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Spartan diet may slow aging

As the rest of the nation has been supersizing, a small cadre of Americans such as Francesca Skelton have been radically downsizing their diets — not to slim down their physiques but to slow down the hands of time.
The Washington Post
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As the rest of the nation has been supersizing, a small cadre of Americans such as Francesca Skelton have been radically downsizing their diets — not to slim down their physiques but to slow down the hands of time.

Skelton is an adherent to the theory that "caloric restriction" can hold back the aging process by fundamentally altering basic metabolic functions in ways that protect the body from decaying as quickly.

So for years, the District grandmother and others like her have been eating often radical diets carefully calibrated to slash calories they consume each day while still providing their bodies with the nutrients they need.

It is an idea that, while unproven, has been steadily gaining scientific support for more than a decade, including a new study two weeks ago that for the first time found that people such as Skelton were enjoying benefits that should protect them from heart disease and possibly other leading causes of death. The evidence is so promising that the National Institutes of Health has launched a project in three U.S. cities to test how practical it is to get people to sharply restrict calories, and to study what it does to their bodies.

Meanwhile, however, people such as Skelton, mostly scattered across North America and Western Europe, have decided that the theory makes so much sense that they are going far beyond any typical diet and making drastic changes in their lifestyles for years or even decades in the hopes of living longer, more youthful lives.

"It just follows logically that you're going to live longer if you age slower," says Skelton, 64, a retired federal employee who lives in Northwest Washington. "I'm aiming for at least 100 or more."

Enough seekers of a dietary fountain of youth have joined what could be considered the ultimate diet craze to create an international online organization. The Calorie Restriction Society claims a membership of more than 1,600 people, organizes annual meetings for devotees and runs a Web site ( where members exchange advice, menus and recipes and debate the latest scientific evidence for the theory.

Disappearing libidos
Many practitioners follow extreme, spartan diets of nothing but fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries and grains. They painstakingly calculate the precise caloric and nutritional content of every morsel that passes their lips, weighing each ingredient and entering the results into computer programs that meticulously track calories and nutrients. Often they eat the same meals, day in and day out. Some lose so much weight their libidos disappear and they have to remember to carry a sweater to stay warm in air-conditioned buildings and pillows to cushion their bony behinds.

Others, however, practice less regimented versions. They still eat what most people would consider exceedingly sparingly, but are far less rigid. Some simply consume much smaller portions of what they always ate. Others live on a healthful mix of vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and poultry, but occasionally splurge on a good steak or piece of chocolate. There are enough people like that, in fact, that Skelton started a break-off faction, the CR Support Group (, for those seeking a less stringent approach.

"We are much more moderate. We aim to show that this could be achieved by anyone — you don't have to be drastic about it," said Skelton, who claims a membership of about 850, including many in the Washington area. "We're not extremists. We don't starve ourselves. We try to show people that this is easily done."

Skelton subsists on 1,200 to 1,600 calories a day, down from about 2,200 before she started four years ago. Like most adherents, she eats primarily fruits, vegetables and nuts. But she does mix in regular servings of fish and chicken and will occasionally sneak a piece of cake.

"I enjoy eating. So you'd think it would be hard for me. But it's not. You learn to enjoy the food that's good for you. You just have to get a mind-set," she said.

The 5-foot-4 Skelton dropped about 20 pounds after she started the diet, and now weighs a slight 115.

"I have the figure and the body of a woman at least 25 years younger, and feel that way," said Skelton, who says she's in a "mixed marriage" because her husband is not a practitioner.

"He loves to eat. He raids the refrigerator in the middle of the night," she said.

Some practitioners call themselves "CRONies" — for calorie restriction optimal nutrition. Others eschew the nickname because they think it has negative connotations. Some are health fanatics — they run marathons, use herbal remedies and embrace a host of alternative, New Age lifestyles. But many others are couch potatoes who do nothing more than eat very little. The theory is based on the idea that caloric restriction's benefits are independent of the need to exercise or do anything else.

All were inspired by Roy L. Walford, a UCLA scientist who wrote a series of books that included "Beyond the 120-year Diet" and "The Anti-Aging Plan." In 1991, Walford became one of eight volunteers who sealed themselves inside a controversial laboratory in the Arizona desert called Biosphere 2 to see if they could create a self-sustaining ecosystem. They quickly ran into trouble, including a severe food shortage, which inadvertently tested the nascent theory on humans for the first time. According to a variety of measures, their health improved.

Ironically, Walford died last week, two months short of his 80th birthday. He had suffered for many years from Lou Gehrig's disease, an incurable neurological condition that is apparently resistant to any benefits of caloric restriction.

Walford's death did nothing to deter followers such as Skelton, who are motivated by the desire to live, if not necessarily longer, then healthier lives, avoiding the slow, inexorable slide from aches and pains to infirmity and chronic, disabling illness.

"Hopefully it will work and help us add years to our lives. But what I really want is to live a full life without chronic illness. I would like to avoid the decline that accompanies old age," Skelton said. "Many of us are doing it for quality of life, rather than length."

Before Mary Robinson of Vienna started the diet three years ago, she felt the beginnings of the typical middle-aged decline.

"I had a lot of aches and pains. I had no energy. I was having stomach problems," said Robinson, 50, a manager at Mitretek Systems Inc. in Fairfax County.

She now consumes about 1,100 calories a day, down from about 1,800 before she started.

"Some people who do this diet are compulsive. I'm not one of those people who eat the same meal over and over again. For me it makes it more interesting to eat a variety," she said. "I know that I'm not going to blow up or die if I eat a small piece of chocolate cake."

'I feel much younger'
Like many adherents, Robinson said that after an initial, difficult adjustment period, her appetite seems to have dwindled. Many say they do not experience the overwhelming food cravings they did before. And when they do eat, everything tastes better. And now, Robinson said, her health problems have disappeared.

"I feel much younger than I did when I was 45. I feel like a 30-year-old," she said. "I feel like this is going to let me use up less of my life every year. I'm really going to age slowly. It's not just living longer. I feel like I'm going to live younger. If I feel 30 at 50, then I expect when I'm 60, I won't feel that age either."

Although scientists say the theory remains far from proven, that may not be just wishful thinking. As portion sizes have ballooned and obesity has become epidemic in the United States and other industrialized nations, more and more evidence has accumulated to support the theory, including numerous studies showing that laboratory mice, rats and other organisms live significantly longer if their food intake is restricted. Ongoing studies with monkeys, human's closest relatives, are producing equally promising findings.

Evidence suggests the benefits can start to accrue even in middle age, and even if daily calorie intake is cut by 500 to 800 calories a day.

Scientists think caloric restriction may work by reducing the body's production of harmful molecules known as free radicals. Another theory is that it creates a chronic state of mild stress that actually protects the body, just as stretching the mind may ward off Alzheimer's disease and taxing muscles with exercise makes them stronger.

"There are types of stress that are mild stress that are beneficial," said Mark P. Mattson of the National Institute on Aging, who studies caloric restriction and practices it himself. "Cells respond to mild stress by activating genes that help them resist more severe stress."

Devotees tend to be intelligent, highly educated people who have a sophisticated understanding of nutrition, which is important to avoid becoming malnourished, said Luigi Fontana, who studies people on caloric restriction at Washington University in St. Louis.

"Most of them are professors at universities or running companies. They are very successful people. They know a lot about nutrition, and the scientific literature regarding calorie restriction," Fontana said. "They love life, and want to live longer."

'Live like Hemingway'
The highest concentration of adherents is, not surprisingly, in Southern California, but believers are scattered across the United States, Canada and Western Europe, said Brian M. Delaney, president of the Calorie Restriction Society. Surprisingly, it tends to be younger people who get involved because they hope to live longer.

"Those are the people who might be willing to go to more extremes to wring another three or four decades out of life," said Delaney, who teaches philosophy in Stockholm.

That's what motivates Khurram Hashmi, 36, of Los Angeles, who has been practicing severe caloric restriction for about four years. Hashmi slashed his daily caloric intake from about 3,500 calories a day to about 1,800. The six-foot computer programmer dropped from about 170 pounds to about 116.

"Life is not that long," Hashmi said. "This is the fountain of youth if there ever was one."

But Delaney acknowledges that it is not for everyone. After trying it, some people decide they simply would rather not live such austere, disciplined lives.

"A lot of people in our group went off the diet entirely," he said. "They decided they wanted to live like Hemingway — eat a lot, drink a lot, live large."