Should You Be On This "Longevity"
By Steve Edwards
From the Million Dollar Body Club - Join Today and Workout to
Last 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
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
As 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
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
thinmuch 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?
As 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
Things 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
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,
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
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
This 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
With 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
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
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
Sugar analogy, this would be a first-round knockout in the first 10
10. How quickly do you lose
This 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
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
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
Here 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
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.
The 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