Sat, Sep 25, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Starve yourself to eternal life

Research shows that mice live longer if they're half-starved. There's no scientific proof the regime works for humans -- yet. But around a thousand people, most of them men, have drastically cut back on their calorie intake in the hope of resisting disease and beating the ageing process

By Peta Bee  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Brian Delaney never does lunch. Typically, his breakfast is a bowl of yogurt (fat-free) sprinkled with cereal (sugar-free), berries and some (fat-free) soya milk. Although sometimes he skips that meal, too. For dinner he chooses something more substantial -- a piece of steamed fish, maybe, and a large green salad (no croutons, dressing or mayonnaise). Occasionally, for instance, every

six months and only if he feels he has deserved it by working out extra hard at the gym, he allows himself a couple of M&Ms or a glass of red wine.

Mostly, Delaney's calorie intake barely nudges 1,800 a day, half the amount consumed by the average western male. At 1.8m and weighing less than 63kg, he is thin and usually hungry.

It is 10 years since he first put himself on a brutally restrictive diet (initially he ate even less), yet he still experiences the cavernous "pit in the stomach" every mid-afternoon, an energy trough familiar to all dieters. His approach goes way beyond cutting down on food to look good or feel healthier. To the casual observer, it looks like anorexia. But Delaney firmly believes that extreme deprivation enhances his well-being.

Drastic calorie restriction (CR) has been shown to increase the lifespan of laboratory animals. Delaney would like to live for ever, but will settle for making it to 122. And if the ageing process in mice and guppies is slowed when their food consumption is halved, why shouldn't it work for him?

It is in the name of superlongevity that, as president of the CR Society, a growing but controversial movement, Delaney advocates cutting back on food to the point of bare subsistence. There are 1,000-plus members worldwide of the California-based CR Society, all of whom adhere to the principle that a degree of self-starvation can trigger physiological and biochemical changes in the body that will enable them to have the last laugh on cynics. If all goes to plan, that will be some time next century.

On a continuum of diet behavior, CR appears to sit somewhere between fads (Atkins, Zone, South Beach) that claim to streamline the podgy, and completely disordered eating. If society's obsession with dieting has taught us anything, it is that self-denial -- whether of carbohydrates, protein, fat or calories -- is the key to success. CR takes abstinence to a new level.

At its most draconian, CR's ultra-lean followers consume only 1,200 calories a day, an amount the British Nutrition Foundation considers unhealthily low even for women, who usually need to eat less than men to survive. All members exist on at least 1,000 calories below the optimum level recommended in the government's healthy eating guidelines (around 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 calories for men -- more if you are particularly tall or active).

Where CR departs most radically from dieting is in its underlying philosophy. By definition all CR adherents are skinny, but that is not their goal. Their mission is to postpone the onset of killer ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and to stretch out their golden years long enough to see their grandchildren's children grow up. It is a Methuselahn ideal, questionable in terms of both ethics and rationale. Why anyone would want to outlive their family, friends and peers is unfathomable to many.

Michael Rae, a spokesman for the CR Society, is 1.8m tall and weighs 52kg. He reflects the views of many in declaring that "ageing is a horror that has got to stop now" and that "at this moment CR is the only tool we have to stay younger longer." He argues, plausibly, that "people are popping antioxidants, getting facelifts and injecting Botox, but none of that's working." However, his suggested solution -- self-starvation -- is bewildering.

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