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Posted November 30, 2004 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News
 
 

Extreme calorie counting


By KIM PIERCE / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Inspired by the book Maximum Life Span by Dr. Roy Walford, the Garland resident became one of the first people in the country in 1986 to take up something called “calorie restriction.” By eating significantly less than the accepted norms, Mr. Cooper hopes to improve both the quality and quantity of his life.

Mr. Cooper, 56, is so fascinated with beating back Father Time, in fact, that he gave up a successful career in electrical engineering and now spends his days as a doctoral candidate in the new aging research labs at Southern Methodist University.

Twelve hundred miles away in Southern California, expatriate Texan Louise Gold pounded the shoreline for months in preparation for September’s 2004 Maui Marathon. At 48, the certified public accountant still likes to win and placed third in her age group in the Maui race.

She, too, follows a restricted-calorie diet, which has been shown in animals to extend life span, sometimes dramatically.

“I want to live to be very, very old,” she says, “and I want to be running when I’m very, very old.”At a time when most Americans are struggling with obesity and being overweight, a handful of contrarians eschew the Krispy Kremes, the Häagen-Dazs, the Big Macs and the 16-ounce T-bones – many won’t even touch bread, pasta or most fruits – in pursuit of a longer, more vigorous life.

They are part of the Calorie Restriction Society, a group of about 2,000 members, mostly in America, who adhere to a strict high-nutrient, low-calorie diet in the hopes that eating less will mean living longer – perhaps to an age of 120, which most scientists consider the maximum potential human life span.

They’re pinning their hopes on research that’s been done since the early 20th century but was revived in earnest only about 30 years ago, showing that animals – from spiders to dogs – live longer and better when they eat substantially less. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison are engaged in a long-term study of rhesus monkeys. And some limited studies on human practitioners of calorie-restriction have shown promising effects on health.

But here’s the hitch: No one knows what the long-term results will be with humans or what the downside of eating this way might be. Dr. Walford died this year of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, at age 79, considerably short of his goal.

For humans, “there’s no proof that calorie restriction prolongs life because we basically don’t have those studies,” says Jo Ann Carson, professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

“It is scientifically plausible,” she says.

But the issue is complex. In animal studies, especially with rats and mice, the question is no longer whether calorie restriction works to prolong life, but how.

“We discovered that in the 1970s,” says Edward J. Masoro, emeritus professor in the department of physiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, whose research was devoted to calorie restriction.

“We’re not trying to prove it works,” he says from his home in Charleston, S.C. “The question is, what’s the mechanism that makes it work? That has not been uncovered unequivocally.

“I don’t practice calorie restriction,” he adds. “I did have a coronary bypass when I was 69. I’ll be 80 this year. After that, I ate a low-fat diet. … I did exercise.”

Not for everyone

Anyone contemplating the regimen should read carefully the list of cautions and hazards on the CR Society Web site (www.calorie restriction.org), Dr. Carson says.

“Number One, you shouldn’t do this if you’re still growing,” she says. “You should not do it if you’re pregnant. I wouldn’t suggest someone already ill, with cancer or HIV, try this. … Someone who might be prone to an eating disorder, when exposed to this concept, it might precipitate anorexia nervosa or foster it.”

The CR Society Web site has a lengthy section detailing the differences between calorie restriction and anorexia. Among the differences, CR devotees are not motivated by appearance. In fact, Mr. Cooper notes, he would probably look better if he put on a few pounds. CR practitioners pay attention to calories, whereas anorexics focus on weight. People practicing CR also are keenly attuned to nutrition.

There are much more data supporting calorie restriction as a healthy lifestyle than exist for the popular Atkins diet, says Dr. Masoro. But, as he points out in one of his papers on the subject, we still don’t know empirically the effect of calorie restriction on humans.

Other problems listed on the Web site range from menstrual irregularity to reduced bone mass. But ask Mr. Cooper and Ms. Gold what the worst issue is and they say it’s being cold.

“The biggest negative, bar none, is cold,” says Ms. Gold. “I’m always cold. In fact, I miss the Texas heat.” Most of sunny Southern California is comparably warm, but where Ms. Gold lives on the ocean in Marina del Rey, temperatures rarely climb above the 70s. People who practice calorie restriction are cold because they eventually lose most of their insulating body fat and their body temperatures may drop. Mr. Cooper’s normal temperature is closer to 96 degrees than the standard 98.6.

“That’s the one thing – you don’t retain heat. You don’t generate heat much,” says the 6-foot-2, pencil-thin Mr. Cooper. “I started at 165 pounds. I was a lot fuller in the face. Now I’m down under 130. I’m wearing three layers of shirts to keep warm.” He shows the sleeve of his thermal underwear poking out at his wrist. “Walking around, I’m fine. If I sit down to study, I get cold.”

Motivations

Calorie restriction is a little different for everyone. Some practitioners are strict, and some take a more relaxed approach.

“The degree of calorie restriction is almost linearly related to the degree of anti-aging effect, or reduction in disease risk,” says Brian Delaney, current president and a founding member of the Calorie Restriction Society, from his home in Sweden. “If you lift weights a little bit, you’ll get a little bit stronger,” he says, using an analogy. “If you lift weights a lot, you get a lot stronger.”

Mr. Delaney, an American who teaches German philosophy part time at Stockholm-area universities and is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Chicago, has been practicing calorie restriction for 12 years.

By and large, he says, people who practice calorie restriction fall into two groups.

“One is interested in living longer,” he says. “There aren’t that many people who want to live a longer life than others. The motivation is an unusual motivation.

“The other people are more interested in the disease-preventive effects of the diet,” he says, which are beginning to be documented in short-term human studies. “It’s that latter group that we’ve seen grow over the last two years.

“All of them are highly motivated people, highly disciplined people,” he adds.

No one has studied the psychology of calorie restriction, says Mr. Delaney. But Dean Pomerleau, a CR practitioner and robotics entrepreneur who lives near Pittsburgh, presented informal observations at last year’s Calorie Restriction Society national conference.

“It was mostly personal anecdote,” he says. “I think the overwhelming evidence of those of us who do it actively, it’s actually a very enjoyable way to live, once you hit your stride.”

But during the transition phase, people may have discomfiting experiences. They may dwell on food more than they would otherwise, for example. “They may develop a tendency to think about what they’re missing out on,” says Dr. Pomerleau, who has a doctorate in computer science.

This can manifest itself as obsessive tendencies, such as hoarding food or conserving personal energy, according to his presentation. Other difficulties in the transitional phase may include loss of energy, decreased sex drive and social isolation.

“When I started CR, I was crabbier,” he says, “because of the hunger.” As the body struggles to adjust to fewer calories, he says, people may experience “unhappiness.” He views the irritability and other negative behaviors as short-term effects. A few people, he adds, may use calorie restriction as a mask for anorexia or as a way of justifying their disorder.

“I think it appeals to geeky engineering types who, for better or worse, are more typically men than women,” Dr. Pomerleau adds. “Many of us enjoy the challenge of trying to achieve optimal nutrition on a limited-calorie budget.”

Strict diet

Mr. Cooper acknowledges he fits the engineering type. He adheres closely to the mix of high-nutrient, low-calorie foods.

On a typical day while he’s working in the lab, Mr. Cooper eats two eggs soft-fried in a little olive oil for breakfast; tomato juice seasoned with hot peppers and a tin of sardines for lunch; at least three kinds of vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli and tomatoes, perhaps with onions and tamari soy sauce, for early dinner; and “something with protein,” such as whey or soy, in yogurt after his two-mile evening walk.

“I don’t eat fruit except berries,” he says. “I stay away from bananas – too many calories for the nutrition. What I eat, I like, too. I really enjoy what I eat. … I’ll occasionally have chocolate.

“I take a handful of supplements,” he adds. When he gets hungry, he starts with water or flavored water. But he says he knows he needs food when he can’t keep warm at room temperature.

And when dining out with friends, he adapts. “They probably won’t notice, but I’ll eat less than they,” he says. “I’m not going to stand out in a crowd. I’m not going to carry lettuce to a party.”

He speculates that if he weighed quite a bit more, his energy might be drained. “Like many people, I have an abundance of energy for things that I enjoy, and those are many things,” he says.

But for most people, calorie restriction is too difficult.

“It requires an enormous amount of self-discipline,” says Allen Baskind, Mr. Cooper’s physician, who has tracked his health since the early ’90s.

“I would say I had some doubts about it, yes,” Dr. Baskind says, “but the majority of the problems we see that are lifestyle-related are absent in him. He has excellent blood pressure, excellent blood lipids, and he certainly does not have any of the problems that might be associated with indiscretions in terms of eating and drinking.”

And what do the numbers say? “I think he appears younger than his chronological age,” Dr. Baskind says.

The benefits

Ms. Gold takes a less severe approach, she says, losing only about 1 to 2 pounds every six months since she started CR three years ago. She continues to run competitively. Unlike Mr. Cooper, she simply eats less of what she has eaten since switching to healthier habits in her 20s.

“I tend to eat smaller amounts of the foods I’ve always enjoyed. I eat Mexican. I eat Italian. But I definitely eat much smaller portions. I’m a runner, so carbs are my friend,” she says. “Other people … say they look at rice and it’s a bowl of sugar. I look at rice and see fuel for my running. I think rice and pasta and potatoes are fine. It’s the calories that matter.

“And that’s the whole focus of the calorie-restriction program,” she says. “I hate to call it a diet. It’s really a lifestyle change. You focus on nutrients and calories. I drink milk. I eat cheese. I love going out for sushi.”

She also eats a lot of leafy greens. A salad with salmon or chicken, dressing on the side, is a lunchtime staple.

“I usually don’t get hungry,” she says, “because I eat small amounts of food up to about 6 p.m. each day. I just get tired at night.”

But she wakes up raring to go, she says, and has always had a lot of energy. “When I am below 120 pounds, I feel lighter on my feet.”

Ms. Gold was a subject in a recent pilot study at the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, which measured the impact of lower-calorie diets on health risks. The study matched 18 people, ages 35 to 82, who ate 1,100 to 1,950 calories a day to a test group following a typical Western diet. The average American eats 1,975 to 3,550 calories a day, according to the study.

The results were similar to those Dr. Baskind observed in Mr. Cooper: The markers for disease and aging were minimized. For instance, the calorie-restricted subjects’ total cholesterol and LDL (the so-called “bad” cholesterol) were in the bottom 10 percent for their age group; their HDL (the so-called “good” cholesterol) was high; their triglycerides were lower than those of most Americans in their 20s. Average blood pressure was 100/60, comparable to that of a 10-year-old. Ms. Gold’s was slightly higher, about 110/70.

“I started running to combat high blood pressure,” she says. It was 190/110 in her early 20s. “My doctor told me when I was 23, if I didn’t change my ways, I’d have a stroke by the time I was 30.”

She estimates that the Washington University study spent about $8,000 a subject on tests ranging from blood workups to stress tests. She has experienced no menstrual problems and her bone density is that of a woman half her age, she says, “because of all the years of running.”

Ms. Gold says that most CR adherents, herself and Mr. Cooper included, don’t believe in an afterlife. “It seems like the majority are agnostic or atheist,” she says. “They want to maximize this life. They don’t believe there is going to be a next one.”

And they’ve got plans for those extra years.

“As long as I can,” Mr. Cooper says, “I’m going to be working on the problem of extending human life. … The key to understanding aging and slowing it down and keeping youthful for a very long time might happen in our lifetime. … I want to be found trying.”

E-mail kpierce1@airmail.net

THE CALORIE RESTRICTION SOCIETY

Started in 1994, the society describes itself primarily as an electronic bulletin board for people interested in pursuing or learning more about the practice of calorie restriction and the science behind it.

“The principle behind the diet is very simple,” says Brian Delaney, the society’s current president and a founding member of the nonprofit group. “Reduce the energy content of your diet, and the body shifts resources toward repair and maintenance.

“This doesn’t mean eat less food. You don’t want a shortage of vitamin C, B vitamins and so on. It’s calories, which are a measurement of energy.”

Gerontologist Roy Walford, one of the leading figures in calorie-restriction research, was also among the founding members of the nonprofit group. He revived earlier controversial research and gave it credence, and he wrote in the popular press about the anti-aging effects of calorie restriction. He may be best known as the chief of medical operations in Biosphere 2 in Arizona. He died earlier this year, at 79, of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The society, with nearly 2,000 members worldwide, provides e-mail discussion groups, research updates and advice on practicing calorie restriction responsibly, from how to eat to recommended medical tests.

A basic membership, which includes entree into the discussion groups, is free. People may opt to become supporting members for $35 a year.

On the Web: www.calorierestriction.org


Nick Lindauer

 
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