As a youth-obsessed culture, we spend over $80 billion annually in the US on products that are meant to turn back the hands of time. But the efficacy of many of the lotions and potions we spend our money on is highly questionable, and procedures like cosmetic surgery and botox are simply a quick fix for your outer shell. If you knew there was an effective method to truly slow down the aging process, to achieve radiant health and longevity and appear more youthful, even into old age, would you try it? What about if it meant eating less?
For a subculture who believe that they’ve found the only way to slow down the aging process, “eating less” has become a way of life. These self proclaimed “calorie restrictors” count every calorie and fast on a daily basis, weighing their food and maintaining a caloric intake that’s 25% to 30% lower than the rest of us. Restricting yourself to a low level of calories, they say, is a real-life fountain of youth, with increased energy and improved physical and cognitive health as added bonuses along the way.
I was first introduced to calorie restriction (CR) through the book The CR Way by Paul McGlothin and Meredith Averill, a couple who are leaders of the CR movement and have been practicing CR together for over 15 years. Paul and Meredith, both in their sixties, believe they’ll live past 100, and are not bothered by what others would view as a strict regime – they say they have amazing eye sight, are mentally sharper than their peers, and have an active sex life. They write about the CR lifestyle, “This is not about sacrifice. It is about harnessing the body’s own cellular signals to make every moment happier and better. You will eat food you love. You will discover reserves of energy you didn’t realize you had. You will experience more good health, and possibly more life to enjoy it.”
So what do they actually eat to achieve this amazingly happy and invigorating state? Every calorie is counted and every calorie is strategically as nutrient dense as possible. They also eat most of their calories in the beginning of the day to allow for a deeper fasting period overnight. Here’s a day in the life:*
Breakfast – 763 calories
Cucumber and lime spread on sprouted-grain bread
Cinnamon-spiced wheat-berry cereal with nuts, fruit and soya milk
Lemon and ginger sweet potatoes
Lunch 455 calories
Curried lima beans with onion, garlic and spices
Turnip and celeriac soup with low-GI vegetables and spices over savoury barley
Kohlrabi and spinach with sprouted-grain bread and walnuts
Dinner 382 calories
Mushroom magic soup: maitake, shiitake, radishes, turnips, onion and garlic. With sprouted-grain bread, dipped in olive oil
Beetroot with walnuts and spices
*Taken from an interview Paul and Meredith did for the Telegraph
You can also find another article on CRs (including Paul and Meredith) from Dr. Oz here.
I love a good anti-aging theory, so when I first stumbled upon this book a few years ago, I was enthralled. I was even tempted to buy the blood glucose meter they recommended (like those used by diabetics) to be able to test and regulate my blood sugar level. But at that point I was in my early 20’s and living in Italy indulging in all the pizza and pasta, so the idea kind of fell by the wayside!
The science behind the practice
CR is a relatively new school of thought. The modern discussion around the benefits of the practice began after a study in the 1930s found that rats that were fed a severely reduced diet while maintaining their normal nutrient levels lived up to twice as long as rats fed to satisfaction. The results have been repeated in primates and other species, but CR is still controversial because of conflicting studies. Regardless, an estimated 100,000 people practice CR around the world.
According to Paul and Meredith, CR puts stress on the body that mimics the famines that humans have historically experienced and makes it go into survival mode, switching on genes that promote longevity. Digestion takes up a good amount of energy, so when your body is not dealing with processing an excess of food, it’s able to work more efficiently, getting rid of malfunctioning or irregular cells and preserving healthy cells. This is turn can help protect you from cancer (which is abnormal or malfunctioning cells) and other degenerative diseases.
On the other hand, when you overeat, your body has an excess of calories or food energy that it doesn’t need. The body then secretes insulin to process your high glucose levels and bring them back to normal. Some of the extra energy is stored as fat, and some may be deposited as plaque in your arteries. If you repeatedly overeat, your pancreas (the organ that produces insulin) becomes stressed and less efficient, which may contribute to the development of diabetes.
Now, I have never counted calories and really don’t feel compelled to start; I think it’s much more important to focus on the quality and origins of your food rather than obsessing over the quantity. But even while we may not want to fully adopt the CR lifestyle of extreme discipline around what we eat, we can still find ways to incorporate the knowledge they’ve gathered into our food world-view. Meredith and Paul have made it their life’s work to figure out how to slow down aging – so let’s take a page from their book! Here were my major take aways from The CR Way:
Pack in the nutrients. In order for CRs to eat small amounts of food but still enjoy optimal health, their food is literally packed with nutrient-dense goodness. For them, every single calorie counts, and every single calorie should make a big nutritional splash. Translate this into your own life by making yourself more aware of whether the foods you’re eating are nutrient-dense or if they are just empty calories. Nutrient rich foods are delicious, fulfilling and won’t send your systems spiking and crashing. Consider the nutrients in a serving (about 1/4) of an avocado, which is about 60 calories has over 25 essential nutrients and an array of cartenoids and healthy fat, as opposed to a doughnut that can be over 500 calories and with no health benefits to speak of. So while CRs are significantly reducing their calories, the amount of nutrients and overall goodness they’re getting from food is probably more abundant than someone on the Standard American Diet.
Sugar is not your friend. Eating low-calorie and nutrient-dense are not the only main concerns for CRs – a low blood sugar level is just as important, since high glucose levels and the insulin your body uses to control it are both linked to aging and disease. Reach for foods that are low on the glycemic index, such as wild salmon, lentils, low glycemic fruits and vegetables like sweet potatoes, broccoli, and blueberries, fats like walnuts and olive oil, and vegetable soup. Paul and Meredith claim that the effects of low blood sugar will also change your brain chemistry, improving your mood and cognitive functioning. Don’t hesitate to cut out all forms of white and refined sugar and fake sugars such as aspartame and splenda. If you want something sweet, I’d recommend something sweetened with a whole food like coconut, dates, sweet potatoes, maple syrup, honey etc.
Embrace healthy fats. It’s surprising to me that some people are still afraid of fat. Have you ever seen someone that’s obviously dieting and their skin looks dry and wrinkly? Good fat helps you build glowing, healthy skin! Healthy fats like nuts, avocado, coconut and olive oil lower your “bad” LDL cholesterol. They also help regulate blood sugar levels, make it easier to absorb nutrients and make you feel fuller. Some fats can become carcinogenic when heated, so try to add fats to your food after they have been cooked. I usually cook with coconut oil, which is resistant to oxidation at high heats. I also use olive oil very regularly on top of vegetables that have already been cooked.
Don’t go overboard on protein. Meredith and Paul contend that eating protein increases levels of the growth hormone IGF-I, which in turn deactivates the longevity gene that they seek to have switched on – SIRT1. In other words, excess protein accelerates aging. To keep their protein levels low, the couple choose protein sources with low absorbability such as beans and legumes, and also enjoy wild salmon. While I love my grass fed, organic meats, it’s ideal to think of your meat more as a side dish than the main course.
Fast every day. Meredith and Paul eat their smallest meal of the day at dinner, or sometimes skip dinner. This is because “clean up” and repair in the body only happens after you’ve finished digesting your last meal, so the window between dinner and breakfast is an important one. It can take 4-8 hours to digest your food, depending on what and how much you ate. Allow at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast every night so that your body has time to repair itself. If you’d like to give your body a break once in a while, you can also have a liquid dinner (soup, juice or green smoothie), which is easily digested and will give your body more time for repair.