In recent years, there has been much discussion and debate about the supposed ability of calorie-restricted diets to improve health and extend lifespan. Unfortunately this idea can be hard to evaluate scientifically, since carrying out a controlled study in human beings to chart the lifetime health effects of reduced caloric intake would require decades of monitoring before comprehensive and compelling results could be produced. Theoretically such a study would be possible, but it would not be able to tell us anything until far into the future, which would make it exceedingly difficult for such a project to secure adequate funding from either private or public sources.
But this drawback has not prevented researchers from studying the effects of calorie-restricted diets in animals. In a study just recently completed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published in the Journal of Neuroscience, a group of laboratory mice were fed diets that contained 30% fewer calories than their estimated daily needs in order to see how such food consumption patterns would affect cognitive functioning and the health of their brain cells. In comparison to a control group, these mice showed improved performance on cognitive and memory tests, experienced reduced levels of nerve cell loss, and were able to generate increased quantities of a rejuvenating enzyme called SIRT1 that can help brain cells resist the natural effects of aging.
The mice used in the tests had been genetically engineered to experience relatively rapid neural degeneration, so it was not necessary to trace the results of a calorie-restricted diet over an extended period of time to reach a definitive conclusion about its utility. The positive neurological outcomes that the MIT research team was able to track in these mice are consistent with the thesis that caloric restriction can assist in delaying the onset of normal aging-related cognitive impairment, while also providing a natural immunity to more severe forms of neural dysfunction such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
But these interesting results were only part of the story. In addition to studying the efficacy of caloric restriction on the brains of mice, a drug with known abilities to stimulate SIRT1 production was also tested to see if it could deliver similar results. To make a long story short, this drug was indeed able to replicate the protective outcomes of caloric reduction, thereby strengthening the theory that boosting the brain’s ability to produce SIRT1 might be the key to preserving or restoring healthy cognitive functioning in the elderly. Based on these findings, researchers are hopeful that a medication may eventually be developed that can help stave off the negative neural effects of aging, but it remains to be seen if the results of boosting enzyme levels in the brains of genetically altered mice will translate to human beings.
Better Living Through Chemistry, or Better Living?
Before we hail the arrival of yet another miracle drug that will cure all that ails us, we would be wise to keep in mind that prescription drugs are usually expensive and often have unpredictable and severe side effects. For this reason, natural cures and methods of healing are always to be preferred over chemical interventions. With that in mind, even if a pill does become available that can duplicate the outcomes of caloric restriction on the brain, that would not automatically make it the best choice for healing. Besides its therapeutic effects on the brain, a restricted-calorie diet has been found to produce other important health benefits in animals, including improved heart functioning, lower cholesterol, reduced blood pressure and a longer lifespan.
And while it is true that controlled studies into the effects of reduced-calorie diets on human beings have not been carried out, at least not in any systematic way, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that significant reductions in caloric intake can bring health benefits galore. The CR (Caloric Restriction) Society International, which has been in existence since 1994, has collected a wealth of testimonials from individuals who saw dramatic improvements in their physical health after cutting their consumption of calories by 20% to 40% (without compromising on nutrition).
Of course scientists often express great skepticism about so-called anecdotal evidence, but this is usually when claims are made that seem to run counter to research findings or basic principles of science. That is not the case here; numerous studies have found an apparent connection between restricted-calorie diets and various health benefits in animals, and any personal testimony that adds to this body of evidence is likely to be taken quite seriously, even if it is “only anecdotal.”