One thing that I have noticed since I began calorie restriction some eight years ago is this: A lot of cynicism exists among researchers and practitioners alike regarding calorie restriction’s potential appeal to the general public. In fact, it’s this attitude that largely explains the amazing multi-decade neglect shown calorie restriction by all involved. It helps explain how a discovery so incredible could shuffle along for 70+ years without acknowledgement from the media, this despite feverish interest on the part of the scientific community. The lab excitement, incidentally, relates to the general public only indirectly: Research teams around the world are frantically in pursuit of the pharmacological elixir that can simulate the calorie restriction metabolic effect in human beings. This is the Holy Grail that promises riches to its patent holder and health and longevity to its paying customers. To this end, millions of dollars are spent each year by privately funded researchers on calorie restriction-related research.
I don’t object to the mercenary motives here. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” earns its keep. My lament here is that the calorie restriction researchers have generated some really exciting and practical information that is useful today to people willing to seize it. Yet this information is not being shared with the general public. That is not to say that it is a secret or that any conspiracy is afoot. In fact, this information appears regularly in scholarly journals, including medical journals such as JAMA and New England Journal of Medicine. Literally thousands of calorie restriction experiments and studies have been conducted at major universities and research laboratories around the globe over the past 70 years. Much of this research has been published and is easily retrievable for those of us willing to expend the time and effort to locate and understand it. But why is this necessary? Where are the otherwise officious voices and resources of government, the medical community, the press and others when we can really use them? Instead, we have gotten the collective paternalistic sigh that says, “No one is going to do a diet like this. This diet is too radical” (that is, as compared to the mainstream but non-radical gravy/burger&donut diet). Consequently, science and evidence notwithstanding, it’s considered a waste of time and resources to promote this diet to a notoriously food-fond American public. One might as well cast pearls before swine (pardon the pun).
So let’s test this conclusion. We will use you as an example. Let’s pretend that you had not heard about calorie restriction, but that you are like many people in that you have an interest in health and fitness, that within reasonable boundaries you want to do the right and smart thing (the premium plan). Meanwhile, you are going about your life with the proposition in mind that smart and reasonable people hold about their health: i.e. you should 1) avoid obesity at all costs, 2) limit desserts and fried foods (especially those with trans-fats) while preferring fruits and vegetables. 3) exercise as much as Rule #1 requires.
Yet these axioms are tempered by your real world experience. You see cancer, heart disease and diabetes all around you -even among those on the premium plan. Furthermore, its very hard to push away from the table when you are still hungry and there is still plenty of food. Meanwhile, medicine is good and getting better at contending with the consequences of an imperfect diet. Besides, no one lives forever (put differently, the longevity payoff is not that great). So even the conventional premium plan fails to inspire great devotion because of this pay-off problem.
Now let’s imagine that one day while eating a blueberry croissant at Barnes & Noble you happen upon a very bold but fascinating diet book. This book reveals to you a well-documented strategy for dramatically reducing your risk for virtually every major disease while increasing your remaining years 30-50%. With this plan you will likely live 25+ additional years with wonderful health and functionality. This means that the life you had planned will now likely be much longer, much better and much more certain. But there is a price: You must be willing to consistently monitor your calories to assure that they do not exceed a certain level. That level will be 25-30% lower than you would otherwise choose. Furthermore, you must be willing to eat foods that are more healthful than you might have otherwise chosen. If you read further, however, it turns out that the sacrifice is not as draconian as you might think: By choosing the most nutritious foods, plant foods, you can in fact eat much more food than you otherwise would.
There you have it. That’s the pitch in a nutshell. Was the elite cynicism well placed? Or does CR sound like something you want to know more about? More to the point, is it conceivable to you that you could live with the calorie restriction plan? I know I lost some readers at “...there is a price”. I lost others at “...consistently monitor your calories”. But I know that there are many others, you for example, who have hung with me to this point and whose interest I’ll bet is genuinely piqued. Hopefully, you are nodding your head (as opposed to your head nodding) at his stage and are at least persuaded of calorie restriction’s modest popular potential. And that’s the basis of my complaint: As to life’s most important decisions (life and death among them), people deserve the opportunity to make tough but smart decisions. At a minimum, this requires information-- not simple disclosure in the technical, academic journal sense, but active, even evangelistic, dissemination. But this proportionality is entirely missing with calorie restriction research. As a result, people otherwise receptive to calorie restriction live shorter less healthy lives. The fact that we can’t quantify this omission- i.e., that we don’t know their numbers, the diminution of their years or the gravity of their diseases- doesn’t diminish its grave and substantial consequences.