Disciples Say Calorie Restriction Prolongs Life
Gerod Staaf is almost certainly the only shock-rock guitarist comfortable discussing his body's "biomarkers," and the cancer-fighting properties of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. In effect, his music demands it. The 22-year-old Saanich, B.C., resident, who shares the stage with his father on drums and bass-strumming mother, is the frontman for the extreme-metal band Staaf Only. He describes his singing style as "endless screaming" (a good example of the band's buzz-saw sound is the Staaf standard, Hell Noir). To meet the physical demands of his outsized stage persona, Staaf diets, taking a tantalizing but unproven approach to nutrition and longevity called Calorie Restriction, or CR. The increasingly popular diet calls for up to a 30-per-cent cut in the widely accepted normal daily intake of 1,800 calories for women and 2,000 calories for men (depending on age and level of activity). Whether it actually works is anybody's guess.
In the beginning, Staaf approached CR the way he did his music: he went hard-core, consuming only about 1,500 calories a day. The six-foot musician's frame soon dropped from a solid 180 lb. to a rail-thin, rather anemic 145, which he says hurt his performances because the diet also lowered his testosterone levels. "I was a little too peaceful," Staaf says, "and I didn't like that." Since then, he has upped his daily intake to about 2,000 calories - well below how much he used to eat, and the 3,000 or 4,000 calories a day countless obese Westerners often inhale. Staaf has now spent two years following CR guidelines and eating foods selected for their reputed healing qualities, such as blueberries for the brain, and raw garlic cloves before bedtime to clean out the gut. "Intestinal health is critical," he says. Supplemented with a bit of weightlifting, Staaf's energy seems boundless now that he tips the scales at just 164 lb. He has the self-described build of a whippet.
Staaf belongs to a, well, growing body of dieters enthralled by the reams of animal studies going back 70 years that strongly suggest a drastic reduction in daily caloric consumption can dramatically retard age-related chronic diseases and increase longevity - as long as strict attention is paid to ensuring adequate consumption of essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. CR is said to reduce the harmful impact of the body's so-called oxidative stress, in which highly reactive molecules damage cells and DNA.
As with most diets, CR has its fair share of evangelical prophets, perhaps none more visible than Aubrey de Grey, a University of Cambridge geneticist. As a guru of nutrition and long life, de Grey has been known to say outrageous things like, "I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already." Helping spread the word is Michael Rae, a prolific writer and researcher for de Grey. Together, they're CR's dynamic duo, popping up frequently online, in magazines and on television to make their bold pronouncements on how increased longevity is well within all our grasps - if only we'd put down the double cheeseburgers and pick up a protein-rich fermented fungus called Quorn.
Admittedly, strong science is as much a part of Calorie Restriction's attraction as is the hype and esoteric meat substitutes. Research out of California, for instance, has shown that, for the most part, a simple, deliberately made mutation in a single gene linked to how cells respond to insulin and nutrient metabolism can extend life by six times - in roundworms, anyway. The genetic alteration fools the worm's cells into ignoring nutrients coursing through its system, and instead of focusing on metabolism, the cells direct their energy to basic cell maintenance. The cells live longer, and so does the roundworm.
There are many other studies to draw on. In laboratory settings, where it's easy to control caged animals, calorie restriction of up to 45 per cent has been shown to extend the lives of other species as well, including rats, mice, fish, flies and yeast. And work on primates looks promising. Ongoing research on rhesus monkeys at the University of Wisconsin is demonstrating that animals fed a low-cal diet, when compared to primates given normal amounts of food, not only have lower blood pressure, but also lower and healthier levels of insulin, glucose and fat. The data on whether the rhesus monkeys actually live longer, however, isn't in yet.
Accordingly, studies in humans have started to take off, says Eric Ravussin, a professor of human physiology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. In 2002, the National Institutes of Health awarded Ravussin and his fellow researchers US$12.4 million over seven years to study nutrition and AGING in humans. For good reason. "All the animal data show that calorie restriction expands lifespan - average lifespan, as well as maximum lifespan," Ravussin says.
But as intellectually intrigued as Ravussin is by the animal science that buttresses CR, he will be the first to tell you its benefits have not been proven in humans. There just isn't the body of evidence to say much of anything with conviction. Ravussin is trying to change that. Last April, he and his colleagues published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which 48 non-obese men and women were studied to assess the impact of adhering to a CR diet for six months. Part of the study required the researchers to prepare all the meals for the subjects over the first three months of the experiment, ensuring they ate 25 per cent less than their baseline energy requirements. The findings suggest CR has a positive impact on two biomarkers for longevity - body temperature and insulin levels. But Ravussin notes it took a Herculean effort by the scientists to ensure the caloric cut was coupled with adequate nutrient intake. "If readers pick up the magazine and say, 'Yeah, I want to go on 25 per cent less calories,' they're going to be at a loss," Ravussin warns.
Also, we haven't a clue about any of the potential social impacts of flirting with starvation. "It's nice to say that rats, mice and even monkeys seem to live longer," Ravussin says, "but you don't know at what price. We know that the monkeys that are calorie restricted are, for example, very aggressive." Nothing, he adds, is known about the cognitive impact CR may have.
Michael Rae weighs 115 lb. and is six feet tall. Hélène Payette, an advisory board member for the Institute of Aging of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, stifles a chuckle when told about Rae's anorexic-like build, and how he weighs all his food. She thinks it's ridiculous. "Do you think this is feasible for people to do that?" Payette asks. "No, it's not. I think he's experimenting." And it's an experiment with potentially dangerous consequences. For instance, studies have shown that weight loss in the elderly is linked to early institutionalization and mortality. "I think it's a little crazy," Payette says of the CR diet. "Even if it works, is it realistic to think that people, in order to live an extra 10 years, will suffer malnutrition for 30 or 50 years of their lives?" What's important, she says, is that we improve the quality of the years we have, rather than focus on simply living longer. "Living to 120, and spending the last 30 years in a wheelchair unable to feed yourself, what's the attraction in that?"
Calorie Restriction has been shown to cause significant, and undesirable, hormonal and metabolic changes, says Pierrette Gaudreau, a University of Montreal professor studying the neuroendocrinology of aging. Gaudreau says people would be better off just cutting back a bit on how much they eat, thereby avoiding the risks associated with a fanatical dietary regime. She notes many of the studies into CR have been conducted on animals started on the diet virtually from birth. Aside from the fact that rats aren't humans, we're not about to restrict the calories human children consume. "You'd delay growth at that point," Gaudreau cautions. "So, you're not prolonging life, you're retarding growth." She says Rae's gone overboard. "I think he'll regret it when he gets old because people like him have no reserves of muscle mass," Gaudreau says. "And at an advanced age, he's going to have to start eating again."
A better approach is to make small but sustainable changes to your eating habits if excess weight is a problem, says Diane Finegood, a professor at Simon Fraser University's school of kinesiology. Finegood speaks from personal experience as much as she does from training. Over five years, Finegood has lost 70 lb., and kept them off - a remarkable feat given many dieters often regain their lost weight and then some. Finegood first tried a low-fat diet, which worked to a point. She started walking more. Then running. She tried Calorie Restriction, but it required too much effort. She thinks our "obesegenic" environment, where food is readily available and abundant, bears no resemblance to the artificial world of CR created in laboratories. "It would be a lot harder to make that experiment work if the animal was making the decisions about what to eat," Finegood says.
The Calorie Restriction Society, based in Newport, N.C., claims to have almost 1,000 paid members, including about two dozen in Canada. Bob Cavanaugh, the group's spokesman, says that everybody who follows the diet "basically understands that it's untested in human beings." He counsels moderation. "It's up to the individual as to what their tolerance level is," says Cavanaugh, 59. "They can restrict right down to the level of frank starvation and death, but most folks feel humans can't restrict greater than 30 per cent."
Prior to starting his own CR diet five years ago, a typical day for Cavanaugh started with bacon and eggs, grits, toast and coffee. Mid-morning he'd get the munchies and pick up a cinnamon roll. Lunch was a Polish sausage on a bun, or sometimes a couple of hot dogs with a bag of chips and a pop. By mid-afternoon, it was time for another snack, a couple of candy bars maybe. Supper was a big plate of meat and potatoes. Something to nibble on before bedtime wrapped up the day. Sum total: up to 3,000 calories. "It was pretty much what everybody does."
Cavanaugh retired as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1988, and since then has been a self-employed landscaper. Despite a physically active lifestyle, the five-foot-ten, 150-pounder now needs only 1,800 calories a day to keep him going. He's lost 30 lb., and says his cholesterol has dropped from 273 to 170. "It makes me feel absolutely wonderful," he says. "I really feel like I got my life back." He kept eating many of the things he enjoyed, just ate less of everything, and avoided "exotic" foods he knew he wouldn't like. "I'm just not a tofu and watercress kind of person." Today, his breakfast is a combination of oatmeal and oat bran, powdered skim milk mixed with ordinary skim milk, which he microwaves before adding two tablespoons of sunflower seeds and half a cup of frozen blueberries. That's about 450 calories, he says, and provides him with 50 per cent of the vitamins and minerals he needs, plus all the amino acids. "There's so much fibre, it just stays with me, and I don't get those mid-morning cravings anymore."
He's also convinced that CR has dramatically improved the health of his organs, including the body's largest: the skin. In Vietnam, back in his Marine Corps days, Cavanaugh says he developed jungle-rot blisters on the soles of his feet. The condition would flare up every summer since then "to haunt me in my workboots." It was indeed a horror. "Every time you scratch and break the blister, it goes deeper, so you can actually burrow right down to the bones in your feet." But sometime during the first year of dieting, it cleared up, and hasn't been seen since. "I kind of feel that if those beneficial effects are showing up on my skin, then I can imagine that I'm only having equal or better benefits with my internal organs."
Whether you work outdoors, sit at a desk all day, or play in an extreme-metal band, the CR diet has broad enough appeal as a panacea that many people will try it without fully appreciating what's involved. Staaf swears by it, and drinks upwards of a dozen glasses of therapeutic green tea, mixed with ginger, rosemary, turmeric and garlic powder a day. "I recognized the direct link between the physical health of my body and how I perform," he says. "The old days of abusing yourself are over. The record labels can't afford you to be sick." But many dieters will find Calorie Restriction to be a trying alternative to just eating smarter. There's a CR joke about how people on the diet don't actually live longer. They're just starving and miserable, and life only seems longer.
Maclean's January 15, 2007