Why Caloric Restriction is not on my Menu
Immortality Seeker? Yes, I am. Epicurean? Ditto. I enjoy flavorgasmic satiety in the foodie troughs of San Francisco. Daily I ingest about 3,600 oily, spicy calories. Does this make me corpulent? No! I’m 6′ 2", 168 lbs, 9.9% body fat, cholesterol 145, BMI (body mass index) 21.6. My accelerated metabolism keeps me scrawny because I swim, lift weights, and run off an extra 4,000 calories a week. Plus I’m vegetarian, supplementing with vitamins, minerals, omega-3, and resveratrol (the longevity elixir).
Fine shape for a 57-year-old? The doc says yes. The wife responds. Everybody thinks I’m healthy, except…
The CRONies. They say I’m going to die. Before they do. Because I don’t follow their diet. CRONies (those who practice “Caloric Restriction with Optimal Nutrition”) think they’ll thrash my ass in the race away from the Grim Reaper. I emailed three CRONies with questions, and now the CRONies (often cold-fingered, skeletal, low libidoed) are giving me (fitness glutton and hedonist) advice on how to extend my existence. Halt the stamina training, they warn me, stop pumping iron for an hour, don’t run those marathons, and most importantly — quit gobbling your way into the grave! Your high caloric intake is killing you!
What are these CRONies full of? Not much. CR’s traditional goal is to reduce calories by 30%; this was promoted by founder Dr. Roy Walford and is used in most research studies. US Government RDA is 2,000 calories per day; that means fully-dedicated CRONies nibble through life on 1,400 per diem — I out-eat 2.5 of them! Ha, ha. I enjoy that, but I’m annoyed by their death warnings. CR implies I should lose 13 pounds to get my BMI down to 19.9. GRRRR! I want to snag longevity by saying yes to endurance aerobics, super sex, tasty antioxidants and resveratrol. I already said no to meat and ice cream, isn’t that enough?
Not for the CRONies. Lisa Walford — daughter of Dr. Roy Walford, wife of Brian Delaney (president of Caloric Restriction Society) and co-author of “The Longevity Diet” — has a BMI of 15 and she described her breakfast as: four walnuts, six almonds, 10 peanuts. GASP! Where’s my hash browns, ketchup, bagels, cream cheese, and huevos rancheros? Moderate CRONies exercise gently and restrict 10-20% of their calories. They slightly annoy me because they weigh every portion and often eat the same stuff everyday; that’s boring and harmless. But emaciated extremists? The 30% crowd — haughty six-footers who weigh under 130 and shirk sweaty workouts — raises my blood pressure.
They say I’m going to die. Before they do. Those who practice Caloric Restriction think they’ll thrash my ass in the race away from Grim Reaper.
Seeking scientific truth, I enter PubMed’s database, armed with an obese bowl of guacamole. I give CR an equal chance by checking out its accomplishments first. Here’s the skinny— yes, there’s portly data supporting CR benefits to fruit flies, rats, mice, yeast, and rhesus macaques, but CR does nothing for house flies (except kill them younger). Weird. But let’s get species centric. Caloric Restriction’s best advertisement is the “human study” conducted at Washington University School of Medicine. CR subjects analyzed here had very low cholesterol, triglyceride, inflammation, plasma insulin, and plasma glucose concentration levels, plus their blood pressure resembled a 10-year-old kid’s and their hearts looked like they belonged to people 17 years younger. Impressive. Astonishing.
My hand wavers above the 950 calories of guacamole. Drooling but hesitating, suddenly I recall an email I got from a CRONie in California. He predicts, “I expect to die of the flu but not heart disease, a stroke, liver or lung problems, or cancer.” Flu? Hmm…. I quickly find six studies describing CR lab animals that lacked sufficient energy to fight off parasites, bacteria, viruses. That’s why my CRONie sees influenza waving him in with a feverish finger. A Drexel University abstract noted that underweight mice were more susceptible to influenza; this correlates with UC Irvine research that indicates being underweight is a dangerous condition in the elderly. Will CRONie health stumble past 80? Very few CR practitioners have entered advanced years yet so we don’t have that answer, but we do know that the longevity champ was a high-calorie junky. The favorite foodstuffs of Jean Calment — 122 year old Frenchwoman — were olive oil (1909 calories per cup), port wine (240 per cup) and chocolate (4,500 calories per kilogram, her weekly intake).
The CR Society website is upfront about many of their diet’s negative side-effects (hunger, reduced energy, menstrual irregularity, infertility, and loss of strength, stamina and testosterone) but what about general bitchiness? I’m a shit when I’m starving. Back at PubMed I dig up an abstract from Boston noting that the suicide rate of men goes up when their BMI dips below 21. Yikes! CRON ambition is 20 or less. UCLA molecular biologist Dr. Jay Phelan admitted to interviewers that the starving rodents in his CR study “didn’t like it… they bit people… and had an unpleasant demeanor.” I’d be one of those rats. Cut me down to 1,400 calories per day and I’d chew everyone’s head off.
Are CR people insane? Anorexic? No, they just gobble whole hog the simplistic maxim “Eat Less, Live Longer.” Everyone knows curbing calories can promote life extension, but CRON’s 30% ideal is extreme. Okinawans garner long life spans partly because they push their plates away when their tummy is 80% full. Ray Kurzweil and Dr. Terry Grossman advise a 10-20% reduction on their website’s free health program. An 36-year study of 1,915 male Hawaiians titled “How Much Should We Eat?” determined that a 15% reduction is ideal. Healthy facts are easy to find, but CR maintains its severe abstention because it worships supportive data, but rejects dissenting studies. Sandy Szwarc agrees; she opines that “the promotion of caloric restriction is rife with poor science and considering only half the story.” (See Resources)
I believe CRON’s benefits are vastly due to the first 20% caloric reduction; the additional 10% they forgo is mostly risky affectation. To complicate the equation, recent studies indicate that methionine (an amino acid) is also a factor. Rodents on methionine restriction (MR) extend their lives by 40% even if they eat a normal quota of calories. Many scientists now speculate that CR’s success is largely due to methionine reduction in CR’s wide net of denial. MR is more appealing than CR to anyone who wants to stuff their stomach, especially vegans who have already renounced high-meth animal products. Personally, I switched from flatulent chickpeas to equally-gaseous lentils, because the latter legume contains only 1/3 as much methionine.
What about CRON’s taboo against calorie-burning stamina exercise? Glad you asked. CRON’s attitude on this issue is narrow-minded, philosophically flabby, and medically wrong. Numerous studies prove that heart-pumping, sweaty oldsters are behaving appropriately. Check out the Danish study “Joggers Live Longer,” or Leiden University’s 32-year research of 2,259 ice-skating Dutchmen, or the Harvard Alumni Health Study of 13,485 men entitled “Associations of light, moderate, and vigorous intensity physical activity with longevity.” Extremely active elderly outlive moderate and light workout aged every time. CRON’s approach — avoiding high caloric expenditure because we’ll need to replace the calories — is timid and unjustifiable.
Will CR’s 30% regimen ever become widely popular? A Pied Piper attracting gaunt masses? No, and here’s why:
Reason #1: CR’s 30% is not sexy, and Eros trumps Thanatos. Our culture’s lust is aimed at round rumps, succulent curves, meaty bosoms in both genders. Nobody googles to get off on “CR practitioners naked.” There aren’t any thumbnails anyway, or YouTube videos of bikinied CRONies dancing to “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
Reason #2: CR is family-unfriendly. If children were placed on the regimen their growth would be stunted 50% and their parents jailed. (CR Society requires members to be at least 21 years old.) CR kids would rarely be conceived, anyway, because CR women are often infertile and both parents can have weak libidos.
Reason #3: CR doesn’t offer enough gain for the pain. CRONies hope to extend their lives 15-25% from the day they begin, but most scientists view this as wildly optimistic. Dr. Phelan suggests longevity “might increase by 2%.” National Institutes of Health (NIH) admits “we think we will never know for sure.” Transhumanist Aubrey de Grey wrote an essay subtitled “Why Human Caloric Restriction or Its Emulation May Only Extend Life Expectancy by 2-3 years.” I did the math — let’s assume I get 25 more years. Should I avoid dinner parties, gourmand potlucks, and restaurant feasts, to eat at home with a gram scale and CRON-O-Meter as my only dining companions? With the benefit being the possible promise of continuing this excitement for an extra… hmm… 2% of Phelan’s estimate of 25 years… six months?!
Reason #4: Tasty Options! I toss two grape-flavored resveratrol pills onto my tongue. One CRONie conceded that resveratrol offers half the benefits of CR. So that retrieves me 3 months. Maybe low-meth lentils will give me back the other 3 months. All caught up!
Maybe a better pharmaceutical will appear, like Rapamycin. Maybe artificial stomachs will be available in a decade. Maybe nanotech or the Singularity will save us. Meanwhile, I’m hungry. Do I want Belgian waffles with whipped cream and blueberries? Chile rellenos drenched in mole sauce? I’ll jog it off later on the waterfront trail to the Golden Gate Bridge. Burping, I’ll think about Andre Breton’s quote, “Beauty will be convulsive, or will not be at all.”