Calorie Restriction: Life extension or eating disorder?

Cutting calories isn’t just for dieters anymore.  A growing number of people are embracing extreme, calorie-restricted diets in the hopes that it will drastically extend their lifespan…to 120 or beyond. (See also “Extreme Calorie Restriction for Long Life”  on MSNBC.com).

Proponents of Calorie Restriction (or CR) typically eat 30-40% fewer calories than it would take to maintain what is generally considered to be a “healthy” weight.  They generally lose quite a bit of weight before stabilizing at a much lower body weight.  The motivation for such extreme deprivation? Animal studies in everything from fruit flies to primates indicate that CR can extend the maximum lifespan of the animal in question as much as 20 or 25%.  There are no human studies verifying that CR will have the same effect on humans, but short-term studies show that CR does reduce biomarkers for aging along with lowering the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.  For many, that’s evidence enough.

CR is a difficult lifestyle.  Many who practice it admit to dealing with constant hunger and obsession with food. In a society where every social situation and celebration seems to focus on food, the CR lifestyle can be isolating.  It’s also time-consuming.  When you are eating very few calories, it becomes difficult to ensure adequate intake of protein, essential fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals.  There is literally no room for empty calories and meticulous meal planning and tracking becomes a necessity. (Nutrition Data has a big following in the CR community because our dietary analysis tools make it easier to practice Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition, or CRON.)

Whatever its potential benefits, CR is obviously too austere for the vast majority of the (mostly overweight) population. And, predictably, the biotech companies are racing to develop drugs that will mimic the beneficial effects of CR without the deprivation. But in the meantime, CR is attracting more and more baby-boomers determined to forestall the march of time.

What’s your personal view on calorie restriction? Would you be willing to put up with daily hunger in exchange for 10, 20, or even 30 extra healthy years?

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