Deadly Calories

Two weeks ago, the media reported on research concerning the effect of calorie restriction on health and longevity. The research was carried out at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and is the longest experiment of its kind. The study compared a control group of Rhesus monkeys allowed to eat freely as compared to monkeys restricted to a diet with 70% of the calories consumed by the free eating group.

The study reports that the controls were almost three times as likely to die of an age-related condition as the calorie restricted group. “Age-related condition” meant diabetes, cancer, or heart attack. In addition to a lower risk of death, far fewer of the calorie-restricted monkeys had these medical diagnoses compared to the controls.

The implication the researchers and the reporters drew from these results is that calorie restriction or its metabolic equivalent show potential as a way to avoid diseases of accelerated aging. The New York Times article says it best: “Few people can keep to a diet with 30 percent fewer calories than usual. So biologists have been looking for drugs that might mimic the effects of caloric restriction.” A leading candidate in this drug race is resveratrol, a natural substance in red wine that’s received considerable attention. However, it’s not the actual resveratrol molecule that’s drawing attention but a pharmaceutical imitation that’s patentable and therefore a cash magnet.

But wait. The New York Times article notes that although the free-eating Rhesus monkeys did worse than the calorie-restricted monkeys in dying more often from what the researchers identified as age-related conditions, the death rate for the two groups was the same when comparing all causes of death. According to the Times, the other causes included death under anesthesia, gastric bloat, and endometriosis. This is a fact missing from the published research.

Let’s consider the last cause excluded by the researchers: endometriosis. Simplistically, it’s a consequence of hormone imbalance. This will make some sense when I explain the theory underlying calorie restriction as an anti-aging strategy.

The theory is that when calorie intake is restricted, the body thinks it’s in famine conditions. For many species (but not all), when that happens the body directs resources away from reproduction to physiological maintenance. It is considered an evolutionary strategy that improves the chances for the species to continue because it makes sure that animals capable of bearing children survive the famine so they can breed when times are good. A complementary effect is that energy metabolism slows to conserve resources, which reduces the production of free radicals that are a normal part of energy production, reducing over-all oxidative stress and with it the degenerative processes associated with aging.

So to my eye, the calorie-restriction research is a complete perversion of this theory. States of famine are supposed to be temporary. Normal is where you eat what you can get then have sex, have babies, and feed them. Famine isn’t supposed to be a permanent state. By setting the body in a permanent state of famine, imbalances are created that have their own perverse consequences: the incapacity to recover from the stress of anesthesia, the disruption of immunity and gut ecology that results in gastric bloat, and the hormone disruption that results in endometriosis.

This leads me to the other abuse committed by this line of science: it’s only about biological mechanisms. It’s completely stripped of any understanding of the interplay of biology and environment. The Rhesus monkeys in this experiment live their entire lives in captivity. How would the outcome differ if the monkeys were living in the wild? How does the food that researchers gave captive monkeys compare to what they’d eat in the wild? How was their sex life? How was their family life? How was their social life compared to what it would be in the wild?

Compare this nonsense with another recent study. Low birth weight is associated with greater lifetime risk of acute and chronic disease, including those identified as age-related by the calorie restriction researchers. Providing pregnant women with micronutrient supplementation improved birth weights and with it lowered the children’s lifetime risk of suffering. Consider another recent study that found children were more likely to suffer from air pollution induced asthma if they lived in a household burdened with psychosocial stress or were exposed to tobacco smoke in utero. Asthma is a breakdown in the body’s capacity to resist environmental stress.

Before we get worked up about reducing the degeneration we associate with aging by tricking the body into thinking there’s a permanent famine going on so it will be tricked into reducing the oxidative stress that causes those effects using fake versions of natural substances cooked up in Big Pharma’s labs—and don’t forget the body being tricked into throwing sex hormones and who knows what else out of balance—why don’t we make sure people are simply well-nourished, well-nurtured, and not exposed to the environmental stress that accelerates aging in the first place?