Science: If You Want to Live Longer, Eat Less

Who would have thought?

Sometimes, fitness is complicated. (Ask the poor facilities manager in charge of putting together the gear James Harrison needs for the average workout.) Often, though, the keys to fitness are remarkably simple. The problem, instead, is that we just don’t want to hear them. Go for a run. Take the stairs. Stretch. Now, it’s time to add perhaps the grimmest bullet point yet to this checklist of hard truths: Want to live longer? Eat less.

This assuredly isn’t the news you want, but it’s the news you have to hear. As noted by the BBC, a bevy of scientific studies have linked calorie restriction diets—regimens that require cuts to portion size, instead of just to specific types of verboten foods—to longer and healthier lives in a variety of species. Although conducting a long-term study of the effects of eating less presents obvious logistical challenges, similar studies of calorie restriction in Rhesus monkeys—a species with which humans share most of our DNA—have yielded some very promising results.

Not only did their [calorie-restricted] monkeys look remarkably younger—with more
hair, less sag, and brown instead of grey—than monkeys that were fed
a standard diet, they were healthier on the inside too, free from
pathology. Cancers, such as the common intestinal adenocarcinoma, were
reduced by over 50%. The risk of heart disease was similarly halved.
And while 11 of the ad libitum (“at one’s pleasure,” in Latin) monkeys
developed diabetes and five exhibited signs that they were
pre-diabetic, the blood glucose regulation seemed healthy in all [calorie-restricted]
monkeys. For them, diabetes wasn’t a thing.

Those sound like some extremely healthy, young-at-heart monkeys! Buoyed by findings like these, a team of researchers across the country have embarked on a long-term study called the Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy—yes, that’s CALERIE—which tests the effects on healthy volunteers of eating a diet that, for two years, requires a 25 percent reduction in total calorie intake. Sure enough, participants in the experimental group improved their cholesterol, lowered their blood pressure, and showed signs that they were less likely to develop diabetes or cancerous tumors. In other words, eating less isn’t just about losing weight. It might also slow the aging process, ward off chronic diseases, and generally lead to better health outcomes, even in people who are already physically fit.

It’s important to remember that these results are very preliminary, and that the effects of a diet like this on aging in humans have not yet been conclusively established, and that, most importantly, you should absolutely consult with a medical professional before you make any significant changes to your diet, let alone sprinting home and clearing out exactly one-quarter of your pantry and refrigerator as soon as you finish reading this post.

That said, the news that Americans eat too much probably doesn’t come as a shock. The National Institutes of Health long ago declared that ballooning portion sizes, especially in restaurants, have played a key role in the country’s obesity epidemic, and one April 2016 study found that an incredible 92 percent of dishes served in non-chain eateries exceeded the typical energy requirements for a single meal. And at home, although the serving size is printed right there on the nutritional label, it can admittedly be easy to overlook when you’re happily dumping an entire box of pasta into the bowl at 3 A.M. These studies provide just one more helpful reminder that paying attention to how much dinner goes on your plate can be just as important as minding what that dinner actually looks like.

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Science: If You Want to Live Longer, Eat Less

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