Maybe We Should Eat Less
We often write about the merits of living in smaller spaces with less stuff, but when pressed we admit these things have never been clinically proven to extend life. Eating less food, on the other hand, may. The life-extending benefits of a calorie restricted diet have been known for years; laboratory mice lifespans have been increased by as much as 40% as a result of a calorie restricted diet. Now another study suggests that humans too might benefit from taking one less trip up to the buffet.
A University of Wisconsin study that spanned 25 years took 76 Rhesus monkeys and observed their wellbeing as it related to the amount they ate. One group, the control, ate a diet designed to mimic the standard American diet (sometimes called SAD), which meant unlimited portions of food with lots of sugar. The other group had a similar diet, but consumed 30% fewer calories. The results were dramatic: the control monkeys had a 2.9 times higher risk of disease and a three-fold increased risk of death over the course of the study as compared to the calorie restricted group.
It should be noted that there is some controversy about how conclusive the UW study is. The National Institute of Aging conducted a similar study spanning three decades. They observed 120 Rhesus monkeys, split between a control standard diet and a calorie restricted one. But unlike UW, they found little difference between the two groups in terms of mortality rates.
The difference, many are speculating, has to do with the respective diets. UW fed their control monkeys an unlimited supply of laboratory-grade junk food from the time they were young adults (seven to 14 years old). NIA’s control monkeys were adult when the study started; they fed them whole foods in portions based on how they ate before the study. The UW monkeys were like teenagers, whose habits were not yet formed, and then were given an unlimited supply of McDonalds for 25 years. The NIA control monkeys were like adults accustomed to a lifetime of wholesome, home-cooked meals.
The two research groups are now collaborating to come to some definitive conclusions about the benefits of calorie restricted diets.
We must say that the UW study seems to correlate with the way most Americans eat, with our virtually endless supply of sugary, far-from-whole foods. Coupled with the robust evidence supporting life extension in lab mice, we suspect cutting back on the calories (i.e. eating less) is a good, if not guaranteed, way of improving our health and possibly living longer.
Of course this is easier said than done. With tasty, sugar-and-salt-rich convenience foods lurking in every aisle and cupboard, the temptation to eat more than necessary is often too great to withstand. Here are a few tactics for keeping the calorie count low:
- Eat less, but better. The calorie-restricted mice had the same micro-nutrients levels as their overeating, fast-dying counterparts. Nutrition matters, and just because you eat a lot, does not mean you get a lot of nutrition. Focus on eating high-quality, nutritious, whole foods. Chips, sweets and highly refined wheat products have virtually no nutritional value, yet they can take up an inordinate percentage of our daily caloric intake if consumed. Find nutritional replacements for junky food or cut it out. Sometimes the reason we overeat is not hunger, but malnourishment.
- Try smaller plates and portions. Sensible eating has no greater foe than the buffet. Portions keep us in check, allow us to slow down and give a sense of completion for a meal.
- Will power. No one likes to struggle–especially fighting the very biological urge to eat–but sometimes a little discomfort is what it takes to make a habit. Try setting a goal of eliminating nighttime snacking or some other non-nutritious, calorie-rich, “recreational” eating. You might find after a few times of stopping yourself from indulging, your capacity to do so in the future increases and you have yourself a habit.
Group Catering image via Shutterstock