- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

Liza May, 51, a nutritionist in Crofton, Md., practices calorie restriction with a vengeance. Because she consumes no more than 1,000 calories a day and sometimes fasts for weeks at a time, people might think she is taking vengeance on her own body.

She insists, however, that her 5-foot-7-inch, 120-pound muscular frame never has felt better. For breakfast, she has a powdered calcium drink, some prunes and a cup of black or green tea. She eats no sugar and hardly any dairy products, just an occasional serving of yogurt or piece of cheese. Her only other meal of the day, shared with her husband and four children, consists of lots of leafy greens, vegetables and meat or fish of any kind. They prefer dining out at all-you-can-eat buffets that allow a choice of smaller portions.

While carrying out some of the main precepts of the Atkins diet, Mrs. May is not an active proponent of the no-carbohydrate regimen and will indulge in ice cream occasionally.

“We do cheat. We’re human,” she says. “We don’t want to spend our whole life being spartan and end up saying, ‘What was that all about?’”

She insists she has thrived on this routine for decades without any illness “not even a single cold” except for a bout of flu in 1974. “The doctor keeps saying, ‘You are just lucky, you have good genes,’ and I’m sure good genes have a lot to do with it,” she says.

Like others who belong to the 10-year-old California-based Calorie Restriction Society (www.calorierestriction.org), she is following the findings of scientists that go back more than 50 years showing that mammals who eat fewer but nutritious meals live healthier, longer lives. Put regular exercise into the equation Mrs. May goes to a gym daily and members stand ready to refute those who argue that such diet extremes invariably damage the human organism.

“People do this in a variety of ways having to do with your own psychology and how to handle it,” Mrs. May says. “Some eat a little at each meal.”

Many differences exist among the believers, but what doesn’t change is their avid desire to extend life.

At 5 feet 11 inches and 126 pounds, Jason Taylor, 36, of Hyattsville, maintains that he is in good health while consuming no more than 1,200 calories daily. A physicist who works for a start-up technology firm, he warns that a person with an infection shouldn’t practice calorie restriction because he believes it invites pathogens.

“It doesn’t keep colds away and doesn’t have a lot of benefits,” he says. “People who say CR will make you feel better would have been overweight.”

The regime has a definite effect on mental cognition, he warns. “The brain uses up half the calories you give it, and if it has less sugar to operate on, it won’t be doing much. And in this day and age, brain activity is what you worry about. When you don’t have as much sugar to operate the brain, you don’t experience as much, and you aren’t as happy. The depressive effect of CR is important and should be considered.”

His love of life makes the effort worthwhile for him as a stopgap until better measures, chiefly in the realm of gene expression, using knowledge of genetic makeup to improve well-being, can be found, he says.

“The truth of the matter is, I don’t think CR is a good way to extend life, but it is the best way right now,” Mr. Taylor says. He disparages studies taking place around the country into biomedical issues involved in calorie restriction, led primarily by the National Institutes of Health.

“The research has been done,” he insists. “The effect of calorie restriction on mammals is very well-documented and can’t lead to more knowledge.”

The fact that rats on a diet tend to live 30 percent longer has been known since the 1930s, but proponents of ongoing government-funded projects say more research is necessary to understand how and why calorie restriction works at the cellular level and what meal-eating patterns work best.

“Rodents are incredibly valuable research tools, but a lot of things that work in them don’t work in humans. You want a solid basis of research,” says Donald Ingram, head of a newly created Laboratory of Experimental Gerontology at the NIH’s National Institute on Aging. He has been working on aging issues with monkeys under the aegis of NIA’s Gerontology Research Center since 1987. The monkeys live longer on restricted diets but still show the many manifestations of human aging such as wrinkles and hair loss, he says.

Other work to be done at NIH involves different fiber diets and studies of drugs that mimic the effects of calorie restriction.

“It’s all toward recognizing anti-aging benefits,” he says. “It’s not worth living longer unless you function better.”

A multimillion-dollar NIH study under way at Louisiana State, Tufts and Washington State universities is investigating calorie restriction in human subjects for the first time. That’s the kind of study Mr. Taylor regards as superfluous.

“I want to emphasize that calorie restriction is not the whole thing; the fundamental aging process is our subject,” Mr. Ingram says. “If we understood aging processes better, we would have tools to prevent many of the aging diseases and how the pathological processes come about. Such as why it is that older organisms are more susceptible to those diseases.”

This summer, Mark Mattson, director of the NIA’s Laboratory of Neurosciences, will start a six-month-long human clinical trial in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Center focused strictly on meal frequency. Half of the 20 volunteers will eat as they normally do; half will eat only within an four-hour time frame; then they will switch routines.

“The point is to have each subject maintain their body weight throughout the study,” he explains. “In animal studies, this kind of diet going without food for 24 hours greatly improved glucose regulation which has an anti-diabetic effect and also a striking effect on cardiovascular condition,” he says.

When subjected to stress on the routine of less frequent meals that is, when animals went 24 hours without food, rats and mice had better cardiovascular effects, too, he notes.

“Clearly, at some point you can be too calorie-restricted,” argues Mr. Mattson, who admits that he, too, practices a form of calorie restriction. He skips breakfast in favor of eating a total of 2,200 calories a day for lunch and dinner to keep a low body weight of 125 pounds on a 5-foot-9-inch frame.

Liza May (above) of Crofton, Md., seen here with a salad she made for her husband on a day when she was fasting, eats 1,000 or fewer calories a day and sometimes fasts for weeks at a time. She says she feels incredibly energetic. Jason Taylor lifts weights with assistance from his girlfriend, Rebecca Zeltinger, at the Berwyn Heights Community Center. Both are on a calorie-restricted diet. “I don’t have as much energy as I used to, but I’m a lot more efficient with the energy I have,” Mr. Taylor says.

Jason Taylor lifts weights with assistance from his girlfriend, Rebecca Zeltinger at the Berwyn Heights Community Center in Berwyn Heights. PG County Mr. Taylor and Miss Zeltinger, who also lifts weights, are on a calorie-restricted diet.

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