x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Americans' secret to a longer life:eating less

A growing number of US residents believe they've got the skinny on living a longer, healthier life.

Bob Cavanaugh, who has followed the Calorie Restriction Diet for eight years, prepares a healthy meal in his kitchen.
Bob Cavanaugh, who has followed the Calorie Restriction Diet for eight years, prepares a healthy meal in his kitchen.

DENVER // In a country where 60 per cent of the population is overweight and 30 per cent obese, a growing number of US residents believe they've got the skinny on living a longer, healthier life. Founded in 1994, the Calorie Restriction Society claims that a human being may extend his or her lifespan - possibly by decades - by consuming 10 per cent to 15 per cent less than the US Food and Drug Administration recommends. The FDA suggests a moderately active man consume about 2,000 calories a day, and that a woman take in about 1,800. Incredibly, the average American wolfs down almost twice that, a stunning 3,700 calories a day, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. "That is why so many in this country are so dang obese," said Bob Cavanaugh, a CRS spokesman. "The portions many Americans eat are phenomenal - and scary." However, cutting back on how much you consume is only half of the formula, say advocates, pointing out that simply starving yourself can lead to anorexia, or the type of chronic malnutrition widespread in the world's poorest countries. The CRS lifestyle is about eating right rather than eating less, said Mr Cavanaugh, who at age 61, maintains a lean body mass index (BMI) of 20 and leads an active lifestyle as a landscape architect. The BMI is a measure of one's body fat - whether male or female - based on one's height and weight. CRS advocates reach for whole grain carbohydrates, like wheat bread and brown rice in place of sugary doughnuts or white bread, and consume sizeable portions of fruits, nuts and vegetables in place of processed foods, sweets and red meat. "If you eat the nutrients your body needs, you will not get all those cravings that drive you nuts," said Mr Cavanaugh, "and you will naturally eat less." Nutritional experts agree that the high carbohydrate, meat-heavy, fast food diet is to blame for the country's widening obesity epidemic and its related health problems. About 57 million US residents have pre-diabetes, or higher than normal blood sugar levels - and 24 million more suffer from the full-blown disease. Bulging waistlines are also blamed for the spike in the number of people suffering from heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. Now a growing number of researchers blame the country's chronic obesity on the fact that the typical fast food meal, while gargantuan in size and calories, is light on vital nutrients. In other words, Americans overeat because their bodies are actually starving. Many CRS members rely on a computer programme that helps track which nutrients they are getting from their diet, by spotting deficiencies and recommending natural ingredients to complete the recommended intake. Members call themselves "cronys", short for "calorie restriction with optimal nutrition". Adapting to the lifestyle takes time, and some trial and error. Cronys insist they shop at normal grocery stores and continue eating many of the foods they enjoy. "I do almost all of my shopping at Wal-Mart, and I am not a tofu and watercress kind of guy," Mr Cavanaugh said. But where he used to consume red meat twice a week or more, now he eats it just once every two months. And he only sits down to eat twice a day - at breakfast and dinner, washing down the latter meal with a glass or two of red wine. "A lot of people think that calorie restriction is about eating tiny amounts of food on empty plates," said Luigi Fontana, who is studying caloric restriction at the Washington University School of Medicine. "But most of the people in the programme are eating substantial amounts of food. The difference is it is actually nutritious food." The CRS lifestyle was developed by Roy Walford, an eccentric California scientist best known for his two-year stint living inside Biosphere-2, a self-contained human terrarium near Tucson, Arizona. Mr Walford spent years studying caloric restriction, proving that laboratory mice fed a restricted-calorie, nutrient-rich diet could nearly double their lifespan, while preserving both physical and mental agility. Although Mr Walford died at age 79 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease (an ailment he believed he picked up because of environmental problems in Biosphere-2), he maintained that his rigorous diet of just 1,600 calories per day extended his life by several years once he developed the illness. After years of studying CRS members, Dr Fontana said it was clear that their diet and lifestyle reduce levels of cholesterol and blood sugar, while improving cardiovascular function. "Their arteries and heart literally look like those of a younger person," he said. But what scientists still do not know, in part since the CRS lifestyle is just 15 years old, is whether it will dramatically expand the human lifespan. "There is no doubt you will benefit if you started out overweight," he said. "The question is, if you are already lean, if you have a BMI of 21 or 22, is it healthy and will you live longer? That we still don't really know." gpeters@thenational.ae