A Rose with Starry Eyes

{March 18, 2010}   UK CRON article

GREAT article on CRON diet from the UK…

The death-defying diet

Calorie restriction claims to help you live longer and avoid old-age diseases. But does it work — and can Dominic Rushe stomach it? Photograph: Andrew Testa

Dominic Rushe and his daughter Billie shop for fruit and vegetables and a rather less healty doughnut at a farmers market in Union Square, Manhattan

<!– Remove following

to not show photographer information –><!– Remove following

to not show image description –>

Dominic Rushe and his daughter Billie shop for fruit and vegetables and a rather less healty doughnut at a farmers market in Union Square, Manhattan

<!– Remove following

to not show enlarge option –><!–



My last supper as a mortal took place on Hallowe’en at Florent, a French diner in New York’s meat-packing district. The parade was in full swing and waiters in drag served tables of clowns. Olivia Newton-John (emphasis on John) circa Physical in leggings and an off-the-shoulder T-shirt recommended the steak frites with green beans followed by cheesecake and ice cream. It all sounded good to me.

I love food and have never really taken much interest in the calories it contains. I vaguely remember that Tic Tacs have two calories (Tic Tac two) but I could be wrong and, until recently, I haven’t given a monkey’s. For the past 10 years, I have weighed 12 stone 5lb, give or take a few pounds. I’m 41, 5ft 11in and neither thin nor fat. I’m a small large. I eat an average amount for my size – about 2,500 calories a day.

My body mass index (BMI), the calculation many doctors use to assess weight, is 24.4, the high end of normal. Add a few pounds and I would be overweight but I’d have to slap on well over a stone to be “obese”. Most importantly, I weigh less than most of my male friends. Now, this laissez-faire attitude to food is going to stop. From the stroke of midnight I am going to retrain my body to live on 1,800 calories a day on a diet that, a growing body of evidence is showing, will increase my life span, reduce my chances of serious diseases like cancer and may even give me a shot at cheating death.

In 1991, Dr Roy Walford, an expert on ageing and a Korean-war veteran, was sealed inside Biosphere 2 with seven other “crew” members. Among other delights, the 3.14-acre site contained a rainforest, an 850-square-metre ocean with a coral reef, and mangrove wetlands. For two years, they were supposed to support themselves on food they would grow themselves, to test the feasibility of setting up such sites on distant planets. The crew found they could not grow enough food and the experiment almost had to be cancelled. Solving the food dilemma led to an experiment that convinced Walford he had found a way to extend human life.

Walford convinced the crew to follow a nutrient-rich diet of between 1,400 and 2,000 calories a day. Within six months the crew’s weight had, unsurprisingly, fallen 14% – but they also showed dramatic falls in blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and insulin. Did the Biosphere contain the fountain of youth?

Walford certainly thought so. He was not the first scientist to investigate the anti-ageing effects of calorie restriction (CR). Studies going back as far as 1934 had shown that rats fed a severely reduced-calorie diet, while maintaining vital nutrient levels, lived twice as long as other rats. But after Biosphere 2, Walford was to become CR’s greatest proselytiser.

In his bestseller, Beyond the 120-Year Diet, Walford notes that average life spans have been increasing for the past 100 years, but humans’ maximum life span – the maximum number of years anyone has lived – has remained steady at around 110 years.

Even the Bible pegs us out at around that number. Adam may have lived for 930 years, but for the rest of us, according to Genesis 6:3, “[man] also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years”.

Walford died in 2004 at the age of 79 through complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”. Evidence is growing that CR fights off many serious diseases that strike in middle age. Ironically, ALS is one of the few shown to have been accelerated by CR. But his book, first published in 1986, and research have inspired a hardy band of would-be immortalists.

This year, the Calorie Restriction Society annual meeting was held in San Antonio, Texas, home of the Alamo. There’s a last-ditch feel to this affair too. About 40 people, half of last year’s number, have turned up. It’s not hard to see why. Most people want to be thin, youthful and live for ever, but CR is no easy way to do it.

A week into my diet I am constantly hungry.

I plan my next meal as I eat my last. In my room there is an ad for the hotel shop: “Food so close to your suite, you can almost hear those chocolate cookies calling your name.” Man, are they calling. In New York I have been surviving on porridge, leaves and raw fish. I feel like Gollum. Round the corner from the conference venue is a joint called Fatty’s Burgers. Mmmmm.

The CR Society members are lean but not abnormally thin. They would look at home in any picture from the 1950s when rationing meant few people could afford to be fat. The conference is partly social, but it’s also heavily scientific: this is a diet for geeks. After a talk entitled “Metabolic Effects of PGC-1a Overexpression in the C57B16 Mouse” I’m dreaming about coffee and Double Deckers – this lot are scribbling and even asking questions.

The camaraderie is good. I am probably eating too little, a few people warn. Rapid weight loss releases toxins into the body. I should be aiming for gradual weight loss, about 1lb a week, eventually aiming to be three or four points below my present BMI.

Most of the people are middle-aged and up. Health seems to be their first concern, then longevity. But for some it’s about a dream as old as mankind – escaping death.

David Fisher, who has flown over from Berkshire, says he had a fear of death from an early age. “I used to lie in bed worrying about it,” he says. There were no parental deaths to trigger his dread, no nasty incidents with Fido and a Ford. His fear of death is something he describes as “totally logical”. “Because aging happens over time, people don’t think about it until it’s too late. Maybe our only difference is an inability to put our heads in the sand,” he says. Within the next 30 or 40 years, Fisher’s convinced there is a 50/50 chance that the “problem” of ageing will be solved – and he’s determined to be around to see it. He’s dedicated to the task. He has been on CR for about 15 years and now eats 1,600 calories a day. He tells me he’s 50. He looks 40 or younger until I really start staring. Does he dye his hair? What about the eyelashes? But I’m being mean.


The fact is, he looks a lot healthier than me.

The CR community’s most dedicated mortality escapologist is Michael Rae. Six foot and 115lb, wearing baggy parachute trousers, Rae looks like a man from the future. He arrives in a T-shirt that reads “Immortal”, his milk-coloured skin so clear it looks airbrushed. His ears and fingers have a carrot-coloured hue – apparently caused by the amount of carotene he eats – enhanced by his ginger hair, so neatly combed you can see the lines the brush has left.

Michael carries a postal scale to weigh his food. He needs it. Other CRs wing it, guessing weights, reading the backs of packets, splurging now and again, and making it up the next day. Michael is hardcore. His regimen is 1,913 calories a day, every day: 30% derived from fat, 30% from protein, and 40% from carbohydrates.

Rae is a research assistant to Aubrey de Grey, the Cambridge scientist and Gandalf lookalike who believes technology is on the verge of conquering death. Together, they wrote Ending Aging: the Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime. De Grey is not a big fan of CR. The effect is profound in short-lived mice, but in man, whose life is so much longer, de Grey believes CR’s effect will be minimal. “Long-lived species like us won’t get much, probably no more than a couple of years,” says de Grey. “Michael has some complicated but interesting criticisms of my argument, and the debate is very much ongoing. I should stress that I definitely don’t pooh-pooh CR – I think that even a couple of years is worth it if you’re the sort of person who can do it.”

“My argument is, where is his f***ing data?” says Rae, with a laugh. “The big question is, does it translate to the human case? If it didn’t, I wouldn’t look so goddamn skinny.”

Rae’s girlfriend, April Smith, is equally striking. Smith is CR’s top blogger and the couple are becoming the most public face of CR. Pale, with the same clear white skin as her boyfriend, April is thin but not thin enough for some. She tells me a very famous US TV show once called and asked if she would come on to talk about CR. After they had seen her picture, they cancelled. “They were looking for freaks,” she says. Another show cancelled after asking her about her “800-calorie-a-day diet”. When she told them she ate 1,300, and that if she ate 800, she’d be dead, they cancelled too. April is a martyr to the media. After an article featuring the couple appeared in New York magazine, April received death threats: “Die in a fire and do it soon.”

Perhaps it’s her libido that has this effect on people. CR has given her the sex drive “of a teenage boy” she says. Apparently, this is common in women. In men it often has the opposite effect, although April is all too keen to tell me she and Rae have a very active relationship. One married CR adept tells me he hasn’t had sex for two years. I assume he is blaming the diet.

There are sacrifices to be made for a CR life, as they are all happy to admit. Friends and family find your eating habits difficult to deal with. Wedding cake? No thanks. You feel the cold more (layering is big in CR land). Hunger is an issue and you are constantly bombarded by ads for food in a society where, as one CR-er tells me with a withering look, a man on the edge of chubby (cough) is seen as thin. No Double Deckers, no social life, no nookie and now I’m being insulted. Do I really want to live to 120?

Pesca on the River is one of San Antonio’s swankier restaurants. Accompanied by four other CR adepts with more than 50 years of calorie-restricted living experience between them, I am looking forward to my first CR meal in truly understanding company. I start to get worried on the walk over. There’s a lot of bitching about which restaurant we are choosing, how far it is, the best route and the pace we are walking. Perhaps these people are hungry? “What kind of fish is monkfish?” asks Jim Mulherin, a spry 67-year-old Californian. How long have you been avoiding restaurants? I wonder. Was black forest gateau still on the menu last time you ate out?

“It’s a meaty, firm-fleshed white fish,” I say, trying to hide any note of surprise. “No,” says Jim sharply. “Is it predatory? Short-lived? Small?” That is what I should be looking for in a fish, apparently. I hope the waitress has access to Wikipedia. A discussion breaks out about whether to have oysters. Two each. Oysters are very rich in zinc. “Ah, but there are two sides to zinc,” says Todd Sprenkle, a software developer.

After a lot more fussing we all end up ordering relatively normal lunches except for Saul Lubkin, a maths professor from upstate New York. He orders the scallop starter, gives away one, there being two, and then gets out a salad he has brought with him. The waitress doesn’t bat an eyelid (bless), not even when he starts to drink from a bottle of zero-calorie salad dressing.

We all act as if nothing is happening.


I have sat next to Nick Colby, a University of California anthropology professor. “You’re a participant observer,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “How are you enjoying it?” Colby is 5ft 9in, 130 lb and 76 years old. He looks 10 years younger. He’s not interested in living for ever. “I want to live as long as possible – who doesn’t? – but more importantly, I want to be healthy doing it.” He eats normally. He says he feels great. Struggling to keep up on the walk back to the conference hall, I can suddenly see the appeal of CR.

After the conference, I catch up with Dr Stephen Spindler, professor of biochemistry at the University of California. Spindler and Luigi Fontana at Washington University in St Louis are conducting long-term studies on many of the members of the CR society. Spindler, who was at the conference to talk about a new leg in the study, is another participant observer. He’s been on his – slightly lazy – form of CR since August, and has brought his weight down by 20lb. “I’m skipping dinner and eating a lot of fruit for breakfast,” he says, before admitting he has 20-plus people coming over for Thanksgiving and intends to stuff his face and get drunk. “CR is not the thing to do on the holidays,” he says. But he is convinced it works. “In every animal for which we have good data, it works,” he says. “And it works routinely in a lot of different hands in different labs around the world.”

The problem with CR studies is that the majority have been done in short-lived animals like rats. Primates are more difficult to study as less is known about their nutrition and they live relatively long lives. A rhesus monkey can live 40 or 50 years in captivity, even without CR.

He has some samples from an old rhesus monkey study. Comparing the mice, monkey and human studies should give him a clearer picture of how, and if, CR works in humans.

His hunch is that CR’s longevity effect comes down to evolution. The basic problem with ageing, says Spindler, is once we pass breeding age “natural selection hasn’t selected us to survive”. That’s why cancer and other diseases take off in humans past “breeding” age.

Most animals have a season of plenty – spring and summer – that corresponds with their mating season. “It’s advantageous for mice to switch to a high reproductive gear in the season of plenty. Come winter it is better to switch that off because you don’t want a lot of offspring when you have less food, body fat and energy,” he says. In the wild, CR – a lack of food – helps animals get through winter so they can breed in spring.

Humans have escaped that pattern to some extent, thanks to their bigger brains. “But still, spring is a time when women start wearing revealing clothes and thoughts turn to romance. That’s very old and, I would argue, biological,” says Spindler. CR seems to switch down that sex drive (anecdotally more so in men) “and diverts the body’s energies elsewhere into a broad set of maintenance activities. The byproduct may be life extension,” says Spindler.

Among the many factors affecting ageing is the production of insulin and insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I). Levels of both proteins fall in animals on a CR diet. Blood pressure and cholesterol also fall significantly.

Cancer is, in general, a post-reproductive illness. CR has been found to greatly reduce its incidence in mice and slow its growth in other cases. Because cancer tends to occur later in the life cycle, the evolutionary argument doesn’t seem to hold up. But Spindler argues that lower cancer rates are a by-product of the same maintenance-and-repair mode the body enters during CR.

He believes the same holds true for the reduced incidence of heart disease in CR animals and probably for all of the life-enhancing aspects.

His new study will involve taking leg-tissue samples from his studies and analysing them at a genetic level. If he can find the triggers for CR’s positive effects, there is the possibility that similar life-enhancing effects could one day come in a pill. But don’t hold your breath.

It is going to be complicated, and funding has been hard to come by. Long-term studies require long-term commitments. Even at this early stage Spindler is convinced that it’s worth it. Convinced enough to go back on the diet after Thanksgiving.


Back home I feel very positive about the diet. I cut back on the chocolates a couple of weeks before the diet and have lost 12lb over six weeks. April recommended a computer program (Cron-o-meter) that helps me count my calories and measures my intake of fats, proteins, vitamins, etc. I keep my portion sizes down and pretty much stick to 1,800 calories a day. I am eating more healthily than I have for years. Frankly, I feel bouncy. My skin looks clear and my spirits are high. Not all my friends and family are as impressed. Billie, my 12-year-old daughter, says she is not staying over until I stop this “stupid” diet. “Dads should be chunky,” she says. When I’ve finished, she says, we can stuff ourselves on pizza, ice cream and chocolate. It sounds like heaven. It’s my fridge that annoys Joe, my 17-year-old. Rooting around for a snack he came out empty. “Kale?” he says, with all the disgust a 17-year-old can manage.

I’m “dating” again after my marriage ended.

I fear I’m going to be stick-thin and impotent. Who wants a 120-year boyfriend who can’t have sex but can wear your jeans? Roll on December 1.

Saturday, December 1, 8am, and I am buying my first Double Decker (300 calories) in over a month. I rip off the wrapper and scoff it in the street. It tastes dry. I’d rather have had an apple (72 calories). Dinner is better. Dinner is brilliant. My friends book Schiller’s, a trendy Lower East Side spot, for fish and chips followed by sticky toffee pudding. By Sunday afternoon I have had scrambled eggs (and not just the whites), smoked salmon, doughnuts with chocolate dipping sauce and pints of café au lait. Calories? Who’s counting. It’s all very yummy but something is wrong.

I have a headache, I feel tired, bloated, a bit depressed. In a word, mortal. Maybe on Monday I’ll get back on the porridge.

Walford’s book, Beyond the 120 Year Diet, and The Longevity Diet, by Brian M Delaney and Lisa Walford, contain detailed meal plans and suggestions. The Calorie Restriction Society website (calorierestriction.org) also has recipes and further information

Roy Walford, CR’s late guru, believed people should first lose weight over six months or so on a healthy diet. He suggests starting with 2,000 calories a day for an average man, and 1,800 for a woman. Once down to your ideal size, it’s about cutting calories and maximising the nutrients. I went straight to 1,800 calories (not recommended). I used the free software program Cron-o-meter to measure my intake and used the packets to get most of my calorie information. Here’s my diet for week four:

Saturday Breakfast: whole-wheat bread, two eggs, boiled. Lunch: brown rice salmon sushi. Dinner: Chinese – fried catfish, Vermicelli with mushrooms, clams in black-bean sauce, white rice

Total: 2,037 calories

Sunday Breakfast: oatmeal and blueberries. Lunch: split-pea vegetarian soup. Snack: banana, six brazil nuts. Dinner: venison sausage, broccoli, white bread, one large slice, olive oil (guessing), small green salad (tomatoes, lettuce), plus one tbsp oil (guess)


Total: 1,762 calories

Monday Breakfast: oatmeal, blueberries, banana. Lunch: whole-wheat pitta, sunflower seeds, hummus, lettuce, carrot. Snack: six brazil nuts. Dinner: two fillets of bass, steamed, two cups of spinach, olive oil, one tbsp (guessing)

Total: 1,604 calories

Tuesday Breakfast: granola, strawberries, blueberries, non-fat yoghurt. Lunch: one slice whole- wheat bread, chicken, lettuce, olives, two cups of vegan lentil soup, grapes. Snack: six brazil nuts (again!) Dinner: brown rice sushi, edamame

Total: 1,736 calories

Wednesday Breakfast: oatmeal with blueberries, walnuts and a banana. Lunch: egg salad (two eggs, lettuce, tomatoes, olive-oil dressing). Dinner: pitta with hummus, chicken, salad, lentils

Total: 1,782 calories

Thursday Breakfast: non-fat yoghurt, banana, walnuts, strawberries. Lunch: salad of eggs, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, olive oil, balsamic vinegar. Dinner: miso soup, sashimi (raw tuna, salmon, yellowtail) with white rice (they didn’t have brown). Pinched some tempura (fried prawn and veggies) off friend’s plate

Total: 1,637 calories

Friday Breakfast: oatmeal, strawberries, brazil nuts. Lunch: pitta, hummus, salad. Dinner: quinoa, kale, chickpeas, broccoli, tomato sauce. An orange

Total: 1,793 calories

link: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article3121926.ece

Good grief,

You may live longer but if I tried to reduce my calories that much I don’t think I would feel much like being around for those extra years anyway.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

et cetera