Stay Hungry, Live Longer: the Science Behind the Calorie Restriction Diet

An SMU biologist thinks the secret to the fountain of youth may be found by putting fruit flies on a diet.

In a windowless, climate-controlled chamber on the third floor of the Dedman Life Sciences building at Southern Methodist University, thousands of fruit flies are on a diet so someday you won't have to be.

The crumb-sized insects, weighing just 1 milligram each, live in slim glass and plastic tubes—100 flies per—arranged in neat rows in 10 shallow cardboard boxes stacked on shelves, one on top of the other, like little fly condominiums.

The landlord of the flies is 37-year-old scientist Johannes Bauer, Ph.D. New to the biology department at SMU, an up-and-coming center for aging research, Bauer feeds his flies every other day with a mixture of sugar and yeast as he studies the effects of calorie restriction on the flies' health and longevity. In experiments he started at Brown University, he's found that consuming 30 to 50 percent fewer calories daily allows the Drosophila melanogaster fruit fly to live 10 to 40 percent longer than its natural lifespan—the equivalent in humans of living 120 years or more. Flies fed less are more alert, says Bauer. They're more active in almost every way, except they're not as fertile. Female flies share the tubes with males anyway because, says the scientist, "we want them to have some fun."

MARK GRAHAM
“Calorie restriction works in the lower
organisms, we know,” Bauer says.
“But with humans it’s anybody’s guess so far.”
MARK GRAHAM
“Calorie restriction works in the lower organisms, we know,” Bauer says. “But with humans it’s anybody’s guess so far.”

Semi-starvation doesn't sound like a party, but calorie restriction—a scientific term meaning under-nutrition without malnutrition—is now being touted as the latest fountain-of-youth secret for extending the human "health span" and possibly the life span. Gerontologists, oncologists, biochemists and biologists like Bauer, engaged in calorie restriction studies on lab animals, believe they've found an effective way to stave off cancers, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's and many other ailments. Staying hungry and living lean, say some researchers, is the only mechanism scientifically known to slow down the aging process and prevent age-related illnesses.

This comes as little surprise to children's book author Shannon Vyff, 33, of Round Rock. For the past eight years, she has been a member of the Calorie Restriction Society, a loosely connected (mostly through Facebook) international "community" devoted to austere eating for healthy purposes.

Vyff is now one of the society's most vocal supporters. She discovered calorie restriction after having three children in her 20s and hitting 200 pounds after the third. "I started searching online for diets and came across calorie restriction, and it made a lot of sense," says Vyff, 5-foot-10-inches and now 130 pounds, up from her lowest of 117. It took her just six months on CR to lose 85 pounds. "There was an adjustment period at first. But I started to like the foods that were healthy for me. The hardest thing was cutting out some of the things that I loved eating, like pasta and breads."

Calorie Restrictors—sometimes called CRONies, for Calorie Restriction/Optimal Nutrition—eat between 10 and 30 percent fewer calories than the typical adult, avoiding any foods high in fat, sugar or starch. Vyff now eats once a day, usually a lean chicken breast poached in water, some steamed broccoli or squash and maybe a glass of fresh orange juice. She eats red meat once every two weeks and prefers it cooked rare. Her daily calorie count hovers around 1,200 if she's not exercising; 1,600 to 1,800 if she runs 5 or 10 miles on the treadmill. She's also on a local roller derby team. When she's in training for that, she might help herself to a few extra morsels. Her favorite treat: six raw walnut halves and three Ghirardelli chocolate chips.

She credits CR with helping her pass her latest driving test without glasses for the first time. Her chronic knee pain disappeared, and her energy level zoomed, she says. Vyff's husband, Michael Trice, 32, also follows the CR plan, with occasional lapses for desserts shared with their kids. (CR is not recommended for children or teens, even if overweight.)

And do they think living on less food will let them live to be 100 or older? "Why not? If everyone started following calorie restriction, they could extend life by decades and be healthier in the middle years."

Adherents to calorie restriction and its cousins, raw foodism and veganism, tell similar stories about the positive effects, other than weight loss, of their eat-this/not-that regimens. They start to look younger than their years (something observed in calorie-restricted lab animals). Their chronic headaches, arthritis pain and sleep disorders go away without medication. They feel stronger, happier, more spiritually aware—as if a brain fog has lifted. Some report bursts of creative energy. Others describe a feeling of calm that envelops them after going with fewer calories for only a short time.

There is a scientific explanation for all of this. Reducing caloric intake, even by as little as 10 percent a day (skipping that extra helping of potatoes), sends the body's cells into a low level of stress that makes them strong when high stresses occur—much the way moderate stress caused by exercise improves people's health. "Restricting calories just a little bit puts your body in a state of stress, which makes you a little bit healthier," says Bauer.

More than 1,000 studies dating back 70 years have shown that eating less, a lot less, retards the aging process and boosts health in a wide variety of laboratory animals: fruit flies, spiders, nematodes, mice, rats, dogs and rhesus monkeys. Calorie-restricted monkeys, for instance, look less wrinkled as they age. They have less gray hair, and look and act younger than their regular-diet counterparts. Eating less seems to make the metabolic processes in the body work more efficiently, Bauer says. The body enters an altered state that puts the brakes on aging.

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16 comments
Singleton_78
Singleton_78

I am 33 yrs old, why does it seem like eating less was easier when I was in my 20's? Is thier a biological or metabolic reason for this? This totally perplexes me. I get 1 hour of cardiovasucular excercise 3 to 4 times per week but it is not having the same effect on my figure as it did when I was just 2 years younger. What should I do about this?

Stephan
Stephan

Dr. J - I thought you where taller then me and I didn't know you weighed less then me - Stephan G

At 5-foot-7-inches, 140 pounds, the German-born scientist (who looks about 19) never exercises, doesn't take resveratrol and has never been on a diet. "Humans evolved as omnivores. They ate everything in their path," he says.

Rick
Rick

Obesity and overweight pose a major risk for chronic diseases. That's about 2/3 of the population yet no doubt the same group that banned public smoking (due to health concerns ha ha)

When will fat and obese people be taxed for driving up health care costs for the good people who don't eat eat eat? They drive up health care costs more then smokers did plus they cause accidents... Have you ever seen an overeater try to drive? They can hardly back a car up because they can not turn around to look behind them... overweight people should be given a restricted license as well.

Quit eating so much and try this restricted diet.

Lukka
Lukka

This is really great article about losing weight on healthy way...

Jill
Jill

Just to correct a bit of misinformation in the article:

Eating vegan or raw is NOT a variation on the calorie restriction diet. The vast majority of vegans and raw foodists have chosen their diets for health, environmental and animal abuse reasons and do not purposely eat fewer calories than is currently deemed necessary.

Jill
Jill

Just to correct a bit of misinformation in the article:

Eating vegan or raw is NOT a variation on the calorie restriction diet. The vast majority of vegans and raw foodists have chosen their diets for health, environmental and animal abuse reasons and do not purposely eat fewer calories than is currently deemed necessary.

Stevemle
Stevemle

To Tim's comment:"I would rather die middle-aged and happy than be old and miserable."

I say: "Don't knock it, until you try it. You might surprise your self."

SS
SS

"Vyff now eats once a day, usually a lean chicken breast poached in water, some steamed broccoli or squash and maybe a glass of fresh orange juice. She eats red meat once every two weeks and prefers it cooked rare. Her daily calorie count hovers around 1,200 if she's not exercising"

This is complete BS. If she eats ONCE a day and that once a day is a lean chicken breast poached in water w/ veggies and MAYBE a glass of OJ she isn't coming anywhere NEAR 1,200 calories per day. That is probably a max of 300 calories. The math here doesn't add up in the least.

George
George

So SMU professor wants us to eat 6 walnut halves (3 walnuts) and 3 chocolate chips.

Some of the SMU students already do this, so it shouldn't be too hard. Except that THIS IS AN EATING DISORDER, NOT A HEALTH BENEFIT.

Harris
Harris

Well we certainly shouldn't be publishing information intended to help people make nutritional choices on the basis of fruit fly studies and children's book authors.

Quack medical advice like this is hurting people for a few quick bucks.

Express your distaste for such dangerous nonsense by not buying the Observer.

izz
izz

"Vyff now eats once a day, usually a lean chicken breast poached in water, some steamed broccoli or squash and maybe a glass of fresh orange juice. Her daily calorie count hovers around 1,200"

One meal a day does NOT come to 1,200 calories, even at McDonalds. One serving of veggies, oj & chicken has less than half that amount.

This woman needs to see a nutritionist. Calorie restriction is defined as getting your dietary needs met with vegies, fruits, beans & wholegrains. Living on three chocolate chips is the definition of anorexia.

S. Gupta
S. Gupta

The red wine extract resveratrol is a calorie restriction mimetic, in other words it mimics the effects of calorie restriction without the need to reduce calorie consumption.

Since the Harvard resveratrol study on aging by Dr. Sinclair was published in the journal Nature a flood of dubious companies have sprung up selling resveratrol. Many have no scientists, no labs, no quality control and no experience. Both I and Dr. Mehmet Oz have recommended Biotivia Bioforte and Transmax. They are made by a company with 18 years of experience, and Biotivia supplies many of the university medical schools, health ministries and researchers.

Consumer Lab, an independent testing authority, evaluated the major brands and found many lacking in content and quality. The highest potency products that passed their evaluation were Biotivia, Transmax and Bioforte. A product by Life Extension Co. failed badly with only 26% of the claimed resveratrol. This is clearly a case of buyer beware. Look for a reputable company with the resources necessary to product this compound.

tina
tina

"Vyff now eats once a day, usually a lean chicken breast poached in water, some steamed broccoli or squash and maybe a glass of fresh orange juice. ... Her daily calorie count hovers around 1,200 if she's not exercising; 1,600 to 1,800 if she runs 5 or 10 miles on the treadmill."

This doesn't compute at all. One chicken breast, some broccoli, and a glass of orange juice is nowhere near 1200 calories. (Unless it's a whole jug of orange juice and some mutant chicken breast.) I personally also eat approximately 1000-1200 calories on a daily basis, and I eat lots more than that - Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and at least one or two snacks.

Diana Ivette
Diana Ivette

That´s true. People often tell me they are envious of how much food I eat without gaining weight. But I think it's not about how much you eat but what you eat and the variety in your diet.

For example while most people drink a glass of orange, i eat the whole fruit, which is more satisfying and has less calories. I eat vegetables of all colors before eating the main course, whatever it is, I try to adapt. If i eat a hamburger i don't put dressing on it, and change the fries for salad, and that doesn't make it less appetizing. For dessert I choose a fruit or have some ice cream. I have no problem with it. I enjoy what i eat. In fact I've never liked dressings and fatty food too much.

By the other side, I can see that most of the people who are dieting eat little plates of lettuce with lots of dressing to have a less terrifying experience, and end up with the feeling of being miserable and hungry asking themselves why if they eat so little, they still stay fat.

The point is that my daily count is low and I eat much more than a piece of chicken and steamed broccoli. That's miserable and unnecessary. I love food and love to be healthy too.

Tim Covington
Tim Covington

I would rather die middle-aged and happy than be old and miserable.

 
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