Calorie-Restricted Diets, Aging and Quality of Life

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Back in 2006, The New York Times reported on a study that showed that monkeys who ate one third less calories than normal could extend their lifespan. The result of this study was recently reinforced by a newer study. “For age-related deaths caused by illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, the voracious eaters died at three times the rate of restricted monkeys,” Science magazine reported this month. Then came all of the segments on the news about calorie restriction being some sort of fountain of youth.

On the face of it, this sounds like really bad news for those of us who enjoy food. By consuming an appropriate amount of calories are we leading ourselves toward death sooner than necessary? Even if we could keep up with this kind of strict regimen, the answer is: doubtful.

“Calorie restriction may seem promising, but it has potential downsides, including constant hunger, sensitivity to cold, weakened immune function and sour mood,” Susan Roberts told the LA Times. Roberts is a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University, where she is leading a study on calorie-restricted diets.

While a small number of people have taken to restricting their food intake by a third to beneficial results, I have to wonder if it’s worth eating food that looks like birdseed (not to mention what it may taste like) in order to live a bit longer.

Here at Green Mountain, our philosophy focuses on enjoyment of food and mindful eating. For people who have a hard time maintaining their weight, counting calories can take over your life, putting an unnatural focus on food. A New York magazine writer tried the diet for two months and wrote: “The hardest part, I find, is the math: not just the labor of tracking everything I put in my body but the way in which calorie counting makes the no-free-lunch adage so viscerally clear.”

And as we’ve seen time and time again, dieting and restrictive eating can backfire and cause overeating, binge eating or guilt. I also think that by sticking to such a severe diet undermines our body’s own natural and amazing ability to regulate itself. Some days we eat more than others because our body needs it and we make up for occasionally over- or under- eating over time. It’s a simple matter of knowing your body’s needs and trusting the cues it gives you to nourish it. How could eating like that be unhealthy?

The other thing that gets me about calorie restriction is that it doesn’t take into account the social aspect of food. How it not only nourishes our bodies, but our souls, too. Could you do without hot dogs and beer on the Fourth of July? Grandma’s apple pie? Savouring food is part — a wonderful part, I might add — of being human. (Stay tuned: Marsha has more to say on this in a guest post for MizFit on Thursday).

The results in monkeys also seem in direct contrast to other studies which say that overweight people tend to live longer than people who are underweight, normal, or obese. So, while the scientists and their monkeys duke it out, we’ll stay here on the sidelines with our hot dogs and beer, mindfully enjoying the view.

Photo by malias via flickr.

5 Responses (Add Yours)

  • etinca says:

    Actually, these monkeys’ diets were reduced 10% from their normal diet, because the control monkeys were fed 20% MORE than their normal diet & the test monkeys ate 30% less than the controls. And the actual findings were statistically null. There’s an interesting analysis of the study at junk food science dot com. Part of the argument against continual calorie restriction is the minimal benefit (if any) in lengthening lifespan in longer-lived mammals, and the negative impact on mood & comfort level one has to cope with.

  • Hanlie says:

    While there are some populations that consume a lot less calories than we do, and are healthy and long-lived, they have done so all their lives. They didn’t start off obese and restricted their calories to lose weight. I think if someone from our society wants to try that, they should start from a normal weight and reduce calories over a period of time, not overnight.

    And I’m quite ready to believe that the monkey study was flawed in more than one way – will go and check it now…

    Hanlie’s last blog post..Bean & Vegetable Stew

  • Sagan says:

    I think Hanlie’s made a good point here. Drastically changing from what we’re used to is just a bad idea all around.

    I’m iffy about calorie restrictive diets. I don’t know that it’s worth it to live a little longer if your QUALITY of life isn’t as good (weakened immune system, crankiness etc).

    Sagan’s last blog post..Guest Post: Yoga for Running

  • I like post a lot,
    I have done some research on this before and yes it is true,
    I don’t know how it be related to humans calorie intake,
    or may it could be.

  • AsleyB says:

    Does eating only foods with no calories or negative calories give the same effect as starving yourself?

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