Being hungry for the rest of your life
I was interested in the story about the latest studies on the calorie restriction diet that appeared in today's paper because I wrote about the diet three years ago for the Taste section. (Which seems an odd place for it, now that I think about it.)
I talked to so many people who were so enthusiastic about the diet's benefits that I had the weird urge to try it, but the idea of being slightly hungry for the rest of my life was unappealing.
Equally unappealing was the descriptions I got of people thinking about food all the time. I'm obsessive enough about food without that.
I'm republishing my story below. When you read about some of these people's daily intakes of calories, just remember that a milkshake alone can have 1,500 calories.
The photo is of (at the time) 53-year-old Liza May in the story. ...
Small bites, long life?
By eating carefully chosen portions of nutritious foods, believers in calorie restriction hope to extend their years
Whoever said hunger is the best sauce should talk to Brian Delaney.
Delaney, who is 5 feet 11 inches tall and physically active, has two meals a day. His morning meal consists of whole-grain cereal, nonfat yogurt, berries, sliced fruit and soy milk.Dinner is usually whole-grain pasta or rice; a legume dish, such as lentil soup; and a large vegetable salad with ingredients like lightly steamed broccoli, red pepper, arugula, sesame seeds and pieces of fruit.
For a treat, Delaney sometimes allows himself a small piece of chocolate or a glass of wine.
For years Delaney, who is 42 but says he feels like he's in his late 20s, has followed an extremely low-calorie diet known as calorie restriction, or CR, in the hopes of extending his lifespan - perhaps by a decade or two. Hunger is a fact of life.
"I like eating fewer meals but having more food per meal," he says. "The hunger is concentrated in one period. Late afternoon I'm hungry, but it's manageable. With grazing, there's a tiny bit of hunger all the time. You're thinking about food all the time."
Scientific studies in the 1930s showed that mice on an extremely low-calorie but healthful diet lived 30 percent longer and also seemed to age more slowly. Ever since, researchers have been trying to figure out whether a semi-starvation diet that was also rich in nutrients would extend human life.
Further animal studies and research on small groups of humans have been encouraging, and this month scientists at Louisiana State University reported an extremely low-calorie diet can reduce the DNA damage of aging. But there are negative side effects, depending on how severely calories are restricted, such as crankiness and lack of interest in sex.
The challenge for Delaney and others on the calorie-restriction diet is to get maximum nutrients and maximum volume - so they feel full - while taking in very few calories.
Proponents say the diet as a way of life isn't as grim as it sounds. Delaney, who lives in Sweden, is president of the Calorie Restriction Society, a sort of support group for a lot of very hungry people. He's written a how-to book, The Longevity Diet, with Lisa Walford, whose father pioneered much of the research.
Eventually, people who eat this way say, your body adjusts to even the most extreme version of the diet.
Liza May, 53, a clinical nutritionist who lives in Crofton and calls herself the "Martha Stewart of the Calorie Restriction Society," has been on the diet since the 1970s. "After so many years of eating reasonably" - by which she means being on a low-calorie, high-nutrition diet - "I don't have those crazy cravings," she says.
The mother of four and grandmother of three, May considers herself a gourmet cook and has a restaurant-quality kitchen, but she cooks for others. She estimates she consumes less than 1,000 calories a day, concentrating on fresh vegetables, leafy greens and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to be good for the heart. She avoids bread and other baked goods.
May is 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs 114 pounds. She says the diet leaves her with plenty of energy. She and her husband are competitive dancers, and she exercises every day at the gym. She thinks her eating habits might be responsible for the fact that she hasn't been sick since 1973.
"Every calorie matters," she says. "The more you restrict, the more you have to pay attention to [the nutritional content of] every calorie you put in your mouth."
Anyone who might be pregnant shouldn't consider the diet, and research indicates it could stunt children's growth. It also would be dangerous for someone with eating-disorder tendencies.
It is possible to eat a very low-calorie but healthful diet by making calculated selections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid, says Christine Gerbstadt, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. In about 1,100 calories, she estimates, you can get 80 percent of your requirements. (You would have to meet the rest with supplements.)
"They can't get everything they need through food alone," she says, "but they can come pretty darn close. Face it. They're still doing better than 70 percent of Americans. The lesson is that we can all make healthier food choices."
For the past 20 years, Dr. Mark Mattson has. Mattson is a neuroscientist who is studying calorie restriction at the National Institute on Aging laboratory in Baltimore. He eats the same sort of highly nutritious, food-as-fuel diet as those on calorie restriction. But he doesn't routinely count calories or try to limit them, even though he's seen that the mild stress of a very low-calorie diet seems to protect lab animals at the cellular level.
"I skip breakfast, eat a relatively light lunch and a good-size dinner," he says. "I estimate that my calorie intake is about 1,800 to 2,200 per day. ... I eat mostly whole grains, vegetables and fruits, nuts and fish."
The research isn't clear-cut, Mattson says, that people who aren't overweight will benefit much from severely restricting calories. He also stresses the importance of regular physical exercise and keeping sharp mentally as well as diet to stave off the effects of aging.
In his book, Delaney recommends seeing your doctor before you start the diet. But he believes most Americans could benefit from taking in fewer calories, even if they don't diet as drastically as he does.
Delaney limits his calories to about 1,900 a day. "It's not that different from a mostly vegetarian, health-food diet except that I skip lunch," he says. For a man his size, about 2,500 calories would be more normal, especially because he runs and lifts weights several times a week.
An ex-girlfriend once described Delaney as resembling "a hockey player on a two-day fast." After almost 14 years on the diet, he weighs 140 pounds. He's skinnier than he wants to be but, he says, he looks muscular.
At a restaurant, he usually can find something on the menu that fits his diet. When he's invited to someone's house, he eats whatever the host is serving but in very small amounts.
"If someone fed me [fried] fish and chips," he says, "I wouldn't like it, but I'd eat a little of it."
He wasn't always so disciplined. "I was a junk-food junkie," he says. "The first year [on the diet] I craved really fatty foods. I could smell McDonald's a block away, but not so much anymore."
News stories about the science of calorie restriction often focus on practitioners who eat almost nothing and whose weight is dramatically lower than what's considered normal. But many people who believe it will extend life practice calorie restriction to a lesser degree. It's the only way they can follow the regimen long term.
Those who have a scientific view of food, primarily as fuel, probably have the easiest time with the diet.
David Dorsey, 67, says he's done a lot of thinking about the role of food in our society since he started restricting calories. "You need to look at eating almost exclusively as nutrition," says Dorsey, who is the chief financial officer of a nonprofit organization. "If someone else wants to spend a lot of time making a Boston cream pie and then they are hurt because I just want a very small piece, well, so be it."
Dorsey, who lives in Silver Spring, is 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs about 144 pounds, 20 less than he did when he started the diet a year and a half ago. He's up from 131, his lowest weight. "I used to keep track of everything I ate, but it got too burdensome," he says.
He consumes plenty of vegetables and whole grains and keeps fresh fruit in his office in case he gets too hungry. Breakfast is oatmeal and fruit. Lunch is entirely vegetables. He'll microwave a bag of mixed frozen vegetables and eat them with a Diet Dr Pepper.
Dinner is smaller portions of what he used to eat (he and his wife were always healthy eaters) and no second helpings. His reward, he says, is 2 or 3 teaspoons of Healthy Choice chocolate ice cream before bed.
Dorsey is lucky that his wife is on board with his decision to live a calorie-restricted life. One of the big problems with the diet is that it affects the people around you.
"My girlfriend hates it," says Ray Hinish, 30, who has been eating this way for a couple of years. "She likes to try a lot of different foods, and I just won't."
Hinish, a pharmacist specializing in holistic medicines, recommends starting by simply substituting vegetables for more calorie-dense food. He also believes in getting extra protein through supplements.
The Columbia resident is 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 175 pounds. Since he began restricting calories he's lost 25 pounds. Hinish estimates he gets about 2,000 calories daily, higher than the usual person on calorie restriction, but he exercises vigorously every day.
"A regular weight-watching diet leaves you almost malnourished," he says, "but CR makes you almost supernourished."
Another difference is that a low-calorie weight-loss diet has an end in sight: When you reach your goal, you can start eating more again, even if not as much as you used to. It takes a particular mind-set to be able to voluntarily live on a restricted-calorie diet for the rest of your life.
That's why Bob Hammer, 49, an engineer who also lives in Columbia, no longer practices CR, even though it made him feel "really good" and he still believes in its long-term benefits.
He says he just got tired of being hungry all the time. The fact that he couldn't eat what other people ate was also a problem. He and his wife are divorced, and his daughter lives with him. He had to cook one meal for her and a different one for himself.
Now he's hoping to live a healthier if not a longer life by eating the same nutritious foods he ate on the diet - just more of them.
"I improved my habits quite a bit trying to get everything you need [nutritionally] but still eating less," he says.
Hammer first heard of calorie restriction in the '80s but didn't start seriously restricting calories until 1998. After about a year his weight dropped to 128 pounds, low for his 5-foot-8-inch frame.
At first "the motivation made me see beyond the hunger," he says. "But the urge to eat was very strong. Your view of food changes. You're thinking about food all the time. Man, you're looking forward to that next meal."
There was one good thing about it, he says. "It's hard to be hungry and depressed at the same time."
A day's menu
Lisa Walford, co-author with Brian Delaney of The Longevity Diet, is a vegan and a serious practitioner of calorie restriction. Here is a day's meals from her food journal in the book. In addition to these foods, she also takes calcium and B-12 supplements.
Breakfast: 4 walnuts, 6 almonds, 10 peanuts, black tea
Morning snack: 1-inch avocado slice, 1/2 slice whole-wheat toast, 2 tablespoons hummus spread (chickpeas)
Midafternoon snack: 16 ounces apple/beet/carrot juice
Dinner: Steamed broccoli, red pepper, kale, tomato, squash, sweet potato, onions and cauliflower; 1/2 cup tomato sauce; 2 ounces baked tofu; 1 teaspoon olive oil; 1 teaspoon flax oil; black pepper; marjoram
Evening snack: 10 toasted almonds
Chicken and tomato
This recipe is from Robert Cavanaugh, a member of the Calorie Restriction Society who posted it at recipes.calorierestriction.org. He wrote: "Typically, my wife and I have this chicken with 5 ounces of broccoli and a medium baked sweet potato, a large green salad and dressing, and a glass of red wine. I also have a 6-inch whole-wheat pita bread. Total calories for my dinner are 933. My wife skips the pita bread, which saves her 170 calories."
10 sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
1 clove garlic, pressed
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 chicken breast (100 grams), boneless and skinless
1/2 can (100 grams) diced tomatoes
2 whole oysters, boiled and minced
Make a pesto by processing the first 3 ingredients. Pound out the chicken breast to 1/2 inch thickness. Coat both sides of the breast with pesto. Broil 20 minutes in a foil-lined pan, turning once.
Combine tomatoes and oysters. Spoon over chicken and broil 10 minutes more.
Per serving: 191 calories, 23 grams protein, 7 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 8 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 62 milligrams cholesterol, 231 milligrams sodium