Restrict Calories, Revive Your Life (cont.)

Beyond Longevity

While adding health and longevity to life may be a result of calorie restriction, Brian M. Delaney, president of the Calorie Restriction Society, also looks at the bigger picture.

"There is substantial evidence that suggests relatively mild versions of this diet lower fasting glucose levels, which will radically reduce the probability that a person will get type 2 diabetes," says Delaney, who practices a more moderate form of calorie restriction. "There is also substantial evidence, though not quite as direct, that someone on a mild form of this diet will reduce his chances of cardiovascular diseases. And, there is evidence, although it's the least direct, that the probability of someone on a restricted-calorie diet getting cancer goes down."

Based on this evidence, explains Delaney, "If around 10% of Americans went on this diet, it would create a reduction in the incidence of these diseases, and reduce nationwide total healthcare costs significantly."

Societal impact aside, Delaney suggests the benefit of calorie restriction is not the possibility of living to 120, but living better, longer.

"There are different groups of people on a restricted-calorie diet," says Delaney. "There are a few life extensionists who are on the diet solely to live longer, others who want to lose weight, but most people just want to be more youthful, longer."

Low Cal, High Nutrition

So how can you do calorie restriction right? The trick is to make sure you're getting adequate nutrition.

"If you're cutting calories and not paying attention to how you eat, there could be some severe health consequences," says Susan Moores, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "From affecting your immune system to affecting your bones, to affecting your concentration and ability to focus, it's all how you plan your foods. However, if you're only eating 1,000 calories a day and you're eating well, there may be no noticeable changes."

Moores, who is a registered dietitian in St. Paul, Minn., recommends a diet similar to what Pomerleau eats.

"Definitely fruits and vegetables -- there's not a bad one on in the bunch," says Moores. "Also, whole grains, oats, barley, lean sources of protein -- lean red meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, and legumes, which are very power-packed and often forgotten."

Even with reduced-caloric intake, explains Moores, you can't get out of exercise.

"No matter how many calories you cut, you won't reach the fountain of youth without physical activity, without exception," says Moores.

First Steps

If you're interested in trying calorie restriction, there are steps that can help you test the fountain of youth waters:

Moores strongly recommends working with a dietitian, so an expert can make sure you are getting proper nutrition and making each calorie count.
Pomerleau recommends finding your baseline. "The first thing is to get some blood work done ahead of time to know where you are," says Pomerleau. "Have your cholesterol and blood glucose levels checked so you can track your improvements."
Next, don't overdo it. "Don't make dramatic changes to your diet," says Pomerleau. "Start by cleaning up your diet and substituting refined carbs for healthy fruits and veggies."
Find a support system. "The Calorie Restriction Society is a tremendous resource," says Pomerleau. "For people who are new to the diet, as well as people who have been on it for years."
Looking Forward

With a multicenter trial looking at the physiological effects of a restricted-calorie diet underway, researchers hope to pinpoint the impact of this diet in humans. But, only a year in length and looking at factors such as cholesterol and glucose levels, the study will not answer the question practitioners of the diet are longing to know: Will it really increase their life spans?

Nonetheless, Pomerleau and others hope their vigilance pays off.

"The bottom line is that for someone starting calorie restriction around the age of 35, practicing at the level I and keeping it up until they get into old age, they're likely to add -- if the animal evidence can be extrapolated -- from eight to 10 years to their life span," says Pomerleau.

And with a little help from advances in technology, maybe even longer.

"We fully expect there to be substantial improvements in medical technology over the coming decades that could dramatically extend a person's life span," says Pomerleau. "And the target for calorie-restriction practitioners, such as me, is to be around to benefit from them."

Published Feb. 16, 2004.

SOURCES: Brian M. Delaney, president, Calorie Restriction Society, Mark Mattson, PhD, chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences, National Institute on Aging, Susan Moores, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, St. Paul, Minn. Dean Pomerleau, Pittsburgh. Cornell Chronicle web site. Calorie Restriction Society.

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