Is Calorie Restriction the Panacea to Good Health and Longevity?

As we age, it can seem like our bodies are breaking down. We lose our hearing, our vision, our mobility, and our memory. We develop back pain, neck pain, diabetes, and depression. But one recent study, published in Cell, suggests calorie restriction is a comprehensive way to solve most aging ails.

Aging, the study’s authors say, is to blame for the functional decline of tissues in the body—a process that can be delayed, though not stopped, by caloric restriction. So the solution to aging gracefully is conceptually the same as skipping dessert, or not having that extra slice of pizza… but amplified on the scale of years.

The researchers observed two groups of lab rats—one group ate 30 percent fewer calories compared to group two, which was on a normal diet. The researchers controlled their diets from when the rats were 18 months old through 27 months old. In humans, that period is comparable to 20 years.

When researchers looked at the dieting rats’ cells, extracted from fat tissues, livers, kidneys, aortas, skin, bone marrow, brains, and muscles, they didn’t see the effects of age. At the end of the diet, these rats’ tissues and cells were nearly identical to those of young rats.

One specific phenomenon of the aging rat cells was how the inflammatory response agents changed. In the dieting rats, there was a repressed inflammatory response compared to the rats on a normal diet.

Not only did the study pinpoint the role of caloric restriction in aging, but it also gave researchers a detailed look at how a single cell ages. The discovery moves researchers closer to fully understanding aging on a cellular level—even developing drugs and medical strategies to prolong healthy lifespans.

The study, of course, isn’t the first to focus on the effects of caloric restriction. Many studies have already been conducted showing that cutting down on the number of daily calories you consume will extend your lifespan.

One study conducted in 2018 and published in Communications Biology tested caloric restriction on grey mouse lemurs. The primates were fed a 30 percent–reduced caloric diet over 10 years. Not only were the dieting lemurs healthier—their motor capacities, cognitive performance, and general health were all mostly intact—but they also lived longer. The lemurs normally live 12 years, but the primates in the dieting group outlived those in the control group, which all died within 11.3 years.

Other studies yet, including another conducted with primates and a 2018 study conducted on humans, proved calorie restriction’s role in fighting age-related disease. “Calorie restriction sustained over several years may help to decrease risk of chronic disease and prolong life,” said Leanne M. Redman, the lead author of that 2018 study, published in Cell Metabolism.

Another study, conducted in 2015 by Taiwanese researchers, found that calorie restriction in dieting improves muscles during middle age. “Caloric restriction is the only non-pharmaceutical and non-genetic strategy that increases the lifespan of animals and provides health benefits,” the researchers wrote. That study appeared in the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism.

And even if it isn’t your goal, cutting down on calories is a great way to shed pounds. Whereas most diets simply limit the amount of foods you’re able to eat (e.g. keto, vegan, paleo) or track the time you’re allowed to eat (i.e. intermittent fasting), the research in all these studies is different.

It doesn’t advocate eating fewer carbs or eating less frequently—just eating less in general. And as hard as it may be to not fill up at mealtime, it will hopefully be easier knowing that, in the long run, you’re helping your body to stay healthy longer.

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