Human Guinea Pig

My Starvation Diet

I’ve cut back to 1,500 calories a day. Will I live to be 120 years old?

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By my sixth day following the calorie restriction with optimum nutrition plan, a way of eating—or not eating—in order to live to the horrifying-to-contemplate age of 120, I found myself having hostile conversations about chocolate with a dead man. The man was Dr. Roy Walford, a UCLA pathologist who is largely responsible for creating the modern science of life extension through food reduction. In his experiments, he found that laboratory mice fed about half of a normal diet lived about twice as long as their better-fed counterparts—the mousy equivalent of about 160 human years.

The underfed mice also retained their sleek coats and ability to zip through mazes into old age, while normally fed mice ended up scruffy and lost. Subsequent investigations in animals ranging from fruit flies to dogs to primates have confirmed the benefits of going through life hungry. Walford became his own lab animal, putting himself on a severe diet in his 50s with the idea that it would allow him to continue to do research and chase women when he reached triple digits.

This plan was interrupted by his death at the un-biblical age of 79, due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. (Walford wrote that following his diet means “you are holding something like four aces in the poker game with Death.” But Death apparently is a pit boss who makes his own rules.) The failure of Walford’s personal experiment, however, has not dampened public interest in the possible benefits of calorie restriction.

In “Human Guinea Pig” I try out activities that you don’t have the gall—or in this case, the self-restraint—to do yourself.  But I had serious doubts about whether I had the guts to starve myself. An article in the New York Times about CRON quoted an eating-disorder expert saying such an extreme regimen could lead to mental illness, but added that this was not a huge public-health concern because “most people won’t last half a day on it.”  But I vowed to give myself two months on restricted rations.

CRON does not prescribe a specific diet, and its followers say what they are doing is the opposite of anorexia. CRON encourages you to eat healthy food—the mostly plant-based, no-refined-carbohydrate diet we know is best—just not very much of it. In his book Beyond the 120 Year Diet, Walford describes a typical dinner: a salad with lentils, brown rice, and bulgur; one stalk of broccoli; one glass of skim milk. If the average man eats roughly 2,500 calories a day, and the average woman 2,000, on CRON they are supposed to reduce that gradually by about 25 percent, to around 1,900 calories and 1,500 calories, respectively.

I started the diet weighing 125 pounds (I’m 5 feet 3 ½).  My problem was not that I had to give up junk. I would rather have carrot soup and kale for dinner than a hamburger and French fries. The problem is that I want a bucket of soup and a mountain of kale. Then, I want to come downstairs at 11:00 p.m. and have a snack that is essentially another meal. And throughout the day, for energy, for comfort, for distraction, I want to eat Trader Joe’s chocolate-covered ginger balls. 

So here I was, at a hotel in Arizona, staring at two pieces of chocolate left on my pillow. I have never not eaten pillow chocolate, yet, cursing Dr. Walford, I placed them on my nightstand and went to sleep. The next night, there were two more chocolates, and since for dinner I’d had only seven tortilla chips, two-thirds of a bowl of soup, and a salad, I surrendered, and ate all four candies.

But most of the time I surprised myself by sticking to just 1,500-1,600 calories a day. At my daughter’s birthday party we put out huge bowls of potato chips and pretzels. I normally would have parked myself next to them for two hours. Instead, I simply didn’t eat anything.  At a buffet at a friend’s house I ate kale salad, beans, and a couple of small beef skewers, and despite desperately wanting to pull up a chair in front of the dessert table, I didn’t even have a taste. For years, I had attempted to give up my late-night snacking, and had only succeeded at changing it from bowls of ice cream to bowls of cereal. Now, for the first time in memory, I stopped eating for the night after dinner. I followed the recommendation to keep a daily food diary: The embarrassment of having to write down “15 chocolate-covered ginger balls” often kept me from eating them.

I knew, though, that I could never emulate the plan’s most ardent followers. For some of them, food is less a source of communion or pleasure than a manifestation of an Excel spreadsheet–each mouthful tracked for its calorie, vitamin, and mineral content. In her own book The Longevity Diet, Lisa Walford, Roy’s daughter, lists her usual breakfast: four walnuts, six almonds, 10 peanuts. She says she has a body mass index of 15–she’s about 5 feet tall and weighs 80 pounds. To put this in perspective, Spanish authorities banned from the runway models with BMIs of less that 18. If your dog were as thin as Lisa Walford, you’d be reported for animal cruelty.

Now that I was hungry, I appreciated how lucky most Americans are to never have to be hungry. At a lecture on child rearing during my first week on the diet, I’m sure I distracted the mothers next to me with my growling stomach. At one point, I realized I was no longer listening to the lecture, but salivating over the prospect of the bowl of cereal—with nuts! with dried cranberries!—I was going to have for dinner when I got home. Each meal I ate now had the poignancy of a Shakespeare sonnet: how much I longed for each bite, how aware I was of how few there would be.

Two weeks into the diet I had lost three pounds and weighed 122, my lowest weight in more than a decade. Unfortunately, it appeared that all three pounds came off the lower half of my face, giving me a Shar-Pei look. Looking alarming is a hazard for the extreme CRON follower—the skin of Lisa Walford’s face seems to ripple over her bones.

Roy Walford promised I wouldn’t be as hungry as I would have imagined, but at week three, I was hungrier than ever. That Friday we were going out to dinner with friends, so I ate practically nothing all day, a bowl of cereal for breakfast and a plate of peas for lunch. At the Indian restaurant that night, I couldn’t stop myself—I took seconds and thirds of lamb chops, roti, saag paneer. As I wiped the lamb fat from my face, one of my friends asked what story I was working on. “Nothing at the moment,” I replied.

My body was begging to get back to its set point. Set point is the weight you naturally settle at when you eat what’s normal for you. But altering your default weight—and on CRON you are supposed to drop to between 10 to 25 percent below your set point—makes your body very unhappy. As my hunger increased, I felt as if I had unleashed my knish-wielding grandmother, who was screaming inside me, “Eat! Eat!”

I decided maybe I should try an alternative CRON approach: fasting. Dr. Mark Mattson, a researcher at the National Institute on Aging (and a CRON follower himself), found that mice who fasted every other day, even if they gorged when allowed to eat, had better blood glucose profiles, and brains that were more resistant to the effects of a neurotoxin than even calorie-restricted mice.

Lisa Walford writes that she fasts one day a week. It cuts 1,000 calories off her weekly intake and gives her “a day of rest from food anticipation, food prep, food consumption, cleanup, and digestion.” I had never found consuming and digesting food to be terribly onerous (and how much time does it take her to eat 20 nuts?), but there were serious drawbacks to this plan. For one thing, each year on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, Jews fast from sundown to sundown. I, however, have never made it to synagogue without eating a little something for breakfast. Also, I had read that fasting makes your breath terrible. When I mentioned this to my husband he said, “Who cares? Most days no one gets near you.” I decided to try it on day 37. I made it until 1:00 pm when, ravenous, I went to a Japanese restaurant and stuffed myself with sushi.

Having such brief meals did free up some time. But the only thing I did with that time was spend it thinking about, reading about, and watching the preparation of food. I became obsessed with the Food Network. I began watching Iron Chef seated inches from the screen, pretending I was a judge and could taste each dish. This was a typical response, I discovered. In Biosphere 2, the experiment in which Roy Walford and seven others lived in an enclosed, self-sustaining structure for two years, they were unable to produce the expected amount of food, putting them all on a calorie-restricted diet. Participant Jane Poynter, in her book, The Human Experiment, describes that while watching movies in Biosphere 2, she would lose track of the plot and focus on the eating scenes.

I joined the 2,400-member on-line support group of the Calorie Restriction Society. In the daily digest, CRON followers discuss what they digest and analyze the implication of each new scientific study that has any bearing on diet and longevity.  For example: “Cyclodextrins, which are polysaccharides (a modified starch) already used in the food industry, could prevent oxidation of resveratrol and make it more bio-available.” (CRON followers were popping resveratrol supplements long before the recent news that this component of red wine might be a fountain of youth.)  Reading the posts, I came to think of CRON followers not as hypochondriacs, but healthochondriacs.

Wanting to have a CRON meal with a real CRON follower, I called Mary Robinson, an information technology consultant who keeps a blog about her diet  and invited myself to dinner at her house. Not over hors d’oeuvres (there weren’t any), Robinson told me how she came to adopt the CRON life six years ago. Robinson, 53, is 5 feet 3 and weighs 118 pounds—she is slender, but not unusually so. Like many CRON followers, she was once a normal-sized American, with a normally elevated cholesterol reading. She then holds up “the picture” that inspired her to change the way she ate. It’s a beach scene, and the blob in the black bathing suit is Robinson at 156 pounds.  She decided to cut back to 1,000 calories a day and eat healthier. The weight quickly came off, as it had when she dieted before. Then she saw a documentary about Roy Walford, which she said gave her a way to think of what she was doing not as a diet, but a way of living. She joined the Calorie Restriction Society and wrote a computer program to track everything she ate and its nutritional value.

It has vastly improved her health. Robinson was in a study of CRON followers done by Dr. Luigi Fontana at Washington University School of Medicine. Fontana found that the CRON adherents—many of whom, like Robinson, had been formerly pudgy—now had arteries as efficient as fire hoses and blood pressure readings like those of 10-year-olds.

But isn’t she hungry all the time? I ask her. “I was hungry all the time before,” she says of her snack-stuffing days. She says certainly she experiences hunger on CRON, but it doesn’t bother her. “It’s real hunger, and that’s a normal thing and it feels good.” People assume since she’s cut out so much, that there’s nothing she can eat. But she eats a greater variety of food now and gives our 600-calorie dinner as an example. We have baked tilapia, spinach with feta, teriyaki squash and eggplant, a fruit salad, a glass of wine, and a crustless pumpkin pie for dessert. The portions are small and there are no seconds, but it’s a delicious and satisfying meal. “How is this crazier than having heart disease and diabetes and eating pizza and a milkshake?” she asks.

She makes a good point. Is CRON crazier than having a doctor suck out your fat, or staple your stomach? Is it crazier than a world in which a drug company is looking to market a product to temporarily eliminate people’s sense of taste and smell so they will lose weight? Is it crazier than having a panniculus?

But can someone without any notable will power—me—stay on a CRON diet? I decided to try CRON for two months, but it’s past that now and I’m still avoiding seconds and skipping my late-night snack. CRON was supposed to do much for me that it hasn’t. My very poor sleep is not better; my low energy is not higher; my foggy mind is not clearer. I still have no desire to hang around long enough for my now 11-year-old daughter to collect Social Security. But I’m grateful to Dr. Walford for letting me experience something I thought I never would again: loose-fitting pants.