How calorie restriction may be a key to longer life

Calorie restriction is different from intermittent fasting. It's a "back to basics" method of eating for weight loss, healthier aging.

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By Kristin Kirkpatrick

Do you eat until you are full? Most people do because once you start eating, it's hard to stop, even when your digestive hormones tell you to do so. But eating to fullness is not an evolutionary norm, it's learned behavior.

Too many years of overfueling often leads to obesity, chronic disease, and even early death. The flip side of that coin, however, is eating less, or, calorie restriction. New studies show that this method could be a key component to a smaller waistline and a longer life.

I often prescribe calorie restriction as a "back to basics" method for losing weight. Simply eating less is an easy strategy for many of my clients who struggle with the restrictive "you can't eat that" nature of many popular diets.

What is calorie restriction?

It's sometimes confused with intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is about chunks of time when you're not consuming food. In fasting, however, non-fasting hours do not necessarily follow lower calorie patterns. In fact, calories could be quite high.

Calorie restriction is about consistency and involves a major reduction of how much food you consume — a cut of 15% to 30% of total daily calories.

Calorie restriction has been studied for decades. Benefits are seen in both animals and humans, however, the data in animals is stronger. Calorie restriction got a lot of attention in 2017 when a study in rhesus monkeys came out showing a stark difference between a monkey that ate whatever it wanted — it looked old, tired and overnourished — compared to a calorie-restricted monkey, which looked young, vibrant and lean.

Further studies, including one in the journal Nature Communications found that calorie restriction led to positive changes in the genes associated with aging.Another study in humans found that reducing 15% of total calories slowed aging and age-related diseases. And a recent study, funded in part by the National Institute on Aging,showed that individuals who reduced their overall calories by 25% over a two-year period saw substantial benefits in cardiovascular health, lower "bad" LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, reduced fat mass and inflammation.

How follow a calorie-restricted diet

Restricting calories requires changing the way you think about food. These are basic ways to get started.

1. Start looking at food as fuel.

That means, eating until you no longer feel hungry, not to fullness. It also means fueling with foods that actually fill.

When you do eat, make that calorie count.

Aim for healthy fats, lean sources of protein, and complex carbohydrates.

All these options take long to digest meaning you stay satisfied, longer.

2. Get adequate sleep.

Studies show that a lack of sleep disrupts digestive hormones, causing your hunger to feel more intense.

3. “Front load” calories and go to bed a little hungry.

Your first meal of the day should be larger and filled with plenty of protein.

Studies show that doing so may help to ward off cravings later in the day. As the day goes on, you really need fewer calories, unless you engage in an intense evening workout.

4. Plan for challenges.

As with many things in life, planning ahead can go far. Determine what your weak spots are and tackle them early.

If you're used to a huge dinner, start by making them smaller. If you typically have a candy bar in mid-afternoon, transition to another snack.

5. Eat nutrient-dense foods.

Instead of 1 cup of brown rice at dinner, which has almost 400 calories, have cauliflower rice instead, about 100 calories.

Instead of a bun with your sandwich, roll your veggies or meat in a corn tortilla instead, saving almost 300 calories. Instead of a cream-based soup for dinner, choose a broth based one, saving potentially more than 400 calories.

Calorie restriction is not a diet.

It’s simply a pattern of eating that means consuming what you actually need to survive and thrive. If you look at this as another diet, you may fall short of the end goal, and go back to bad habits.

Important note: Anyone with a history of eating disorders, who wants to get pregnant, is a type 1 diabetic, or has a compromised immune system, needs to get cleared by a doctor first before embarking on a calorie restricted dietary plan.