Several years back I heard about a newish trend in weight loss, which had to do with reducing calories, in some cases rather drastically, in order to extend one’s lifespan. I don’t recall the source now, but I do remember seeing a photo of one man who looked to my eyes unhealthily thin, but who was planning – or at least attempting – to live to 100 or beyond.
Frankly, I couldn’t help wondering if I really wanted to live that long, if it meant reducing my caloric intake that much. That was a long time to go without my favorite foods, which I was sure I would have to sacrifice.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when one of the major TV news channels ran a spot on low-cal devotees. I only caught the end of it, but the newscaster was commenting on how adherents were cranky because they were hungry, had to watch how they sat, due to a lack of posterior padding, and how they were frequently cold, due to a lack of overall padding. I guessed that he must be referring to those folks I’d heard about years before, and sure enough, they had their own organization: The Calorie Restriction Society.
(I have said on more than one occasion that there is a society for just about anything in this country, and here again is proof.)
A Calorie Restriction Society? I don’t deny that there’s strength in numbers when it comes to cutting calories, but I suspected this group of being a little over the top. However, my interest was piqued, so I clicked over to the CRS Web site, where I found that the Society, which was formally launched in December 1994, was indeed born out of an interest in life extension, claiming that “the only valid life-extension method that has any proven scientific backing behind it at all is ‘Calorie Restriction.’ ”
I’m not a scientist and have never done any research on the subject of life extension, so that sounded like a mighty big claim. How many calories would I have to reduce, I wondered, if I wanted to live to 100 or beyond?
“Calorie Restriction,” I learned, isn’t just about eating low-fat, low-sugar, low-sodium, and occasionally low-taste frozen meals, or bagged salad mixes, instead of the Big Mac I might be craving. Specifically, it’s “the consumption of a diet with adequate quantities of all essential nutrients, except that the energy content of the diet (caloric intake) is safely reduced (by as much as 10-40%) below the amount of energy (calories) that the body would tend to naturally desire, absent any special dietary measures.”
Ten percent didn’t sound that bad. But forty percent? And that was considered safe?!
Interestingly, my initial Web search for the Society landed me on their “Risks” page, which warned that “calorie restriction may result in a range of negative side effects.” I can imagine, I thought – such as that practitioners might end up looking like cadavers while living to be 100 or more. I stuffed my sarcastic skepticism in my pocket, however, and read on.
CR-induced weight loss can affect the appearance of those who pursue it. No surprise there! Reduced bone mass is another possibility, since that often accompanies weight loss. CR practitioners can suffer from cold sensitivity due to reduced body fat. “This may put you at greater risk in case of unexpected, prolonged cold exposure – such as after a car failure on the highway in winter,” says the Society. Frankly, I would hope that anyone who drives in cold climates in the winter would prepare for this ahead of time by carrying blankets in the car, regardless of their body fat percentage.
“Loss of cushioning” – discomfort sitting on hard surfaces, etc. – is another potential result. While I have occasionally lamented the size of Big Beatrice (see blog entry dated 5/29/06), I couldn’t help thinking about how tired she gets from sitting too long on a comfortable sofa, much less a hard chair, at my current weight. Menstrual irregularity can occur in women with dramatic weight loss. Speaking strictly for myself, this is hardly something I would categorize as a problem, but it certainly would be for women who are attempting to conceive.
As for males, CR can result in decreased testosterone. (Did I just hear the retreating shuffle of masculine feet?) My favorite, however, was the mention of “reduced energy reserves” due to the reduction in body fat: “(B)eing unexpectedly (emphasis in the original) stuck on a boat, locked in a room or lost in a wilderness are all scenarios where energy reserves may be important.” How often does the average person fall into that type of scenario?
And let’s not forget hunger. “Thoughts about food sometimes increase while practicing CR.” I’m not being sarcastic when I say that this must have been about as hard to figure out as determining that the sun is hot.
As any dieter knows, food is frequently associated with social events, potentially leading to more temptation and slip-ups (especially during the holiday season!). CR recognizes this, saying, among other things, that “CR diets may not be suitable for all family members.” How many of you have ever cooked meals for your family containing foods you couldn’t eat yourself because you were dieting?
Finally, the most serious risk of all – that a dramatic change in diet such as CR represents can attract “people attracted to the extreme,” possibly leading to behaviors such as anorexia or bingeing.
So much for the bad news. Now what’s the good news about CR, according to its proponents?
First, the goal of calorie restriction is slower aging and an extended lifespan, with weight loss considered merely a side effect. A safe CR weight is generally considered to be your weight during your late teens or early twenties, providing you were not obese or anorexic at that time. Proponents also advise against shedding pounds too quickly, as it will “flush lots of toxic chemicals into our bloodstream – too fast for our bodies to effectively eliminate,” and that CR should be implemented over a span of at least one to two years.
Second, the Society claims that scientific research conducted since the 1930’s has shown that calorie-restricted diets have improved the health and extended the life spans of every species tested, from worms and spiders to cows and monkeys, and members believe that those benefits are likely to be experienced by humans as well. (By the way, if you’re wondering exactly how one measures the health improvement of a worm, you’re not alone.) One study has even shown that calorie restriction may reverse early-stage Parkinson’s.
Third, some doctors promote CR as a disease preventative. As Dr. John Holloszy, an authority on enhanced athletic performance and disease state management, told CBS News, “There’s no chance of them [practitioners] getting Type 2 diabetes, they have very low blood pressure, and the risk of them getting cancer is markedly decreased.”
But it was the following statement that really grabbed my attention – that exercise is “not an option,” as “CR dieters simply don’t have the calories for it.”
“The calorie restriction protects them from the same diseases that exercise protects against, and more potently actually than exercise,” said Dr. Holloszy. (God bless you, Doc.)
So what do CR practitioners eat? Well, as one Joseph Cordell described it, his goal is to squeeze the most nutrition out of the lowest number of calories. His diet includes blueberries, nuts and apple peel (most of the fruit’s nutrition is stored there), as well as salmon, broccoli and asparagus. And he’s obviously doing something right, since his doctors say he has the blood pressure of a child, the cholesterol of a teen, and a nearly zero risk of heart disease. In addition, he has a body fat ratio of only seven percent, while the average man of his age (late 40's) has a body fat measurement of 23 to 25 percent.
But Cordell is still a realist. “Americans, many Americans, are not good at deferred gratification,” he says. (Amen, brother. You’re looking at one.) In the end, for Cordell and others like him, the potential payoff is worth the restrictions.
How about you? Would you be willing to reduce your daily calories by up to forty percent in order to reap long-term health benefits? It sounds like an easy question, but I’m certain that for the majority of us it would not be an easy practice. In fact, although CR is not really about “Starving for Longevity,” I don’t doubt that, for me at least, there would be days when it sure felt like I was starving myself!
Calorie restriction involves various long-term ramifications, and even the CRS admits that it’s “relatively uncharted territory.” As a proper understanding of the subject requires more time and research than this blog entry allows, I suggest the following resources as an introduction if you think you’d like to give it a try:
The Calorie Restriction Society (http://www.calorierestriction.org/)
"The Longevity Diet" by Brian M. Delaney and Lisa Walford (CRS founders)
The Longevity Meme (www.longevitymeme.org)
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I’ll leave you with a recipe from the CRS Web site, which sounds good enough that I’ll probably make it myself in the near future. In light of the recent food scare involving spinach, I had a momentary hesitation about featuring this particular recipe, but since the day will undoubtedly come when we can all eat spinach again without fear, here’s to your calorically-reduced health, and until we meet again…Keep on Treading!
Spinach Omelet (recipe courtesy of CRS member Robert Cavanaugh)
12 ounces raw spinach
Two medium onions, chopped
Two medium tomatoes, chopped
One large red bell pepper, chopped
Six large eggs
One 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
One tablespoon oil
Wilt spinach in covered saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and allow to drain in colander until needed. Heat oil in large skillet and add onions and pepper, cooking until tender. Add tomatoes and continue cooking until moisture is reduced. Preheat oven to 350°. In a large casserole dish, beat eggs. (Add preferred spices here; Cavanaugh likes a half-teaspoon of nutmeg.) Add the tomato mixture and spinach to the eggs and mix well. Top with the chickpeas. Place over low heat for about 15 minutes to firm the bottom. Cover with foil and cut slits to allow moisture to escape. Bake for about 45 minutes. Omelet should be firm; if not, continue baking as necessary. For a golden top, remove cover. Yields eight servings. Suggested serving size: One-eighth pie. Calories per serving: 170.