As the sun rose over the dusty savannah, the small group of humans slowly prepared to move on for another day. Food is scarce during the dry season in this Africa 100,000 years BCE and the group is forced to move long distances to collect enough to eat. Meat is plentiful around the remaining watering holes but so are the predators. It is too dangerous to try to kill more than the occasional gazelle. Thus the group lives eating just enough to last to the next day with evolution supporting genes designed to live with little and not plenty. Eventually the ancestors of these people will populate every corner of the world with those genes in each human alive today.
Now, 102,000 years later, those genes designed for scarcity seem to be plaguing mankind. At least that’s what supporters of the so called calorie restricted (CR) movement would like us to believe. Calorie restricted diets basically point to research showing that extremely low calorie intake, coupled with appropriate nutritional supervision, can lead to extremely long lives, good health and a healthy self image. Rebecca Traister wrote a description of calorie reduced (CR) diets in Vanity Fair on the day before Thanksgiving.
Calorie-restricted dieters cut their food intake drastically, to around 1,200-1,400 calories a day for a woman and 1,800-2,000 for a man, depending on the individual’s height and weight. Those meager metrics of tastiness must be further apportioned to constitute 30 percent protein, 30 percent fat and 40 percent carbs. It’s an eating regimen that is greatly aided by calculators, computer software and postal scales.
Hard-core CR dieters usually lose a good deal of weight, though guidelines suggest no more than a pound a week. Some lose their ability to perform strenuous exercise, some (especially men) suffer from an altered or reduced libido, and women may stop getting their periods. Pictures of the diet’s most devoted practitioners reveal them to be emaciated, like concentration-camp survivors or after-school-special cautionary tales or thinspiration models for pro-ana Web sites. With sunken facial features and hunched frames, these spokespeople hardly look like models of what is generally considered good health.
While it is difficult to determine whether the claims of health benefits of limiting every single gram of food are truly life extending, proponents of the hypotheses do point to an increasing number of scientific studies pointing in that direction. There were for example several articles recently showing how CR rhesus monkeys Rudy, Canto and Eeyore have dramatically out ‘performed’ their similarly aged, normally fed companions Matthias, Owen and Johann. The New York Times had perhaps the most complete coverage (and not hidden behind the TimesSelect wall, wow!).
In the last year, calorie-restricted diets have been shown in various animals to affect molecular pathways likely to be involved in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. Earlier this year, researchers studying dietary effects on humans went so far as to claim that calorie restriction may be more effective than exercise at preventing age-related diseases.
Monkeys like Rudy seem to be proving the thesis. Recent tests show that the animals on restricted diets, including Canto and Eeyore, two other rhesus monkeys at the primate research center, are in indisputably better health as they near old age than Matthias and other normally fed lab mates like Owen and Johann. The average lifespan for laboratory monkeys is 27.
Traister makes the obvious connection between anorexia nervosa and CR and also immediately points out what every CR supporter will tell you – there is a big difference between CR and anorexia. Anorexia is about self-hate and self-destruction, CR is about self-love. A love of life so great that one hopes it will go on forever.
While I am not convinced that CR is the lifestyle of choice, I would support Traister’s question of whether an extended CR life is a lifestyle worth living.
Perhaps the more important question is if this research is truly effective, why aren’t the insurance companies pushing it? Why isn’t big pharma trying to increase the effects? This is a case where science is starting to show that a lifestyle change is being shown to help, to reduce long term health problems. Is this kind of research worth $1 billion or will people simply want to live to eat and enjoy another day? It is clear that unless more and more products come on the market, products like Quorn, products that allow industry to make money while starving you happy, this kind of lifestyle will have to fight an up hill battle. Can you imagine Saturday morning cartoons without some form of sugar advertisement? Neither can I.
Last week, in what was more an aside than the real point, I said that long term lifestyle change is more important than a single medication. I used the failure of a cholesterol medication to poorly illustrate my idea. One commenter either didn’t understand or decided not to agree with my point. While I do advocate lifestyle changes, I also think those changes must be realistic. Blindly following the science-du-jour will not help. Again Traister makes the point vividly.
Of course, if health research karma is a bitch, then foodies have had a slap coming. For years, medical news has gone our way. Chocolate? Red wine? Coffee? All good for us. Recall the highlight health bulletins of the past few years: Dairy products can help us lose weight, fatty fish helps our hearts, tomato sauce on pizza is full of lycopene. The once reviled egg turns out to be very healthy in moderation. Antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids have been the best things to happen to food since the term “al dente” got translated correctly. And can we talk about nuts and avocados? Oh salubrious bliss, found in a notexcessively-large serving of guacamole! Even the dismal pall of the Atkins years has begun to lift, as whole grains make a comeback and people acknowledge that ketosis was great and all until they popped a single cracker in their mouths and promptly gained 20 pounds.
So maybe we got spoiled, thinking we were doing great by our bodies by keeping them active and fueling them through the addition of delicious nutrients — blueberries in our smoothies and $12 pomegranate juice in our cocktails! Our reflex at being told once more that health is about the subtraction — of joy — from our lives feels like a bucket of ice water thrown on us during a comfortable Sunday brunch. Perhaps this unwelcome news explains my general grumpiness not only about the CR diet but also about CR dieters themselves, or at least the ones I read about and see on television. Whether it’s because these people are doing something antithetical to everything I believe is good for you in life — or because they are doing it and yet continue to pass their medical tests with flying colors, my irritation knows no bounds.
The problem is not that long term lifestyle change wouldn’t be good, but the necessary cultural change is very difficult to achieve. There is a pervasive feeling that science ‘solves’ everything. But if the scientific solution is not the solution we want, a solution we can live with, has science really helped? Even worse. Would half a planet full of obsessively calorie reduced scarecrows mirroring the scarecrows inhabiting the other half with the poorest countries in the world be a good thing? Would you like to work until you are 120 because the standard lifespan is then 150 years? Do you punish the doughnut eaters for not appropriately paying the pension piper?
Back on that dusty plain in Africa, the group of humans find a clump of roots and begin eating, sitting under the shade of the solitary tree and relaxing for a moment away from the midday sun. The leader of the group leans back, closes his eyes and dreams of heaven – a world full of food, where all he would need do is hold out his hand and food would appear. Little did he know that his dream would someday come true for many people. But for some – it isn’t a dream – it’s a nightmare.