The thing about dining with Tristan Bettencourt is that it doesn't involve much eating. An icy rain barrels down outside the cozy cafe where he's a regular, making the prospect of the warm meal laid out in front of him that much more inviting: a mug of hot tea, a bowl of dal, a plate loaded with steamed vegetables and brown rice. He prods the food cautiously with his fork. "This pile of veggies is almost irrelevant calories," he says. "I won't eat most of the rice."
Waistline watcher? Carb counter? Nope, that's for amateurs. Bettencourt is on a diet that never ends. And when he says he intends to keep doing something forever, he means forever.
Bettencourt, along with fellow members of a group called the Calorie Restriction Society, has dramatically curtailed his diet in a bid to extend his life. He's not settling for vitamins or daily workouts -- those things may help prevent premature death, but do nothing to actually extend the human lifespan, which tops out around 120. No, calorie restrictors hope to push back death's deadline. They envision future generations of people who breeze past the big 1-2-0 with the blush of youth still upon them. The secret, they believe, based both on pop science and decades of basic lab research, is eating less -- a whole heck of a lot less.
For the past dozen years, Bettencourt has kept his daily food intake to about 70 percent of what he figures he'd otherwise consume. He currently eats around 1,500 calories a day, less than half of the 3,200 calories the US Food and Drug Administration considers normal for a moderately active man. And it shows. The 48-year-old looks like a yogi -- extremely thin, sinewy almost. His suit hangs off his frame a little, and his fingers are slim and pale like a surgeon's. At five foot nine, he weighs just 118 pounds, seven pounds short of the minimum federal "healthy" weight for someone of his stature. Yet Bettencourt boasts that he hasn't had a cold or the flu in fifteen years, that he hiked Mount Whitney in a single day this past summer with no problems, and that he has fantastic energy. "Race you around the block any day," he challenges.
Bettencourt has weighed as little as 112 pounds, but says it made him moody, gave him panic attacks, and left him so emaciated that people would ask if he was HIV-positive. A health plan even denied him enrollment, certain that his low weight signaled a serious undiagnosed condition. Despite all this unpleasantness, Bettencourt still wonders if he should aim closer to his discomfort threshold. "I almost feel like if I want to be really true to my fundamental philosophy, I should be eating just enough to keep myself at 112.5," he says. Central to his philosophy is a refusal to go gently into that good night. Like many of his fellow calorie restrictors, Bettencourt, a college biology major now employed as an analyst for the San Francisco Taxi Commission, is driven by a fierce conviction that this mortal coil is all there is. "I don't want to get decrepit and die," he says bluntly. "When my consciousness ceases, the universe ceases, as far as I'm concerned. I guess I have an overblown survival instinct. I decided that there is nothing more important than life, so I should do what I could to prolong it."
Bettencourt has always been pretty health-conscious -- he's a longtime vegetarian and an avid yoga practitioner -- but says he was inspired to take up caloric restriction by an early sign of aging: a receding hairline. "What most of us in our little calorie restriction group are hoping for is to kind of bootstrap our way to immortality," he explains. "The hope is that calorie restriction will be the first step that gets us to survive long enough to benefit from unknown future technologies which will then take us to the next step."
The society, which was founded in 1995 and claims roughly 1,800 members, was inspired by the writings of Dr. Roy Walford, a UCLA pathologist best known for his stint in Biosphere 2, a glass enclosure built in the Arizona desert to test whether humans could live in a self-sustaining artificial environment. During a two-year trial launched in September 1991, food supplies inside the structure ran precariously low, but Walford convinced the others to stick it out on an extremely low-calorie diet. Although the residents looked calamitously thin, tests indicated that aspects of their health were actually improving -- in particular, they had lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Walford later dedicated himself to popularizing calorie restriction and wrote a series of influential books, including one called The 120-Year Diet.
But there's more to it than celebrity science. Years of studies have shown that severe dietary restriction indeed prolongs life, in lab creatures at least. Yeast on a starvation diet can live up to three times longer than normal, fruit flies double their average lifespan, and mice that normally live two years can live three or more. Studies on monkeys are ongoing, since primates are naturally long-lived, but so far the calorie-restricted monkeys appear to get fewer lethal chronic diseases and may indeed outlive their well-fed peers.
These animals not only live longer, but seem to retain their youthfulness. They are smaller than their counterparts, but more active. They look younger and healthier, are mentally more agile, and have bolstered immune-system activity. The results suggest that eating far less might prevent or slow the onset of a host of human age-related conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. The observed changes occur quickly and bring longevity benefits at any age.
A study appearing this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests that at least some of these health benefits apply to humans, too. Led by St. Louis researcher Luigi Fontana, the authors measured diastolic heart function in 25 members of the Calorie Restriction Society aged 41 to 65, who had been eating nutritionally balanced diets of 1,400 to 2,000 calories per day for an average of six years. The subjects were compared with a control group of 25 people who ate a typical Western diet of 2,000 to 3,000 calories. The restrictors' hearts, the team reported, behaved like those of much younger people -- fifteen years younger on average. Fontana, a regular speaker at Calorie Restriction Society conferences, stressed in a statement that merely eating less isn't enough. The calorie restrictors aim for a traditional Mediterranean diet, which includes a wide variety of vegetables, olive oil, beans, whole grains, fish, and fruit, and avoids refined and processed foods, soft drinks, desserts, white bread, and similar "empty" calories.
Yet any reader tempted to start fasting tomorrow should be advised that nobody yet knows exactly how this biology works, or whether the eye-popping longevity results similarly will apply to humans. While scientists have observed the effects of caloric restriction in lab animals since the 1930s, our seventy-plus-year human lifespan, not to mention our fondness for eating, makes most people poor research subjects.
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