We want to live longer, healthier lives. And we want to eat delicious food.
Can we do both?
You’re probably familiar with news accounts of lean and seemingly active 97-year-olds who credit their low-calorie diet with keeping them fit. They look emaciated but happy—and claim that training their tummy to expect less food has paid off.
Indeed, some experts see a potential link between monastic eating habits and living longer. Perhaps realizing that it’s an uphill battle urging people to eat less, some researchers recommend eating more but at limited times and in a prescribed manner that incorporates steps such as mini-fasts.
“Other than genes, it is hard to think of something that can be more powerful than food in determining whether someone is going to make it to 100 or die before 50 years old,” said Valter Longo, a professor of gerontology and biological sciences at University of Southern California, in a 2018 interview. Author of “The Longevity Diet,” Longo argues that a diet that mimics fasting can “leverage the benefits of caloric restriction in a safe and manageable way” and reduce risk factors for certain diseases.
But extending longevity by consuming fewer calories raises tough questions. If you derive joy from good meals (and don’t forget those satisfying, mood-lifting snacks between meals), is it worth giving up a pleasurable daily activity on the speculative bet that you’ll gain an extra decade? If you wind up afflicted with dementia or other progressive illnesses, you may lament denying yourself happiness when you were sentient enough to savor it.
While you should talk to your doctor or dietitian if you’re thinking of altering your diet, making mundane changes in how you eat offers a practical alternative.
“You don’t have to eat a super-low-calorie, overly restrictive diet,” said Lisa Young, a New York-based registered dietitian nutritionist. “It’s better to cut calories by eating vegetables and fruits and cutting down on processed foods.”
Young, author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim,” adds that making healthy food choices can reduce hypertension, lower cholesterol and prevent cognitive decline. This allows you to live longer without a drastic pruning of your food consumption.
The concept of “very-low-calorie diets” has stirred controversy for years. Generally defined as eating less than 800 calories a day over a short period (ideally under medical supervision), these diets tend to target individuals with an alarmingly high body-mass index who want to lose weight.
For Young, a more pressing concern involves knowing when to say when. She views overeating as the real culprit.
Retirees’ relaxed lifestyle can contribute to caloric indulgence. Older folks may cook less and eat out more—or live in a senior community that delivers prepared meals. If you have the discipline to choose healthy items from a menu and set aside leftovers for later, you’re on the right track.
“The biggest contributor to weight gain is increased portion size,” Young said. “Large portions have more calories. So eat mindfully and chew your food slowly. Put your fork down in between bites. Wait 20 minutes before you go back for doubles.”
Young says that while there’s a connection between food intake and longevity, she does not endorse the idea that individuals eat too little in an attempt to prolong their lifespan. Studies of low-calorie eating patterns among populations that tend to live longer do not prove that such a restrictive approach would work for everyone.
She cites findings from Okinawa, Japan, one of the world’s so-called “blue zones” where residents’ longevity outpaces other regions. While many people in Okinawa consume a low-calorie diet, genetic, environmental and lifestyle issues play a role as well.
“It’s more of a research tool than a real-life tool,” Young said. “In real life, food gives you the energy you need. I don’t want people to give up” after trying to impose draconian limits on their calorie consumption.