Starved for life
Followers of calorie-restricted diets think their eat-less approach will help them live longer. But is it worth living without Granny’s pumpkin pie?
Lunch with Brett Schneider is a lesson in restraint. Most diners at Sweet Tomatoes, a serve-yourself salad bar restaurant in Beaverton, Ore., pile shredded cheddar cheese and thickly cut croutons on top of their lettuce. Schneider instead loads two plates with mixed greens, spinach, olives, raisins, cherry tomatoes and garbanzo beans. He bypasses tureens filled with chunky blue cheese and ranch dressing, instead ladling barely a tablespoon of Catalina dressing into a small paper cup. Using a pair of tongs, Schneider carefully tries to pluck pieces of egg white from a bowl of sliced egg that is smeared with bright yellow yolks. “This is the hard part,” he chuckles. At age 33, Schneider is fastidious about counting calories. But he’s not on a conventional diet. No Weight Watchers. No Zone. At 6 feet 2 inches and 145 pounds, he’s as thin as a praying mantis, but it’s not, he says, even about shedding pounds. It’s about extending his life and improving his health. Schneider practices calorie restriction, or CR as it’s commonly called, a spartan diet that some scientists and doctors increasingly believe can stave off cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease and may possibly lengthen people’s life span. While most Americans stuffed themselves last week on fatty Thanksgiving treats like candied sweet potatoes and creamy green-bean casserole, Schneider refrained from the gorge-fest. He believes he’s found the fountain of youth in cutting calories. It’s not just about skipping that last piece of pumpkin pie—Schneider is literally starving himself to live longer.
“I’m hoping to be healthy potentially into my 90s,” he says.
An Intel finance manager who’s been on CR for four years, Schneider belongs to a group called the Calorie Restriction Society. There are now a few thousand calorie restrictors nationally and less than a dozen in Nevada (only two registered members in Reno). CR-ers got a boost this month when researchers at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center released part of an ongoing study on a group of rhesus monkeys who’d been on a calorie-restricted diet. The monkeys who’d been on CR were healthier than those who had eaten a regular diet. They had lower cholesterol and glucose levels, tended not to suffer from age-related diseases like arthritis and even looked better than their well-fed counterparts. (Who got to judge that beauty competition?)
The godfather of CR was Roy Walford, an eccentric UCLA pathologist with a bald head, a bushy Fu Manchu mustache and a fondness for sleeveless T-shirts. He was one of the eight “crew members” in Biosphere 2, a closed ecological dome in the Arizona desert. During the two years Walford and seven other scientists spent there (1991-93), food grew scarce, and they subsisted on a very low-calorie diet high in fruits and vegetables. Tests showed that they all had extremely low cholesterol and reduced blood-sugar levels. Out of this, a movement was born. Walford died in 2004 at 79 of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but his books have become the Bhagavad-Gita for most calorie restrictors. For Schneider, his “reawakening” occurred four years ago. Before following a CR diet, Schneider weighed around 180 pounds and ate a mixture of fast food and Costco frozen meals. His favorite restaurant was Outback Steakhouse, which is famous for fare like the “Bloomin’ Onion” appetizer, a large fried onion with dressing that contains a shocking 2,100 calories. He loved cutting into a thick steak. Fast-food burgers and greasy fries were a staple in his diet, as were fish sticks, baseball-size bagels, meatballs and burritos. He rarely ate fruits and vegetables. After stumbling on an article about CR on the Web, Schneider read Walford’s Beyond the 120 Year Diet and was struck by its assertion that cutting calories can stave off disease in old age. He’s followed the strict regimen prescribed by the book ever since.
“Walford’s book provides a lot of solid scientific evidence for CR,” Schneider says. “If I can relatively shorten the period when I’m old and not healthy, then the diet is worth it.”
The cornerstone of the plan is eating about 20 to 30 percent fewer calories than most dieticians recommend—and substantially less than most Nevadans eat—while continuing to get enough vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, an active male Schneider’s age should eat about 3,000 calories per day. On a calorie-restricted diet, that same man would only be allowed to eat little more than 2,000 calories—about the same amount of cals in that “Bloomin’ Onion” or a Burgerville pepper-bacon cheeseburger, large fries and chocolate-hazelnut milkshake. That means many of us eat all the daily calories allowed on CR in one meal.
The majority of Schneider’s meals consist of low-fat, high-density foods like bell peppers and lettuce, and he eats virtually the same thing every day. He calculates the nutrients he gets, along with the amount of the calories he needs, on software created by Walford. He keeps a large, dog-eared folder overflowing with papers about calorie restriction, nutrition and science studies. One section includes pages of color-coded bar graphs, line graphs and charts, detailing his weight loss and the amount of overall nutrients he gets every day, with hand-penned annotations in the margin. Another section features a lengthy packet of his medical records, including blood tests and results from past physicals. There’s a spreadsheet documenting the amount and cost of the supplements he takes every day. Schneider quickly flips through the folder and pulls a single page he was hunting from the mass. It’s clear he’s been through this army-green folder hundreds of times. His research on the diet—and his own well-being—is detailed and meticulous. Nutrition is a critical part of the calorie-restricted diet, and many practitioners eat a largely fruit and vegetable diet supplemented with whole grains and lean protein like fish and tofu. Some are vegan. And the diet is a health nut’s fantasy. The CR society’s message board is peppered daily with queries ranging from where to find unsweetened dried fruits to the benefits of omega-3 oils.
CR, to many, would seem about as enjoyable as eating several pounds of roughage every day—which, in Schneider’s case, it involves. On most days, he eats around a half-pound of lettuce, three quarters of a pound of broccoli, one pound of apples and up to two-thirds of a pound of blueberries. He eats olives, carrots, sesame seeds, canned tomatoes, walnuts, herring, flax seeds, a variety of legumes and egg whites. Refined sugar rarely crosses his lips. The same goes for processed foods. He’ll never eat a Twinkie again. He buys such a high volume of fruits and vegetables that he still does much of his shopping at Costco. He doesn’t drink alcohol. And he carries around a baggy filled with vitamin pills in a variety of shapes and colors. In part, that’s to ensure that he gets enough calcium and niacin. He also spends a couple thousand dollars each year on these supplements and takes upwards of 30 different varieties twice a day—ranging from turmeric, which may ward off Alzheimer’s, to milk thistle, for improved liver function. He rarely eats breakfast. Some days he doesn’t eat all, although that’s mostly on weekends. And on holidays like Thanksgiving—when most people tuck into fatty foods like mashed potatoes and gravy—Schneider exercises restraint. While he says he’ll eat the turkey (lean meat), the sweet potatoes (great source of vitamins) and some cranberries (despite the sugar, high in antioxidants), goodies like pies and stuffing are off-limits. He admits that the diet can be difficult to adhere to. But he says there’s pleasure in it that goes beyond the immediate delight of a bite of juicy filet mignon.
“Think about when you’ve been on a long hike,” Schneider says. “When you get to the top, or wherever you’re hiking, and you’re really hungry and sit down for a snack. How does the food taste? It tastes better—everything tastes better. That’s how it is for me every time I sit down for a meal.”
While he says the first part of the diet was difficult, he says that eventually the feeling of hunger dissipated, and along with it many of the health problems he’d been experiencing like incapacitating migraines, persistent acne and even back trouble. These days, he says, he’s rarely hungry.
“After that first six-month period, it was really easy,” Schneider says. “My health improved, and the diet has a calming effect. It sustains my energy longer, and I’m more emotionally stable. I run at a more normal level that doesn’t change too much.”
Schneider climbed both Mount Rainier and Mount Hood while on CR and works out at the gym about three times a week, lifting upper-body weights, running about one mile and exercising on the elliptical machine for 30 minutes. He also says he’s more immune to disease than he was before, and that now he rarely succumbs to the flu or colds—a claim echoed repeatedly by others on the CR Society’s web site. His cholesterol levels are low, and his blood pressure is 105/65—a fantastic reading. In fact, Schneider’s vitals have been so consistently good that his doctor didn’t think it was necessary to test his cholesterol or glucose levels during his last physical.
At the same time, Schneider is not exactly a conventional picture of health. His tall, slender frame looks fragile as he walks, and his pale skin and lips have only a faint blush of color. He keeps his blond hair cropped short, and his skin has a slight yellowish tinge, something many calorie restrictors experience because of their heavy consumption of foods high in beta-carotene, like carrots. Even when Schneider’s weight briefly dipped down to 135, which he acknowledges was too thin, he says he still was in great health, though he looked emaciated to some.
“At one point, I arguably looked like a Holocaust survivor,” Schneider says. “But I felt just as good then as I do now.”
Schneider says that though co-workers and friends have accepted his diet, his family thought his decision to switch to a CR diet was bizarre at first. While he says they weren’t exactly trying to get him to revert to his old, unhealthy diet, they weren’t thrilled by his new regimen.
“They thought it was really weird at first,” he says. “But now it’s a non-issue, and they accept it.”
He still gets gift certificates from them for the Outback Steakhouse at Christmas, he says, but now his family also makes sure he’s accommodated at holidays like Thanksgiving, where they’ll serve a veggie platter alongside the more traditional—and high-caloric—trimmings.
His wife, Isabel, actually tried the diet for five months before quitting because she missed treats like cookies, potato chips and candy. While she says she supports her husband, she admits that she initially thought CR was strange.
“At first I was thinking, is this another one of these diets that are totally out there? Does it mean that you have to starve yourself?” she says. “I had fears at first, but after a while I understood that this is what’s best for him.”
Calorie restriction hasn’t exactly been accepted by mainstream medicine in the same way that, say, exercise has. But there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that people on this diet may actually be on to something. Mice and monkeys eating calorie-restricted diets are healthier—and live far longer. Researchers at Cornell University found that mice who consumed 30 percent fewer calories than those on a regular diet lived a full 40 percent longer. A study by the National Institute of Aging that began over a decade ago demonstrated that rhesus monkeys on CR are less likely to suffer from age-related diseases, particularly cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Five years ago, the monkeys from that study were transferred to the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Hillsboro. Studies continue at the Oregon Health & Science University center, one of the most recent on calorie restriction and sleep. Last November, behavioral neuroscientists at OHSU reported similarly positive findings, in a study showing that mice on CR actually showed signs of reversal in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. It’s hard to find a doctor or nutritionist who will bad-mouth the practice, but many will say that it requires a level of attention that most of us are simply unwilling or unable to devote.
“This is like an accountant’s diet,” says Diane Stadler, a bionutritionist at OHSU. “I think it’s perceived as a balanced diet if people pay attention to what they’re eating, but I don’t know that I’d use the word ‘safe.’ It’s for someone that is really into numbers.” Not getting sufficient nutrition can cause a vast range of health problems that Stadler says would undercut any benefits of calorie restriction. Cutting calories too quickly could also be dangerous, and could cause heart problems, muscle loss and hypoglycemia (to their credit, calorie restrictors are quick to point out that slashing calories too rapidly is unsafe). And an exceptionally low body mass index—which is a weight-to-height ratio—can also be risky.
“If someone’s body mass index is too low, after a certain point, mortality rates start to creep back up,” says Stadler.
And the diet is certainly not for children, who need to consume a regular amount of calories in order to grow and mature properly. Even in adult women, a diet too low in calories can affect bone mass and fertility.
There’s also the natural speculation that CR is an eating disorder, like anorexia, masked as a healthy diet. Schneider disagrees.
“CR is about being healthy,” he says. “An eating disorder is the opposite of healthy. “
The only negative side effect Schneider reports is often feeling cold, an observation repeated by other calorie restrictors.
“I do wear more clothes than anyone else in the room on a typical day, and my body temperature is a little lower than average,” says Schneider, whose body fat measures about 7 percent, rivaling professional athletes'.
One other minor side effect of Schneider’s calorie-restricted diet is occasional flatulence. Beyond that, he says, he’s never suffered any real digestive issues, even though he eats a tremendous amount of fiber. Gas, cold and hunger aside, he says that the positive health benefits are worth it.
“Food for me is such a small part of my life—and I think this helps make calorie restriction easier for me because the personal cost is relatively low for the health benefits,” he says.
Which, of course, is the key question. How does one compare an additional year of life with a piece of pecan pie? Into what calculator can one input the joy that comes from an extra popover and measure it next to a few more days without a cold? How can one compute the bliss that comes with a Thanksgiving Day nap brought on by too much turkey, gravy and stuffing and compare it with a lower cholesterol level? And, at the same time, how can anyone possibly quantify the fulfillment of a long, healthy life?
It’s a push and pull that even the most diehard CR dieter like Schneider grapples with. He says that despite his dedication to CR, he still has one weakness: “I still can’t resist a good piece of chocolate sometimes.”