I've cut back to 1,500 calories a day. Will it help me live to 120 years old?

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Feb. 8 2007 1:03 PM

My Starvation Diet

I've cut back to 1,500 calories a day. Will I live to be 120 years old?

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Two weeks into the diet I had lost three pounds and weighed 122, my lowest weight in more than a decade. Unfortunately, it appeared that all three pounds came off the lower half of my face, giving me a Shar-Pei look. Looking alarming is a hazard for the extreme CRON follower—the skin of Lisa Walford's face seems to ripple over her bones.

Roy Walford promised I wouldn't be as hungry as I would have imagined, but at week three, I was hungrier than ever. That Friday we were going out to dinner with friends, so I ate practically nothing all day, a bowl of cereal for breakfast and a plate of peas for lunch. At the Indian restaurant that night, I couldn't stop myself—I took seconds and thirds of lamb chops, roti, saag paneer. As I wiped the lamb fat from my face, one of my friends asked what story I was working on. "Nothing at the moment," I replied.

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My body was begging to get back to its set point. Set point is the weight you naturally settle at when you eat what's normal for you. But altering your default weight—and on CRON you are supposed to drop to between 10 to 25 percent below your set point—makes your body very unhappy. As my hunger increased, I felt as if I had unleashed my knish-wielding grandmother, who was screaming inside me, "Eat! Eat!"

I decided maybe I should try an alternative CRON approach: fasting. Dr. Mark Mattson, a researcher at the National Institute on Aging (and a CRON follower himself), found that mice who fasted every other day, even if they gorged when allowed to eat, had better blood glucose profiles, and brains that were more resistant to the effects of a neurotoxin than even calorie-restricted mice.

Lisa Walford writes that she fasts one day a week. It cuts 1,000 calories off her weekly intake and gives her "a day of rest from food anticipation, food prep, food consumption, cleanup, and digestion." I had never found consuming and digesting food to be terribly onerous (and how much time does it take her to eat 20 nuts?), but there were serious drawbacks to this plan. For one thing, each year on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, Jews fast from sundown to sundown. I, however, have never made it to synagogue without eating a little something for breakfast. Also, I had read that fasting makes your breath terrible. When I mentioned this to my husband he said, "Who cares? Most days no one gets near you." I decided to try it on day 37. I made it until 1:00 pm when, ravenous, I went to a Japanese restaurant and stuffed myself with sushi.

Having such brief meals did free up some time. But the only thing I did with that time was spend it thinking about, reading about, and watching the preparation of food. I became obsessed with the Food Network. I began watching Iron Chef seated inches from the screen, pretending I was a judge and could taste each dish. This was a typical response, I discovered. In Biosphere 2, the experiment in which Roy Walford and seven others lived in an enclosed, self-sustaining structure for two years, they were unable to produce the expected amount of food, putting them all on a calorie-restricted diet. Participant Jane Poynter, in her book, The Human Experiment, describes that while watching movies in Biosphere 2, she would lose track of the plot and focus on the eating scenes.

I joined the 2,400-member on-line support group of the Calorie Restriction Society. In the daily digest, CRON followers discuss what they digest and analyze the implication of each new scientific study that has any bearing on diet and longevity.  For example: "Cyclodextrins, which are polysaccharides (a modified starch) already used in the food industry, could prevent oxidation of resveratrol and make it more bio-available." (CRON followers were popping resveratrol supplements long before the recent news that this component of red wine might be a fountain of youth.)  Reading the posts, I came to think of CRON followers not as hypochondriacs, but healthochondriacs.

Wanting to have a CRON meal with a real CRON follower, I called Mary Robinson, an information technology consultant who keeps a blog about her diet  and invited myself to dinner at her house. Not over hors d'oeuvres (there weren't any), Robinson told me how she came to adopt the CRON life six years ago. Robinson, 53, is 5 feet 3 and weighs 118 pounds—she is slender, but not unusually so. Like many CRON followers, she was once a normal-sized American, with a normally elevated cholesterol reading. She then holds up "the picture" that inspired her to change the way she ate. It's a beach scene, and the blob in the black bathing suit is Robinson at 156 pounds.  She decided to cut back to 1,000 calories a day and eat healthier. The weight quickly came off, as it had when she dieted before. Then she saw a documentary about Roy Walford, which she said gave her a way to think of what she was doing not as a diet, but a way of living. She joined the Calorie Restriction Society and wrote a computer program to track everything she ate and its nutritional value.

It has vastly improved her health. Robinson was in a study of CRON followers done by Dr. Luigi Fontana at Washington University School of Medicine. Fontana found that the CRON adherents—many of whom, like Robinson, had been formerly pudgy—now had arteries as efficient as fire hoses and blood pressure readings like those of 10-year-olds.

But isn't she hungry all the time? I ask her. "I was hungry all the time before," she says of her snack-stuffing days. She says certainly she experiences hunger on CRON, but it doesn't bother her. "It's real hunger, and that's a normal thing and it feels good." People assume since she's cut out so much, that there's nothing she can eat. But she eats a greater variety of food now and gives our 600-calorie dinner as an example. We have baked tilapia, spinach with feta, teriyaki squash and eggplant, a fruit salad, a glass of wine, and a crustless pumpkin pie for dessert. The portions are small and there are no seconds, but it's a delicious and satisfying meal. "How is this crazier than having heart disease and diabetes and eating pizza and a milkshake?" she asks.

She makes a good point. Is CRON crazier than having a doctor suck out your fat, or staple your stomach? Is it crazier than a world in which a drug company is looking to market a product to temporarily eliminate people's sense of taste and smell so they will lose weight? Is it crazier than having a panniculus?

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