2009 Archives

Stay Hungry, Live Longer

The Science Behind the Calorie Restriction Diet

Excerpt

The following is from the Feb. 18, 2009, edition of The Dallas Observer. Biology Professor Johannes Bauer of SMU's Dedman College provided expertise for this story.

February 23, 2009

By Elaine Liner

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.

eating too much
Studies indicate that eating less is better.

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."

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. . .

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.

Read the full story.

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