Why Caloric Restriction is not on my Menu

Nutritional Information

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?

CR Society - Photo credit: crsociety.org

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).

Death by Carrot. Photo credit: slate.comThe 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.

Caloric restriction in mice. Photo credit: formerfatguy.comWhat 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.

Aubrey de Grey. Photo credit: BJ Klein Wikipedia.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.”

26 Comments

  1. Hello, I am a CRON practitioner. Your points are very well made. However, I would like to offer my own perspective for your readers. I have been eating a primal/paleo low-carb diet for over 10 years and for the past 5-7 years I have reduced calories to a CRON level.

    I agree with many of your points, and I differ significantly from most CRON practitioners because I do not eat many vegetables at all. My diet is very high in fat and relatively high in protein. This is considered a “no no” in standard CRON, which is a plant-based diet. I agree that many of the points you make are accurate for a plant-based diet but not for a diet like mine that is based on animal fat.

    I have meticulously tracked my diet and still check it if I make changes. I am exceeding the US RDA in all nutrients. Obviously I do not meet recommendations for fiber and calories and I exceed recommendations for fat and protein.

    My diet has all the benefits of low-carb metabolism with no insulin-related hunger cravings but since I also dropped calories to about 1500 per day I feel mildly hungry right before dinner but not unwell or ravenous. I’m in excellent health, much improved since I made the 2 changes in diet.

    Regarding children: It’s my belief that people don’t understand the weaning process and fail to wean into adulthood. Milk is high in fat and sugar. Weaning foods in traditional cultures are animal body fats and high-fat organs. Then some plant foods and muscle meats are introduced. In other words, a child should be weaned away from a high-carbohydrate diet onto a low-carb high fat diet. The fact that most modern diets are carbohydrate-based shows that rather than weaning, children are being given a substitute for the milk sugars (cereal, yogurt, and refined sugar). I think that the sugar dependency and inability to wean hampers development. Also, eventually, a child (should) consume less food through the weaning process, and into old age a person should continue to consume less. It seems obvious to me that babies, children, and young adults should be consuming different types and quantities of food from adults. The most family friendly diet of all is that which meets the needs of each of its members, not the one that provides a median of quality and quantity – that plan of eating is only possible with mass-produced food or grains, which should be avoided, to my opinion.

    Best wishes
    Puma

  2. Curious about what’s made you so bitter about the CR crowd. They’re not particularly aggressive about proselytizing. So eat whatever you want, who gives a shit?

    Your review, such as it is, of the data supporting longevity resulting from CR is cherry-picked garbage. Chocolate-eating Frenchwomen do not make for a compelling argument against the basic findings, which have been confirmed many times over in mice, worms, monkeys, rats, cats, dogs….of course we don’t have data from humans on longevity, for the obvious reason that we haven’t conducted studies for long enough. …. I was going to go on about the various logical problems in this article but I see that the author has descended to challenging commenters to compare BMIs.

    My guess is that some (much?) of this was meant to be satire – ie, funny, but it’s just dumb. 1500+ words of dumb.

  3. I completely agree with you. I hate people who tell me to restrict my calories and eat “healthy” foods low in fat and sugar. It’s been proven now that low fat foods are not necessarily healthy and its ok to have natural foods, the way nature intended them to be (yes that includes whole milk as well), as long as you burn those calories off. weight loss boot camp

  4. PS: vegetarian marathon runners usually don’t sport any attractive bodies, no muscles or anything to look at in general. Just a thought. Those muscles just shrink away together with testosterone levels… :[[ Must be a sad feeling.

  5. Athlete and dancer here who looks much younger that my bio-age…
    I 100% agree CR pple are nutjobs (and ugly-looking as hell)…the better study would be: how many days on CR does it take for mice to permanently lose sex drive?
    But I think Vegetarians are nutjobs as well sorry…
    I’m not from Amerikkka, originally, and where I’m from people lived over 100 and worked in fields to the last day; they ate meats and milk products all their lives. Vegans, vegetarians, CRs… it’s all from the same mental crowd for me, American granola hippies who know nothing about life.

  6. I think when one becomes over excessively concerned and aware of their calorie intake they are adversely harming their health. There is a need for all kinds of food to produce different types of benefits and elements required to distribute energy. When you won’t have adequate carbs how are you suppose to stay strong and energetic even though carbs have the most calories. I am not in favor of such precise recordings and maintenance.
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  7. I agree with you that a lot of CRONies seem to take a good thing to an extreme. I am absolutely convinced just by my own experience that eating less than your capacity is a beneficial practice, with immediate benefits. My stomach will tell me when I need to stop eating, and if my tastebuds override that, I’m guaranteed to feel like a bloated, dull-witted slug forthwith. I’ve tried to shrug off the slug with frantic exercise afterward, with only limited success. The lingering effects of gobbling are just too powerful. I’m very surprised that works for you.

    But yeah, exercising lightly will never give you the glorious feelings that intense exercise does. If I want to feel reborn for a while, I know I’m going to have to run some sprints or ride a bike up some devilish hills or something along those lines…walking is nice and helpful, but it won’t make your lungs feel like they’ve just learned how to really breathe, like the gasp-inducing stuff does. I’m soooo grateful for vigorous exercise. Even if they were right, living longer but less alive…nah. Though restricting calories CAN be euphoric, as has been mentioned. I just doubt the euphoria lasts as long as an exercise high.

    I have a theory that people who restrict 30 or more percent have compromised immune systems because they lack zinc. Since zinc is most abundant and bioavailable in meats and eggs, and that stuff is kept to a minimum by CRON practitioners due to its high calorie content (and probably for other reasons), they’re probably deficient in it…and the deficiency will only get worse over time. Hence the susceptibility to viruses. I know you’re a vegetarian, so you might disagree with my reasoning, but I myself have suffered a zinc deficiency after years of being primarily vegetarian. I was prone to sickness and infections for all those years, and a host of other symptoms associated with zinc deficiency. I even tried supplementing with zinc and saw no improvement…until I started eating animals. It’s been hard to do that because I just don’t really like meat. I sometimes find it downright repulsive…but I’m determined to keep it in my diet, because the slow but steady progress in my condition has been so undeniable.

    One other thing I’m curious about…do you actually feel good after a marathon? That kind of thing seems like another unhealthy extreme, like cutting calories too drastically, or exercising too lightly. I know for damn sure I wouldn’t feel good after one.

  8. Interesting article.

    Do you think they should relabel their efforts as Reduce excess calories. I mean if one uses those C’s, as you do, what’s the beef?

    Cheers

  9. Hank Hyena, keepin’ it real! I agree with you. It is important to question these fads, the key words you used describing their motto as a “simplistic maxim” is right on and a red flag for anyone well-read. The regimen described in CR is dangerously reminiscent of anorexia symptoms, as another responder pointed out here. Besides, what good is a long life without quality–good food in moderation, a healthy sex drive, and plenty of energy. Thanks H+ for another good article.

    • Calorie restriction a fad? Oh come on! It has the most evidence to back it up out of any ‘anti aging’ lifestyle out there! Nothing works as well as CR… and resveratrol, you’re wasting your money because it failed in a recent study to extend the lifespan of normal healthy mice. Anorexia symptoms you say, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. I feel perfectly healthy, and so do many other people on CR. You also say about quality of life, what if I were to tell you that I cured my severe hay fever allergy so now that I can go out all summer, is this not an improvement in my quality of life? What if I say that I rarely get sick any more… my hearing, eye sight, smell, sleep, my concentration and memory have all improved after CR… is this not ‘improved quality of life’? Being healthy dertimes the quality of life you have, and CR gives you this for longer and less time being ill at the end of life. I also still have a sex drive, it’s not like its non existant at my age.

  10. Hank Hyena…. that 36 year old study showed that each group, despite their variation in calorie intake… all had a BMI of around 25… the study was rubbish.
    Phelan, de grey, or any other scientists do NOT have any hard data showing that CR won’t work in humans. You’re quote these 2-3% gain in lifespan but it comes from theories of why CR won’t work… not actual evidence. The evidence is that CR is superior to exercise in eliminating risks of disease.
    Calorie Restriction also slows aging of the immune system, so at 80 a CRer wouldn’t have the immunity of an 80 year old. Get it? I started calorie restriction from age 18 and I’m now 25. Maybe you can check out my blog and learn something 😉

    • Hi Matthew — I checked out your blog, I like your garden, your favorite books and that you exercise regularly, but you might not have all the answers at age 25 — your plan to “study aging” is great, maybe you can read CR skeptics with an open mind as you do that.

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