pie recipes on Epicurious. If these or other foodly thoughts have proven of great distraction to you, I offer an article about the calorie restriction diet as a counter balance.
November 23, 2003
Food for Holiday Thought: Eat Less, Live to 140?
By DAVID HOCHMAN
IN his quest to reach the age of 143, Michael A. Sherman is making his peace with doughnuts. Renouncing potato skins and chocolate-chip pancakes was no problem, but he just hasn't found a substitute for a glazed, oven-warm bear claw oozing with apple filling. "I love them, but the larger specimens of that species can approach 1,000 calories," he said a few weeks before Thanksgiving, a holiday he can't get overly excited about. "That's almost as much as I allow myself in a whole day."
To say Mr. Sherman is on a diet is to say NASA's Voyager spacecraft, still twinkling at the far edge of our solar system, is on a Sunday drive. Six years ago, Mr. Sherman put himself on the most brutal calorie-reduction plan imaginable. Not that he was especially overweight at 5-foot-5 and 145 pounds. But by switching from pizza and chips to flaxseed, brewer's yeast and sprouts, he whittled his daily caloric intake to less than 1,600, and dropped his weight precipitously, dumbfounding his friends and family.
"Here was a one-time competitive power-lifter who looked to me like a concentration camp refugee," said his wife, Kathy, who almost divorced him because of it. In those first two years, Mr. Sherman's libido disappeared, he was cranky, cold and flatulent all the time, and people suspected he had cancer or AIDS. "Michael's skin hung off his body like you see on old men," she said.
Paradoxically, old age was exactly what Mr. Sherman was shooting for. After reading that drastic calorie restriction slows the aging process in laboratory animals, he vowed to starve himself to stretch out his golden years into the 22nd century. If mice, geese and guppies could extend their life span 40 to 50 percent by eating 40 percent less than they wanted, why couldn't he?
"I'm definitely not one of these guys who says, `Ooo, 18 more years and I can retire,' " said Mr. Sherman, 46, who runs a biotech company in California near his Silicon Valley home. Now that he's acclimated to the diet and is somewhat bulked up from weight lifting, he looks more like a cyclist than a "Survivor" finalist. "I feel very much like I did at 20," he said. "Nothing but blue sky ahead of me." Mr. Sherman is part of a curious subculture of scientists, philosophers, futurists and assorted high-minded anorectics who believe that saying no to dessert (and sometimes to breakfast, lunch and dinner, too) will be the ticket to superlongevity.
Advocates of the strategy, known as calorie restriction, or C.R., insist they're not dieting to get skinny but rather to have the last laugh. Eat smart enough, they say, and you can live to see great-great-grandchildren, not to mention postpone the onset of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure.
"Aging is a horror and it's got to stop right now," said Michael Rae, a vitamin researcher from Calgary, Alberta, and a board member of the Calorie Restriction Society, which has about 900 ultralean members worldwide. "People are popping antioxidants, getting face lifts and injecting Botox, but none of that's working," he said. "At this moment, C.R. is the only tool we have to stay younger longer." It's worth mentioning that Mr. Rae is 6 feet tall, weighs just 115 pounds and is often very hungry.
In a society obsessed with dieting, in which fads increasingly have the power to reshape the eating habits of millions — the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet — the C.R. lifestyle, with its abstinence ethos, will probably never win mass appeal. But the extremism of the diet does seem to fit the present mood, so much so that last month, the President's Council on Bioethics released a report specifically mentioning calorie restriction, and warning, "The pursuit of an ageless body may prove finally to be a distraction and a deformation."
Researchers have known about the Methuselahan powers of eating less since the 1930's, when a Cornell University nutrition professor unexpectedly discovered that dieting rats tend to live 30 percent longer. Similar reactions have since been found with fruit flies, monkeys and Labrador retrievers, but the impact of calorie reduction on humans has been mostly speculative.
During the first and second World Wars, the shortage of food in some northern European countries led to a sharp decrease in mortality from coronary artery disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer, according to Dr. Luigi Fontana, a geriatrics researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. Those rates surged again after the wars, he said. Likewise, on the Japanese island of Okinawa, where residents have traditionally followed a diet similar to that of C.R., an unusually high number of people have lived a century or more.
Now, the United States government is investing $20 million to see if the regimen really works for people, just as other researchers struggle to decipher how calorie restriction works at the cellular level. Some suspect eating less slows the rate of cell division in tissues. Others theorize that hunger triggers a survival mode, activating genes that help resist stress and protect vital organs. Meanwhile, biogerontologists are racing to invent drugs that mimic the effects of calorie restriction without all the carrots and cottage cheese.
"It's a crucial moment for calorie restriction," said Dr. Mark P. Mattson, who heads the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging in Baltimore. "We're at a stage where increasing people's average life span isn't just a fiction."
In January, Dr. Mattson, who's been skipping breakfast himself for 20 years and is a delicate 5-foot-9 and 120 pounds, will begin the first major study on the long-term effects of meal skipping on humans. Men and women between the ages of 40 and 50 will be screened to see how blood pressure, cholesterol, immune function and other markers respond to one daily meal versus three. Another institute study already underway at three university research centers (Washington University, Tufts and Louisiana State) is looking at whether lighter meals reduce the risks of age-related chronic diseases — like heart disease and Alzheimer's — and lead to longer and more productive lives.
Mr. Sherman isn't waiting for the clinical trials. He's up most mornings by 7, microwaving his "megamuffins," low-calorie treats that took him more than a year to engineer from such delicacies as raw wheat germ, rice bran and psyillium husk, the active ingredient in Metamucil (the 27-ingredient recipe is hugely popular on the C.R. Web site, www.calorierestriction.org). Lunch might be a protein bar or a roast beef "sandwich" without the bread. For dinner, when Kathy Sherman and their children sit down for tacos or spaghetti, he'll sometimes have "fast fish and veggies," a 300-calorie helping of broccoli, zucchini and canned pink salmon — "the perfect food," he calls it. If he's extra hungry, he'll drink a quart of green tea, chew sugar-free gum or add a little more whey protein topping to his end-of-the-day fruit salad.
He's miserable, right? "Actually, it's bliss," Mr. Sherman insisted over a hot megamuffin, which had the consistency and culinary allure of roofing insulation. "I don't expect for one second that many people could follow this diet, but for those of us who can, food like this actually tastes good. Especially when you consider it could buy you a few extra decades."
By almost anyone's standards, Dr. Roy L. Walford is an old man. At 79, he is confined to an electric wheelchair and his voice is so weak, he speaks into a microphone wired to a small tabletop amplifier. A professor emeritus of pathology at the University of California at Los Angeles and the person most responsible for pioneering the C.R. lifestyle, Dr. Walford, whose books include "Maximum Life Span" and "Beyond the 120 Year Diet," is dying from the fatal nerve disorder known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"It's a big drag," he said slowly in an interview at his one-story red brick industrial loft in Venice, Calif. "If they don't find a cure, I definitely won't reach 120. Maybe not even 90."
As chief of medical operations for Biosphere 2, the eccentric 1990's experiment in living within a self-contained ecosystem, Dr. Walford and seven researchers involuntarily practiced calorie restriction for about two years after food grew scarce inside their desert bubble. He now blames the oxygen-depleted air for his illness. But the experience also yielded promising findings about low-calorie, high-nutrient diets. The emaciated crew members had lowered blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. It wasn't long before Omni magazine types everywhere were slashing calories. In 1994, the Calorie Restriction Society was formed.
"Initially, it was trying," said Dr. Dean Pomerleau, 39, a robotics engineer from suburban Pittsburgh with two children under 10, who started calorie restriction in 2000 after seeing a Nova documentary on Dr. Walford. "But you get used to it." Still, his dining rituals are eccentric even by C.R. standards. Dr. Pomerleau, who is 5-foot-8 and 117 pounds, eats the exact same meal — it's the salad to end all salads — twice a day, 365 days a year, but he said he has never been healthier or more focused mentally. "For every calorie you save, there's about a 30-second increase in your life span," he said. "It's worth more to me to have an extra two to three minutes of life than an extra slice of pizza."
There's no shortage of skepticism about calorie restriction in the scientific community. An article in this month's issue of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the leading journal on obesity research, concluded that caloric intake was not as important in staving off death by cardiovascular disease as other factors, like physical activity.
"A focus on calories alone doesn't strike me as the way to live a long life," said Dr. Michael Alderman, a professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who contributed to the article, which examined the results of a 21-year study of nearly 10,000 subjects. The healthiest people in the survey exercised regularly, which requires eating more, Dr. Alderman said. "If you're burning fuel, you've got to feed the engine with more food."
Thomas Wadden, director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, warned that extreme dieting like an ultralow-calorie regimen can lead to mental health problems.
"There's no question that people who fixate on food this much can develop mild obsessive-compulsive disorder," he said. "This behavior can also precipitate an eating disorder. When subjects lose 15 to 20 percent of their body weight, they sometimes start binge eating after restricting calories for a period. Others can become clinically depressed."
"Some people might like this diet, but most people won't last half a day on it," he said.
Kim Sandstrom, 47, a mother of six from Hillsboro, Ore., has reached her eight-month anniversary. Earlier this year, she said, she weighed 215 pounds and had been bedridden for months with complications from lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
In March, she switched to a supernutritious, 1,200-calorie-a-day diet and dropped 75 pounds. She stopped all her medications and is currently preparing to perform a stage version of "Shirley Valentine." "I'm freed up from food," she said. "This spring, I'm entering the Mrs. Oregon pageant."
THE real showstopper, though, might be a pill that would mimic the effect, at the cellular level, of an ultralow-calorie diet. Last summer, Dr. David A. Sinclair, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, discovered that a chemical commonly found in red wine could vastly increase life span. Okay, so the chemical, resveratrol, only worked with yeast and fruit flies in his experiments, but Dr. Sinclair, 34, is an optimist. "It could be a revolution in medicine," he said, if it were made into a pill. "If we're able to switch on the body's own defenses the way calorie restriction seems to, we could be talking about an end to cancer, stroke, heart attack and all the other age-associated diseases."
Alas, simply drinking red wine by the glass doesn't produce the full laboratory effect of resveratrol. A true drug to mimic the substance would require years of tinkering and government-approved testing. In the meantime, a northern California company called Future Foods is selling a resveratrol dietary supplement, which Dr. Sinclair recently started taking. "I tried calorie restriction, but it made me too miserable," he said. "There's a running joke with C.R. Yes, you can live longer, but after a few weeks of it, you won't want to."
Mr. Sherman, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and his not-always-amused wife have weathered many ups and downs because of his six-year adherence to the diet. A few years ago, when the stresses nearly broke up their marriage, the Shermans sought couple's counseling and they hired a housekeeper to whip up all those time-consuming megamuffins.
Mr. Sherman now maintains a separate refrigerator in the family garage, where he keeps neat rows of Tupperware stocked with odd ingredients like soy protein, sucralose and guar gum. To get his libido back and improve his mood, he takes low doses of a prescription drug, used mainly by Parkinson's patients, called Deprenyl.
He has also put on a little weight. Mr. Sherman is even getting comfortable with doughnuts again. "Every Sunday, I go get Krispy Kremes for the family," he said. "I still don't eat them, but I get this perverse pleasure from buying them. My son loves the regular glazed and Kathy likes the maple ones."
Doesn't Mrs. Sherman worry that all those extra calories will take precious hours off her life?
"Are you kidding?" she said. "I don't believe in that."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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