Some scientists say that caloric restriction, or a drastic reduction in the amount of food we eat each day, just might be the key to slowing down aging and lengthening life. But is cutting our food consumption by nearly one-third a day to feel younger and achieve more health benefits really safe and practical?
According to the American Federation for Aging Research, caloric restriction is an “experimental tool that utilizes ‘undernutrition without malnutrition.’ ” Ideally, a calorie-restricted diet supplies all the necessary nutrients and vitamins to support a healthy life.
Studies over the past 75 years have shown that rats and mice fed calorie-restricted diets are not only leaner, but also live longer and retain a more youthful, disease-free state. Some researchers think eating less food reduces the number of cell-damaging free radicals and decreases glycation, a process that occurs when sugars in the body react with proteins, causing DNA damage.
So far, studies have yet to show whether caloric restriction increases lifespan in humans, and it may take decades to find out. Meanwhile, some Americans have taken on the calorie-restricted challenge in the hopes of preventing or delaying age-associated diseases.
Researchers speculate that to attain the health benefits of caloric restriction, you may need to trim your current calorie intake by about 30 percent. That means, for example, eating 1,260 calories a day instead of 1,800 calories. For many people, such a drastic calorie cut would be unpleasant and, done haphazardly, could lead to nutrient deficiencies and fatigue.
Proponents of caloric restriction say cutting calories properly under a doctor’s supervision may lower your blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides; raise your HDL (good) cholesterol; improve your insulin response; and reduce inflammation in your body. But you should never embark on a calorie-restricted lifestyle without your doctor’s supervision.
Converts to caloric restriction admit they often feel cold and are hungry, moody and preoccupied by food. Is it worth it? People at high risk for conditions like cardiovascular disease, dementia and cancer may think so.
Scientists hope, however, that further research will help develop medication that produces the health benefits of caloric restriction—without the growling stomach.
It’s possible. If cutting calories turns into a severe preoccupation with your weight, you may develop an eating disorder—which could increase your risk of nerve damage, heart disease, bone loss, anemia and life-threatening mineral and electrolyte imbalances.
When people become so obsessed with eating for health that they develop nutritional deficiencies, some scientists call the condition orthorexia nervosa. If you’re trying to cut calories, see your doctor if you:
- experience severe weight loss
- have an unhealthy focus on your weight
- regularly feel fatigued, depressed or light-headed
- feel helpless about your eating behavior