to see eventually that an 80-year-old feels like a 50-year-old does today."

5. How restrictive are the calories?

Weight FoodThings start to get a little fuzzy when addressing this question. CR practitioners eatand they eat a fair amount. It's not a starvation plan at all. According to most reference sources, CRers average around 2,000 calories per day across the board. Considering that a survey of Americans showed we claim to eat about this amount per day, it would hardly seem significant. That's until you discover that our society produces around 3,900 calories of food per day per person, meaning that people lie in surveys or, at least, have very little idea about how many calories that they actually eat.

So when it's claimed that you're eating 30 percent fewer calories than normal, what is normal? Even subtracting from governmental standards for calories, it's tricky because those standards are ballpark, at best.

The Caloric Restriction Society uses set point weight as a gauge, stating their desired range is 10 to 25 percent below this figure. But, since your set point isn't a true figure and hence, impossible to accurately estimate. Ultimately you're going to estimate how much to eat based on feelingwhich, incidentally, doesn't seem too different than what the Beachbody diet guidelines tell you to do.

6. Is it nothing but marketing hype?

There is clearly some hype surrounding this phenomenon, but it's mainly in its name and how it tends to be spun for the masses. Since we can't even come to a conclusion on how many calories we should be eating, one must wonder where the caloric restriction aspect comes from. When nearly 40 percent of our society's population is clinically obese, it's not hard to see that some form of caloric restriction is in order.

The CR lifestyle, however, is clearly not hype. It could be more accurately described as "clean, light eating," but since that sounds rather bland, and somewhat complicated, it's not the name that creates the most impact.

7. Will it make you live longer?

Happy PeopleThis is highly debated. There is research that shows an increase in the average life span in primates, mice, rats, spiders, and some insects, but we must also consider some factors of this research.

First of all, what is "average?" Statistically, this includes people who die from many causes not affected by diet. Then we must consider lifestyle, the individuals in the studies, and what the animals in the "average" group were allowed to eat. Consider that two individuals living in a cage may not be the best test for longevity because "life" and "health" involve many factors beyond what you're fed, including mental health. A bored animal, including a human, is more likely to overeat than one that is allowed to engage in whatever activities it desires.

Regardless, it's also easy to see how a strict diet of nutrient-rich foods, restrictive or not, would increase the health of its subjects, all things being equal. I don't think we need a study to prove this. Again, just look at the patrons of a McDonald's, Denny's, or just about any truck-stop diner to see if you really think science is needed to validate that the average person's health would improve if they ate a more nutrient-rich and calorie-restrictive diet.

8. Raise your hand if you don't agree.

Raised HandWith corporations making billions, you can find a "credible" source to refute virtually anything. All you need to do is find a company that could lose money from the said issue and, voilà, that company will provide an expert (panel, think tank, etc.) who will refute the findings. Since a lot of people make money selling calories, it stands to reason that something called calorie restriction might ruffle some boardroom feathers. As this issue gains more popularity, expect some contradictory scientific data to begin showing up.

The Times article did present another, perhaps more rational, type of dissenter. Dr. Jay Phelan, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, sees benefits from the diet but not increased life span. But his biggest complaint was one of realism. He doesn't expect to see it hit the mainstream of the American consciousness for a reason that's purely anecdotal:

"Have you ever tried to go without food for a day? I did it once, because I was curious about what the mice in my lab experienced, and I couldn't even function at the end of the day."

9. What about the other health aspects?

More interesting than longevity seems to be the day-to-day health of most CR practitioners. They tend to look younger, have more energy, get sick a lot less, and, in general, have a better outlook on life than the "average" person. But this stands to reason, since they're living a fastidious lifestyle based entirely around their health. A more interesting subject for research would be to compare this group with other healthy groups, such as marathoners and triathletes, and even some non-athletic groups, like political activists (mental health should not be underestimated) to see how they stack up.

Let's face it, proving it's a healthier alternative to an "average" lifestyle doesn't take much. Let's see, on one side we have a group that calculates what it eats by a food's nutrient value and whose entire lifestyle revolves around trying to live as long and as healthily as possible. In the other corner, we have a group that eats nearly twice as much food as it claims; doesn't exercise; creates billionaires in the soda, fast food, and convenience store corporations; and spends 90 percent of its free time watching other people's lives on television. To use the Fat vs. Sugar analogy, this would be a first-round knockout in the first 10 seconds.

10. How quickly do you lose weight?

ScaleThis is not a lose-weight-quickly scheme. While you will almost assuredly lose weight regularly, CR advocates not exceeding much over a pound per week and adding calories if you do. Since your caloric calculation is based on health, you slowly find a point where you stabilize your physical and mental well-being, and that's how much you eat.

As stated earlier, this isn't an ultra-restrictive plan; it's a lifestyle. Many quick-fix diets advocate far fewer calories for a short amount of time. These diets can also be a part of CR, but since CR is about lifestyle, it requires more thorough analysis of what you eat on a daily basis.

11. How thin is healthy?

SkeletonAnother debated topic. One thing is for sure, CR will make you thin and, from a cursory look through the various Web sites on the Net, pretty darn healthy. It's probably not the look we're used to. The men don't resemble The Rock and the women, while thin, seem to be missing the emaciated runway model hollowness. It's an interesting look; more Mother Theresa than Kate Moss. I'm not sure it will become popular.

For example, longevity icon Mike Linksvayer is 6 feet tall, 135 pounds. This isn't going to impress the ladies waiting in line to see The Thunder from Down Under. That is, at least, until they hear that his vital signs are perfect and he has the sex drive of a much younger man, according to his girlfriend April Smith.

From an anecdotal analysis, these people seem extremely healthy. Yet science seems cautious, throwing around words like "may," "could," and "possibly." This may have to do with the threat of creating a world of anorexics, those who will not put the effort into making sure they get enough nutrients or, perhaps, it's just that we haven't been able to study this demographic for long enough. Regardless of the warnings about being too thin, there's nothing in the group who call themselves CRers that evokes anything other than health. It's their entire MO for living. Some might even say painstakingly so. But it does seem to work.

12. What if I play sports?

RunnerHere is where we really get to the nitty-gritty over lifestyle. None of these people seem particularly athletic. Healthy, yes, and Linksvayer is a runner who is training for a marathon, but you won't find a lot of CRers at the World Ironman Championships.

This, perhaps, is a reflection of passions more than anything else. CR is a lifestyle. It takes time, study, and a lot of care in your day-to-day existence. It would be difficult to adhere to it and be a jack of all trades. Athletes, even weekend warriors, tend to be obsessive to a degree as well. Undereating and strange dietary practices are also a part of their existence. But competitive athletes require a different nutritional paradigm that includes calorie-dense foods. It's hard to complete an Ironman, or even train for one, on calorie restriction when you spend days burning more calories than it's humanly possible to consume.

But that may be where the difference ends because both of these user groups are about the same thing: maximizing their bodies' performance. They are choosing different paths to the same end; to test what, until now, has been the stated limit to human existence.

Eating Ice CreamThe CR set are our nutritional test pilots and mainly we'll be happy to let them break their own sound barriers, as well as crash and burn. Most of us are content to take things easier. We want to eat ice cream, go to restaurants, watch TV, and not weigh everything we eat. And we're willing to sacrifice a few years in order to live this way. Our answers probably lie somewhere in between, where we get more exercise, eat better food, and settle for improving our day-to-day existence. In the end, Dr. Phelan probably has it right. We'll watch from afar and marvel as we allow the "crazies" to push the envelope, and then settle for a seat on the first flight to Hawaii.

Sources: "One For The Ages: A Prescription That May Extend Life." Michael Mason. The New York Times, October 31, 2006; April Smith's blog, www.mprize.org/blogs

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