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Sovazky Lee
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You May Live Longer By Severely Restricting Calories, Scientists Say

Published on 4/4/2018
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You May Live Longer By Severely Restricting Calories, Scientists Say

Cutting back up to 25 percent of your calories per day helps slow your metabolism and reduce free radicals that cause cell damage and aging. But would you want to?

Research has shown that sharp reductions in the amount of food consumed can help fish, rats and monkeys live longer. But there have been very few studies in humans. Now, some researchers have found that when people severely cut calories, they can slow their metabolism and possibly the aging process. Clinical physiologist Leanne Redman, who headed the study at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, says the first challenge was finding people willing to take part.

After all, they would have to cut their typical plate for breakfast, lunch and dinner by up to 25 percent. And, she says, none of them were overweight. Ultimately, she recruited 53 healthy volunteers. One-third ate their regular meals. The rest were on the severe calorie reduction plan for two years. “I don’t know if you understand the rigor of what it means to do calorie restriction every day,” she says, but the volunteers were committed. Not surprisingly, the people cutting calories lost quite a bit of weight — on average, 25 pounds. Those in the control group gained as much as 4 pounds.

But weight loss was not the point. Redman wanted to know whether this dramatic reduction in calories could affect how quickly people age. Science Examining the Effects of Strict CaloriES Restriction For testing, participants spent 24 hours in special rooms that measured their metabolic rates via gas, oxygen and carbon dioxide and how it changed over time. Redman noticed that for those on the restricted diet, their metabolism slowed and became more efficient. “Basically it just means that cells are needing less oxygen in order to generate the energy the body needs to survive; and so the body and the cells are becoming more energy efficient,” Redman explains. And if less oxygen is needed to burn energy, then dangerous byproducts of that burning — free radicals — can be reduced. “Oxygen can actually be damaging to tissues and cells, and so if the cells have become more efficient, then they’ve got less oxygen left over that can cause this damage,” she says. And that damage can accelerate aging.

The study was published in the journal Cell Metabolism last month. Now, these findings don’t directly prove that drastic calorie-cutting will actually help people live longer. People would have to be followed for their lifetimes to prove that. But the study did find that blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides were lower in the group on severe calorie restriction. When those numbers are high, they can lead to life-shortening diseases. The challenge is, most people may not be able to do a severe calorie-restricted diet, or even want to do it. Lowering metabolism can cause other problems. Biochemist Valter Longo, who studies longevity at the University of Southern California, says severely restricting calories for a time can mean you’re more likely to gain weight in the end. “Basically, you have to eat progressively less to maintain the same weight.” Most Americans struggle with carrying around too much weight, which can cause countless health problems. “For most people, if you consider 70 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese, then you can see how, for most people, this would be a big problem,” Longo says. It could lead to more “yo-yo dieting,”

where people who go off the diet eat more and return to their previous weight or even gain more weight. He is also concerned about the potential for muscle loss and a weakened immune system in those on severe calorie-restricted diets. Instead of chronic calorie restriction, Longo is a proponent of mini-fasts. These are short reductions in calories to just 900 a day for five days a month, which he says have the benefits of fasting without the potentially negative long-term effects. In fact, he wrote the book on it: The Longevity Diet. Longo stresses the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables and less meat. It may not ultimately lengthen your life, he says, but it can certainly help you maintain a healthy weight and avoid the kinds of chronic illnesses that can shorten it. These practices are not for everyone. If you have a history of eating disorders check with your doctor before starting any new regimen.

Minifasting: How Occasionally Skipping Meals May Boost Health

The 5:2 diet calls for two days per week of minifasting where the aim is to go a long stretch, say 14 to 18 hours, without eating. During these two fasting days, you also eat only about 600 calories, give or take. If you’ve ever gone to sleep hungry and then dreamed of chocolate croissants, the idea of fasting may seem completely unappealing. But what if the payoff for a 16-hour fast — which might involve skipping dinner, save a bowl of broth — is a boost in energy and a decreased appetite? This is what we’ve experienced as we’ve tried out the so-called 5:2 diet. It’s an intermittent fasting approach that, as we’ve reported, has been popularized by books by British physician and television broadcaster Michael Mosley.

The diet calls for two days per week of minifasting where the aim is to go a long stretch, say 14 to 18 hours, without eating. During these two fasting days, you also eat only about 600 calories, give or take. It sounds tough. But here’s the easy part: The other five days of the week you forget about dieting and return to your normal pattern of eating. It’s not really weight loss we’re interested in (though, admittedly, we ate and drank too much over the holidays).

The fascination is what researchers say may be the broader benefits. Scientists are looking into how fasting may help control blood sugar, improve memory and energy and perhaps boost immunity. A study by researchers at the University of Manchester found that when overweight women followed a 5:2 approach, they lost more weight and body fat and improved their insulin resistance compared with women who followed a more traditional diet of limiting calories seven days per week. One explanation for the success of the 5-2 dieters could be that a day of minifasting can lead to a diminished appetite. As Allison reports on All Things Considered, she found that she’s just less hungry the day after a fast. Mark Mattson, a researcher at the National Institute of Aging, says when we go without food, the body uses up its stored glucose, the basic fuel for the body, and starts burning fat. Mattson is interested in what happens to the brain — in terms of memory and learning — when the body starts to burn fat for fuel. And he’s been studying animals, mainly mice, for clues.

During fasting, he says, fat can convert to compounds called ketones, “which have beneficial effects in making neurons more resistant to injury and disease.” He’s planning a study in people to evaluate what effect intermittent fasting may have on brain health. And, as Eliza has reported, scientists are also studying how intermittent fasting may help boost immunity, perhaps by making cells more adaptive to stresses such as injury and disease. There may be an evolutionary explanation for this because humans (and other animals) have fasted intermittently for much of our time on Earth, after all. As a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences notes, “

The most common eating pattern in modern societies, three meals plus snacks every day, is abnormal from an evolutionary perspective.” Of course, doctors don’t recommend minifasts for everyone. Valter Longo, a gerontologist at the University of Southern California who studies fasting, notes that “it is very dangerous for people who struggle with eating disorders to fast.” And he advises everyone interested in fasting to see their physician and meet with a registered dietitian. Longo and other experts gave Eliza some of their other tips on how to do it right: Fasting is easier with a buddy. On a minifast, choose the food you do eat carefully. Researchers recommend high-protein, high-fiber foods. Avoid refined carbs and sugar, which will spike blood sugar and may leave you hungry late in the day.

To minimize temptation, stay out of the kitchen and away from food establishments. Try a pattern of weekly intermittent fasting for at least a month. Studies have shown that a long-term lifestyle change (and the benefits associated with it) is more likely for people who can stick with the diet for at least a month. And tolerating some hunger gets easier the longer you do it. Don’t be surprised if there are some side effects, like trouble sleeping or gastrointestinal issues.

THE FUTURE OF MODERN TECHNOLOGY

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