If You Eat Less, Will You Live Longer?
New research on calorie restriction and longevity
It looks like supermodels are going to outlive us all. That’s the message of the latest calorie-restriction research, widely reported in the media this week complete with pictures of two rhesus monkeys, one on a restricted-calorie diet, the other on an unlimited diet.
Neither of the primates looks particularly happy, but the hungry monkey is definitely leaner; the all-you-can-eat monkey has pendulous breasts and a sagging stomach.
Scientists have long known that rodents live longer if they eat less, but until now, calorie restriction has not been evaluated with our closest cousins, other primates.
In research conducted at the University of Wisconsin and reported in Science, which has been going on for more than two decades, the skinny monkeys are outliving their fatter brethren (24 percent fewer of the skinnier side of the study group have died of old age so far), and are showing fewer signs of age-related diseases like diabetes, heart disease and brain disorders.
In a similar study underway at the National Institute on Aging, the underfed monkeys appear to have stronger immune system function. Scientists theorize that eating sparingly keeps us healthier because our bodies are programmed to allocate scarce resources to tissue repair and maintenance rather than reproduction.
The Calorie Restriction Society (calorierestriction.org) is conducting research of its own, not a double-blind study, but simply the anecdotal evidence of the group’s 3,000 members, who believe in the health benefits of limited eating. Since 1994, members have been restricting calories by 10-25 percent. The Web site offers guidelines, menus and even recipes. It’s too soon to say whether the CR folks will outlive us all.
Luckily for the chow hounds among us, the pharmaceutical industry is working on a drug that would mimic restricted eating (sort of like having your cake and eating it too). Rapamycin, a fungicide from Easter Island, seems to mimic some of the effects of calorie restriction; it’s currently used as an anti-rejection drug following organ transplants. It’s being studied to see if it will lengthen the lifespan of mice. Resveratrol, a substance in red wine, increased the lifespan of mice in initial studies, but later research has not duplicated those findings.
Meanwhile, the world isn’t making it any easier for us to keep our calorie count down: the Wall Street Journal recently analyzed foods from Applebee’s and Taco Bell, which by law are required to post calorie counts on the menu in New York City. The foods they tested, from sandwiches to tacos, exceeded the official counts, in one case by more than 50 percent.
Even if we admire Calorie Restriction Society members, few of us could duplicate their resolve. I’m reminded of the classic line about calorie restriction: You don’t actually live longer; it just feels longer because you’re hungry. For the rest of us, pharmaceuticals are the likelier answer. While we’re waiting for them to develop a longevity pill (and please sir, while it’s making us live longer, could it also make us thin?), I wouldn’t worry too much about the supermodels dancing on our graves. I hear they all smoke.