Lightening up to live longer

    In January, many of us vowed to eat a little less in the New Year. A month later, how resolved are you?

    WHYY/Newsworks reports on the science backing up people who are committed to cutting back.

    Michael Rae has been eating less, and he says smarter, for 11 years. The Philadelphia resident is a member of the Calorie Restriction Society.

    He carefully weighs and measures most meals and picks foods with the most nutrients for the fewest calories.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    His mornings begin with a mega muffin made from ground-up vegetables and a breakfast salad.

    “That’s got a variety of mixed greens, and Napa cabbage, tomatoes and I dress that with extra-virgin olive oil, and on the side I have a cup of fermented milk drink, called Kefir, similar to yogurt,” he said.

    Rae is 6 feet tall, 115 pounds. Yes, 115 pounds.

    He’s convinced that eating less is key to avoiding what he calls the horrors of aging.

    “If instead you just want to maintain the health and youth and vigor of being a young person, calorie restriction is the best bet we have available, so I’m practicing,” Rae said.

    The decades leave all of us more vulnerable to age-related illness such as hardened arteries, dementia and cancer.

    Medicine has gotten good at extending life, but many researchers are now focused on not just adding years, but keeping people healthy into old age. Calorie restriction seems like a solution — at least in lab animals.

    Pennsylvania State University professor Roger McCarter led some of that research more than a decade ago.

    “The animals that were fed less, either 10 percent less or 40 percent less, lived longer, but not just longer, they were physically very active. The restricted animals were running something like three and half miles a day,” McCarter said.

    McCarter and other investigators are now looking for safe compounds that mimic the benefits of calorie restriction without requiring people to eat less. Trimming 40 percent from an average diet of 3,000 calories means cutting 1,200 calories. McCarter says that’s just not realistic for most people.

    “Can you imagine mothers cutting back on the food they feed to their children? It’s just not going to happen,” he said.

    Calorie restriction also has side effects.

    Many people on super diets feel cold all the time. Some calorie-restricted lab animals heal slowly and have less ability to fight off infection.

    But researchers have studied people like Michael Rae. As a group, calorie restrictors are healthier than the rest of us.

    But Penn State’s McCarter does not expect those results for everyone. He says the benefits may be linked to genetics.

    In the lab, nearly all the mice in the same lineage — genetically related animals — showed signs of the vim and vigor Michael Rae says he feels. But in other animal strains, calorie restriction resulted in virtually no benefits.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal