Everyone knows that restricting the amount of calories you eat will help you lose weight. Yes, we can argue the finer points of that statement and of course it matters which macronutrients make up those calories. But, in general, that statement holds true. What you may not know is that eating less can help you live longer. These are not years of eating purée through a straw, but good—healthy—years. According to scientists who have studied populations all over the world, people who eat the least have lived the longest.
In one particular population study, people from the Japanese district of Okinawa who consume 17 to 30 percent fewer calories than people from other parts of Japan live longer as a result, with an average life expectancy of 83 years. The average number of calories per day for Okinawans ranges from 1,100 to 1,400, whereas the average daily caloric intake in the U.S. is somewhere between 2,200 and 2,700. The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 79 years.
Calculating the right amount of calories is the tricky part. In general the Okinawans eat 500 calories fewer per day than other cultures around the world. Most research suggests that 20 to 30 percent fewer calories should be enough to promote longevity. Based on U.S. averages that amount is 1,540 to 2,160 calories per day.
Caloric restriction works to increase life spans by decreasing age-related disease such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It may also prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, and there are a couple of reasons for this.
First, fewer calories produce fewer free radicals in the body. In its simplest form, food is the fuel that our bodies need to function. The power plants of our bodies are the mitochondria found in every cell. In the process of converting food to energy, free radicals are produced. Think of them as the smoke from this power plant that then pollutes the environment that is our bodies. The fewer the calories, the less our power plants (mitochondria) have to work, and the less noxious waste (free radicals) are released to pollute our bodies. The body must work hard to fix free radical damage. When it cannot fix all the damage, the body processes start to break down and disease develops.
The other way that caloric restriction may help with longevity is the production of an enzyme called Sirtuin 1. This enzyme is higher in those consuming fewer calories. It is actively being studied not just for weight loss but for its beneficial effects on the brain. Caloric restriction and high Sirtuin 1 have been linked to preventing neurodegeneration (the loss of nerve cells). In the brain, this will prevent memory loss and improve cognitive function.
Cut out empty calories like soft drinks, sweet tea and juice to keep from feeling hungry.
Photo By MaZiKab/Fotolia
So how can you cut calories out of your diet without feeling hungry? Cut out the empty calories first. Beverages like soft drinks, sweet tea and juices don’t fill you up and have a lot of sugar you don’t need. Keep your carbohydrates low and increase the good protein and fat in your diet. Carbohydrates do not provide the feeling of fullness like protein and fat. Too many carbohydrates—even the good ones like fruit—will raise blood sugar. Soon after that initial spike, your blood sugar will crash faster than if protein and fat were consumed, making you even hungrier. I recommend never eating carbohydrates alone. Always consume more calories from protein and good fat than you do from carbohydrates. This will help keep your blood sugar lower and help you to consume fewer calories overall.
So is it worth cutting out 20 to 30 percent of your daily calories to live longer? That is up to you. Personally, that is a pretty fair trade off to me, especially if those calories are the ones that are causing weight gain and age-related disease. As a physician it is up to me to arm you with the information. What you do with it is up to you.
Dr. Amber French is co-author of Wellness 100: 100 Carbs/100 Recipes. She developed the program to help her patients lose weight while combating the diseases that come with aging. She currently practice gynecology in north Georgia.