I have intermittently subscribed to the Calorie Restriction Society mailing list, even when I periodically go berserk and tear into packages of my favorite cookies. (Regular readers may recall that I am quite passionate for Ginger-O's by Newman's Organics! YES!) For this reason, I have never actually contributed to said email list, since I am a mere dilettante. But New Year's resolutions being what they are (or aren't, in my case), I have taken another look at the program. I re-uped on the list, and have finally started opening the email digests that I had been summarily deleting out of guilt. And I am evaluating, once again, the whole idea.
When I do something, I tend to go whole hog, as we say in these parts. Thus, if I should begin this program again, it won't be undertaken lightly.
I assure you, I haven't lost my feminism. I am not particularly interested in being thin, although it would increase my access to the way-cuter thrift store clothes.
The reason I would undertake this hard-core regimen? They say you will live longer!
Did somebody say... live longer?
Okay, now you're talkin!
Since the 1930s extensive scientific research has shown that calorie restricted (CR) diets improve health and extend lifespans of nearly every species tested, including worms, spiders, rodents, dogs, cows and monkeys. We believe it is likely that people who carefully adopt a CR diet will see similar results.
The CR Society supports the efforts of people who practice CR for current health, future longevity, or other benefits; those curious about or interested in understanding the effects of the diet; and those interested in the development of related, science-based health-enhancing and life-extension technologies.
Admittedly, my fear of death (the pale horse) is comfortably banished to the fringes whenever I encounter this sort of stuff. In addition, the scifi geek in me loves the idea of being a guinea pig, but of course, I don't want to ingest anything dangerous.
This seems perfect for me, since it involves NOT ingesting things.
Katherine Seligman wrote an article about the Calorie Restriction lifestyle for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007:
[Barry] Gamble practices calorie restriction, packing all his daily nutrition into close to a quarter fewer calories than his body needs to maintain his natural weight - which used to hover around 195 pounds. At 6 feet tall, he now consumes 1,800 calories each weekday (he adds 200 on weekends when he gets more exercise) and weighs 164, his slimness cloaked by an extra layer he wears to keep warm. Being thin, which causes him to feel cold, is a side effect, not the goal of calorie restriction, or CR, as it's called.
But it's worth it for what Gamble says are his benefits - more energy, fewer digestive problems, better measures of heart health and mobility and perhaps, although there are no guarantees, a longer life.
"The real reason I do it is because I feel better today," said Gamble, who happened to be celebrating - although not with cake - his 67th birthday the day I met his friends at the Breakfast Club. His face was deeply lined, but his energy level was evident. After his non-breakfast he planned to head to the gym for a light workout, then to his office. "I have more bounce in my step than I did before," he said, jumping lightly from one foot to the other in his Birkenstocks.
No one knows how many people are practicing CR, what followers say is "a way of living" instead of a diet. The Calorie Restriction Society, based on the work of the late UCLA gerontology researcher Roy Walford, was founded in 1994 by a small group of people interested in the science behind CR and in creating a social network. It now has about 2,000 members (approximately 70 percent of them male, although society officials aren't sure why), with thousands more on its mailing list.
Yes, that's what I worry about.
The well-respected but eccentric Dr. Walford, who studied the immunological and molecular aspects of the biology of aging, published hundreds of scientific papers. He alternated lab research with sabbaticals where he worked on such projects as living in a 3-acre glass-enclosed environment called the Biosphere to test its effect on health, and traveling India in a loincloth "measuring the rectal temperatures of holy men," according to the Los Angeles Times. He emerged as a CR guru with his books "The 120 Year Diet" and "The Anti-Aging Plan," which was written with his daughter. Hoping to live to that magic number, he rigorously restricted himself to 1,600 nutritionally scrutinized calories a day. His health failed when he developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known at Lou Gehrig's disease, which he attributed to oxygen deprivation from living in the Biosphere. He died from it in 2004. But not before reinvigorating a field of research that had been around since the 1930s.
Scientists have long known that calorie restriction increases the life span of earthworms, mice, dogs and monkeys. Studies have shown that mice and rats fed reduced calories but the best possible nutrition have a 40 to 50 percent increase in life span. The same was true of rodents fed every other day. Researchers have noted that both groups show a decrease in glucose and insulin levels. Researchers believe that metabolic changes from reducing calories lowers cell turnover, meaning there is less chance of DNA damage - associated with cancer, which is a major cause of death in mice and rats. While they can see these results with CR, they aren't certain why they occur. They theorize that reduced glucose curtails the production of free radicals in cell mitochondria or that the stress of CR makes the body learn to cope with more serious stress at a cellular level.
"It's the only thing that is known to extend the life span in warm-blooded animals," said Dr. Marc Hellerstein, a professor at UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley who studies human nutrition and metabolism. He recently started recruiting people for a study where subjects will eat a near-fasting diet every other day, alternated with a normal one. "It's the most amazing thing in all of biology."
And there is a growing impetus to find out if humans reap the same benefits, over time, as lab animals. The Baby Boomers are aging, and just as they felt the need to revolutionize attitudes toward child rearing and midlife, they are interested in a better old age. They are the ones who promoted 50 as the new 40. Could 100 will be the next 90 - or 80?
"This is definitely a Boomer diet," said Robert Cavanaugh, secretary of the Calorie Restriction Society and a retired Marine, who, along with his wife, has been following the diet for six years. "We used to be considered a bunch of extremist wackos who were starving ourselves to live longer. But now most any major university that does research is doing some on CR."
The National Institute on Aging and National Institutes of Health are both funding research at major universities. Private industry is also studying the metabolic effects of CR, working to create a pill that will mimic it and bypass the need for a rigid diet.
That's not to say that CR lacks skeptics. More than one person mentioned to me the line that CR "won't make you live longer, but it will feel longer."
Do we really want to live longer if we aren't eating Ginger-Os? Aye, there's the rub.
And does it really work?
So far there is tempting evidence but no conclusive long-term studies on CR in humans. Partly this is because it's difficult to study longevity in people. Rats have no choice but to stay in their cages and wait for food pellets. Human research subjects would have to be followed for decades, and not many humans can, or will, stick to the rigors of the diet. And those who do it tend to follow disparate regimens. Some severely limit calories every day, while others fast all or part of every day. Without feeding each subject the same diet, results are hard to come by or duplicate, say researchers.
I have attempted this lifestyle several times, usually accompanying my attempts to go raw. I usually stall out at around 50-70% raw foods; meaning, that is the percentage of my diet that is totally raw. Raw foods tend to be low-calorie, and munching on raw veggies easily turns into a default setting. (My last attempt went decidedly kaput after I had gum surgery during the summer; good luck munching on raw veggies after gum surgery!)
Some of the first willing research subjects were volunteers from the Calorie Restriction Society, who in 2002 offered themselves as subjects for an ongoing study at Washington University School of Medicine. Researchers there have measured markers of health and aging, and their findings, published by the National Academies of Sciences in 2002, say CR led to "profound and sustained beneficial effects." These included lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, less body fat and reduced levels of a protein known to cause inflammation, which is believed to be a factor in diseases.
Washington University researchers and doctors at Pennington Biomedical Research Center and the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Center are all continuing federally funded work on CR and humans. The Pennington team, in results published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year, found that CR decreased fasting insulin levels and body temperature. The same group published a paper in PLoS Medicine this year saying that CR decreased whole body oxygen consumption and DNA damage in young non-obese adults. The team is now recruiting for a larger study group that will be followed for several years.
I have also read the late Dr. Walford's book, temptingly titled Beyond the 120-Year Diet.
The problem with the diet is, it tends to make me a little crazy. Okay, a lot crazy. Is there anything they can do about that?
Some of us, you know, are already flaky enough.
Dean Pomerleau gave a fascinating presentation on the psychological effects of CRON*--which uncomfortably hit home with me:
Yes, my acute interest in TOP CHEF began around this time. When you start reading bizarre vegan cookbooks (with no intention of actually cooking!) on your off-hours, you know you've hit the wall.
Manifestations of CR Obsession
*“Orthorexia Nervosa” – Obsession with healthful eating - endless diet tuning, unwillingness to eat “forbidden” foods.
*Sight – magazines, Food Network TV – ironic, most don’t actually make, let alone ever taste, featured recipes
*Taste – heavy, exotic spices, proclivity for strong tastes (e.g. peppers), flavor “spritzing”, sucralose reliance, toothpaste eating
*Food tasting, and even more harmful eating disorders (e.g. bulimia and anorexia).
*Perhaps a natural result of scarcity mentality – food is scare, so need to maximize experience from what one is willing to eat or contemplate eating.
Thus, I think it is obvious that such a diet, over long periods, can rapidly turn into NO FUN. Although I am also aware that many of the saints, ascetics and holy people I admire, have usually eaten in just this manner. (My first excursion into this lifestyle, not surprisingly, was during a very austere Lent, some years ago.) Your humble narrator believes that spiritual enlightenment is the most fun of ALL, and I am always in the market for more. This seems like still another way to go there, and my curiosity is getting the best of me. Dean says:
As I have often discussed with my dear friend JW, that last one is the big prize, for me. I want this spiritual lesson in the worst way... only to discover that it finally dawns when one is fully ready to accept it, and not before.
*Introspection / awareness
*Self-discipline / zeal
*Cessation of desires
*Smoothing of emotions – equanimity
*Recognition of cause and effect - interdependence
*Realization of impermanence – tough one for CRonies
It doesn't come cheaply; I realize that one must work hard for it. Will CR properly prepare me for this lesson, at long last?
Where do I sign up?
I promise, I will try to start slowly. I am already a committed vegetarian of well over a decade. Processed sugars (my beloved Ginger-Os!) will be most difficult to give up when one is overworked, upset and/or need emotional comforts (see reference to gum surgery, above). Other bad eating habits include actual cream in my coffee and fabulous samples of expensive, aged cheeses from exotic places, at my place of employment... the whole reason, I often joke, that I have never been able to go completely vegan. I will likely have to avoid a whole area of the store I work in, since I seem patently unable to keep my hand out of those damnable samples, which are (no other word for it, people) simply heavenly. (Unlike most folks, I would gladly choose cheese over any chocolate or sweets.)
If I mess up, it will the fault of EVIL EXOTIC CHEESE, probably from France.
Gonna give it a shot and see what happens. If I start watching too much TOP CHEF or reading woo-woo cookbooks in my spare time, I will know it's time to slice up some of that cheese. Gimme!
*This stands for Calorie Restriction/Optimal Nutrition, as opposed to 'starving' in an unhealthy way. Participants maximize the nutrient content in the few calories they take in (i.e. lots of greens and phytonutrients) and ingest a boatload of supplements, as I do anyway. Practitioners often call themselves CRONies, for short.