St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Jun. 11--Scientists believe they've found the Fountain of Youth. It's in your refrigerator.
Josh McMichael hopes so. "I think in the next 50 years, things are going to get crazy and interesting, so I want to stick around for as long as I can," said the 36-year-old software designer.
That's why two years ago he joined a research study at Washington University School of Medicine looking at calorie restriction as a way to improve health and life span.
Since joining, his weight has dropped from 230 pounds to 195 pounds, his blood pressure, cholesterol and other health numbers are more than healthy, his alertness and other mental faculties have improved.
Researchers say they don't know if McMichael will live longer, but they know he has beaten back conditions that would shorten his life and weigh down his old age.
All from reducing his calorie intake by about 20 percent.
For two years, scientists at three research universities have studied calorie restriction under a program called CALERIE, Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy.
Practitioners of calorie restriction reduce their food intake by 20 percent to 30 percent. They switch to foods dense in nutrition and cut back on high-calorie, low-nutrient food.
Doing so, practitioners say, reverses the effects of aging and prevents age-onset diseases such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular disease.
Calorie restriction caught the attention of the scientific community in the last few years when researchers reported that mice, bugs, rats and, more recently, monkeys lived up to 60 percent longer on calorie restricted diets.
Even when the animals died, "For a third of the animals who are calorie restricted, we can't find a cause of death," said Dr. Luigi Fontana, a physician studying calorie restriction at Washington University and in Rome. That means the animals simply died from old age, instead of disease.
To make comparisons, researchers recruited people who've practiced calorie restriction for years and people such as McMichael, who never practiced calorie restriction.
Since researchers can't wait a lifetime for results, they gauge calorie restriction on how it improves health.
A few results from practitioners and recruits:
Weight loss -- Body mass indexes of the subjects dropped as low as 17. "We don't want them going below 17," said Mary Ulrich, research manager for the study.
Blood pressure and cardiovascular health -- All participants fell below normal numbers, but some, even in their 70s, fell to 100/60, researchers said.
"We find the hearts of these people are 15 years younger than their age," Fontana said.
Blood gunk -- Good cholesterol goes up, bad cholesterol goes down, triglycerides drop; blood sugar and insulin production flatten -- all good things.
Inflammation -- This quiet but harmful malady becomes negligible to nonexistent in the participants.
Acne -- "I had acne and it went away," McMichael said.
"We increase the 'health span' of individuals," Fontana said. "Yes, someone may make it to 75 or 80, but be sick since they were 55 or 60."
From what science already knows about age-related disease, he said, "With calorie restriction, if your genetic predisposition is to live to 65, calorie restriction may add 15 or 20 years, and that's huge."
Hunger hasn't been a problem. Researchers have learned that eating fewer calories doesn't mean eating less, Ulrich said. "People in calorie restricted diets eat huge amounts of food. It's just they're nutrient dense and low in calories."
Researchers reduced McMichael's daily calories to about 2,400 from 3,000. They found the Mediterranean Diet with more vegetables and less meat best suited him.
McMichael's average breakfast is a poached egg, an apple and a bran muffin; snacks and lunch are nuts, fruit, a high-fiber snack, a vegetarian lunch. Dinner would be a Healthy Choice meal.
Dr. John Holloszy, chief researcher and professor of medicine in the Division of Geriatrics and Nutritional Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine, says he's a fan of calorie restriction.
"How do you think I got to 76 years old without a gut?" he laughed.