Small bites, long life?

By eating carefully chosen portions of nutritious foods, believers in calorie restriction hope to extend their years

April 19, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN REPORTER

Whoever said hunger is the best sauce should talk to Brian Delaney.

Delaney, who is 5 feet 11 inches tall and physically active, has two meals a day. His morning meal consists of whole-grain cereal, nonfat yogurt, berries, sliced fruit and soy milk.

Dinner is usually whole-grain pasta or rice; a legume dish, such as lentil soup; and a large vegetable salad with ingredients like lightly steamed broccoli, red pepper, arugula, sesame seeds and pieces of fruit.

For a treat, Delaney sometimes allows himself a small piece of chocolate or a glass of wine.

That's it.

For years Delaney, who is 42 but says he feels like he's in his late 20s, has followed an extremely low-calorie diet known as calorie restriction, or CR, in the hopes of extending his lifespan - perhaps by a decade or two. Hunger is a fact of life.

"I like eating fewer meals but having more food per meal," he says. "The hunger is concentrated in one period. Late afternoon I'm hungry, but it's manageable. With grazing, there's a tiny bit of hunger all the time. You're thinking about food all the time."

Scientific studies in the 1930s showed that mice on an extremely low-calorie but healthful diet lived 30 percent longer and also seemed to age more slowly. Ever since, researchers have been trying to figure out whether a semi-starvation diet that was also rich in nutrients would extend human life.

Further animal studies and research on small groups of humans have been encouraging, and this month scientists at Louisiana State University reported an extremely low-calorie diet can reduce the DNA damage of aging. But there are negative side effects, depending on how severely calories are restricted, such as crankiness and lack of interest in sex.

The challenge for Delaney and others on the calorie-restriction diet is to get maximum nutrients and maximum volume - so they feel full - while taking in very few calories.

Proponents say the diet as a way of life isn't as grim as it sounds. Delaney, who lives in Sweden, is president of the Calorie Restriction Society, a sort of support group for a lot of very hungry people. He's written a how-to book, The Longevity Diet, with Lisa Walford, whose father pioneered much of the research.

Eventually, people who eat this way say, your body adjusts to even the most extreme version of the diet.

Liza May, 53, a clinical nutritionist who lives in Crofton and calls herself the "Martha Stewart of the Calorie Restriction Society," has been on the diet since the 1970s. "After so many years of eating reasonably" - by which she means being on a low-calorie, high-nutrition diet - "I don't have those crazy cravings," she says.

The mother of four and grandmother of three, May considers herself a gourmet cook and has a restaurant-quality kitchen, but she cooks for others. She estimates she consumes less than 1,000 calories a day, concentrating on fresh vegetables, leafy greens and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to be good for the heart. She avoids bread and other baked goods.

May is 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs 114 pounds. She says the diet leaves her with plenty of energy. She and her husband are competitive dancers, and she exercises every day at the gym. She thinks her eating habits might be responsible for the fact that she hasn't been sick since 1973.

"Every calorie matters," she says. "The more you restrict, the more you have to pay attention to [the nutritional content of] every calorie you put in your mouth."

Anyone who might be pregnant shouldn't consider the diet, and research indicates it could stunt children's growth. It also would be dangerous for someone with eating-disorder tendencies.

It is possible to eat a very low-calorie but healthful diet by making calculated selections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid, says Christine Gerbstadt, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. In about 1,100 calories, she estimates, you can get 80 percent of your requirements. (You would have to meet the rest with supplements.)

"They can't get everything they need through food alone," she says, "but they can come pretty darn close. Face it. They're still doing better than 70 percent of Americans. The lesson is that we can all make healthier food choices."

For the past 20 years, Dr. Mark Mattson has. Mattson is a neuroscientist who is studying calorie restriction at the National Institute on Aging laboratory in Baltimore. He eats the same sort of highly nutritious, food-as-fuel diet as those on calorie restriction. But he doesn't routinely count calories or try to limit them, even though he's seen that the mild stress of a very low-calorie diet seems to protect lab animals at the cellular level.

"I skip breakfast, eat a relatively light lunch and a good-size dinner," he says. "I estimate that my calorie intake is about 1,800 to 2,200 per day. ... I eat mostly whole grains, vegetables and fruits, nuts and fish."

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