Diet your way to a long, miserable life!

"Calorie restricted" eaters have visions of eternal health dancing in their heads. But is life without pecan pie really worth living?

Published November 22, 2006 12:18PM (EST)

There's a good chance that tomorrow your table will be groaning under the weight of soporific game birds and green-bean casserole (with cream of mushroom soup and Funyuns) and sweet potatoes with marshmallow crust. That is, of course, unless it's laden with Quorn. Quorn is the meat-free, soy-free, protein-rich fermented fungus recently featured in a New York magazine article about the growing popularity of calorie-restricted diets, in which practitioners subsist on a daily calorie intake that puts them just outside the grasp of starvation. In the story, writer Julian Dibbell sampled Quorn (which serves as a meat substitute and can be purchased as Chik'n and Turk'y) along with 24 carefully measured grams of arugula and a couple of scallops, as part of a purported "dinner party" thrown by a group of devoted CR dieters. The product's slogan is "Quorn: It just might surprise you."

Actually, I strongly doubt that it would.

But what has surprised me is exactly how glum I've felt ever since I read that damned New York magazine piece, and the wave of press that followed it, including a breathless "Today" show segment and a serious New York Times feature, both touting research that suggests that this absurdly ascetic, obsessively nutritious, borderline-starvation diet may delay aging and extend the life span of everything from mice to monkeys to -- gulp -- humans. Boooo!

This CR-news cycle has led to a lot of confusion: How are we supposed to regard our food, anyway? What does good health look like? What does it taste like? When we give thanks this year, should it be for the plenty on our tables, the time we share with our loved ones, or for our own good health? And are those gifts linked or at odds with each other?

Calorie-restricted dieters cut their food intake drastically, to around 1,200-1,400 calories a day for a woman and 1,800-2,000 for a man, depending on the individual's height and weight. Those meager metrics of tastiness must be further apportioned to constitute 30 percent protein, 30 percent fat and 40 percent carbs. It's an eating regimen that is greatly aided by calculators, computer software and postal scales.

Hard-core CR dieters usually lose a good deal of weight, though guidelines suggest no more than a pound a week. Some lose their ability to perform strenuous exercise, some (especially men) suffer from an altered or reduced libido, and women may stop getting their periods. Pictures of the diet's most devoted practitioners reveal them to be emaciated, like concentration-camp survivors or after-school-special cautionary tales or thinspiration models for pro-ana Web sites. With sunken facial features and hunched frames, these spokespeople hardly look like models of what is generally considered good health.

And yet, nerve-jangling evidence seems to suggest that they may be. According to research financed by the National Institute on Aging, severely limiting caloric intake has yielded health-boosting, life-extending results in animals on which it has been tested. The images of two rhesus monkeys recently featured in the New York Times are burned on my brain: Canto, who followed a version of a CR diet, remains spry into his dotage while his simian peer, Owen, has gotten old and fat and run-down on a regular, traditionally healthy diet of ... food. Humans who put themselves on gloomily scant meal plans appear to have better blood pressure, heart health and lower rates of illness than the rest of us mere mortals.

Apparently, paltry rations -- when measured out on charts and controlled to the über-psycho-microcaloric degree -- may in fact do precisely what CR zealots say they do: slow the aging process and extend life by as much as 50 percent. Scientists don't know why, exactly. Maybe the body goes into a hyper-efficient survival mode when deprived of fuel, or perhaps we simply strip our gears more slowly when we give them less to digest and excrete every day. Personally, I think these animals will themselves into living another day in the hope that tomorrow might bring a decent meal. But whatever the reason, for those of us who love food and are also mindful of our health, these revelations have been a major buzz kill.

Of course, if health research karma is a bitch, then foodies have had a slap coming. For years, medical news has gone our way. Chocolate? Red wine? Coffee? All good for us. Recall the highlight health bulletins of the past few years: Dairy products can help us lose weight, fatty fish helps our hearts, tomato sauce on pizza is full of lycopene. The once reviled egg turns out to be very healthy in moderation. Antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids have been the best things to happen to food since the term "al dente" got translated correctly. And can we talk about nuts and avocados? Oh salubrious bliss, found in a not-excessively-large serving of guacamole! Even the dismal pall of the Atkins years has begun to lift, as whole grains make a comeback and people acknowledge that ketosis was great and all until they popped a single cracker in their mouths and promptly gained 20 pounds.

So maybe we got spoiled, thinking we were doing great by our bodies by keeping them active and fueling them through the addition of delicious nutrients -- blueberries in our smoothies and $12 pomegranate juice in our cocktails! Our reflex at being told once more that health is about the subtraction -- of joy -- from our lives feels like a bucket of ice water thrown on us during a comfortable Sunday brunch. Perhaps this unwelcome news explains my general grumpiness not only about the CR diet but also about CR dieters themselves, or at least the ones I read about and see on television. Whether it's because these people are doing something antithetical to everything I believe is good for you in life -- or because they are doing it and yet continue to pass their medical tests with flying colors, my irritation knows no bounds.

The first thing you'll read about calorie restriction if you follow its press or check out any of its blogged literature is that it's completely, totally different from its look-alike cousin, anorexia nervosa. The major factor that separates the two is the CR dieter's fanatical attention to nutrients, packing every puny portion with maximum value. This is not disordered eating, supposedly, because CR dieters are concerned with extending their stay on earth, not with making themselves disappear.

CR also diverges from the debilitating deprivations of anorexia in that it is not rooted in body dysmorphia, the condition that leads its sufferers to hate what they see in the mirror. In fact, CR dieters -- one of whom, Michael Rae, is described in New York magazine as being 6 feet tall, weighing 115 pounds and having orange hands because of his high carotenoid intake -- like what they see when they look in mirrors and at each other. They like it a lot. "When I see a man like Michael," CR dieter Paul McGlothin kvells in New York, "I think that's how a man should be ... slim, bright, calorie-restricted!" And CR blogger April Smith, Rae's girlfriend, wrote recently that "CR is based in self-love, anorexia is based in self-hatred." Smith, who also explained her belief that in a country where so many women dislike their bodies, "it's important, nay, essential, that someone, preferably someone healthy, provide a counterweight," records most of her daily meals online, averaging 1,300 calories a day, sometimes dipping as low as 1,100.

A distorted sense of self-satisfaction, while on the whole a cheerier disorder than outsized self-loathing, can still be troubling, especially when it is the result of having forsaken eating habits that many people would love to be able to enjoy. When Matt Lauer introduced "Today's" CR segment by dramatically asking, "Could food itself be the problem?" it was hard not to wonder how insane we've become to devote airtime (larded with food commercials, no less) to demonizing something that people all over the world do not have enough of. Is it so that people who can afford organic scallops can live to be 150 while everybody else dies their regularly scheduled death?

Quorn ain't cheap, and there is something more than a little class-queasy about CR dieting. In Smith's blog, she describes a hypothetical woman and CR initiate, whom she describes as a lot like her, "having so much fun that she wants to live as long as she possibly can." This woman gradually loses weight, with the help of all the appropriate "nutritional software and a postal scale to weigh and measure her food exactly." Eventually, Smith tells us nonchalantly, this CR dieter "hits amenorrhea due to low body fat or whatever, and she doesn't mind because she doesn't want kids anyway so not being able to get pregnant at this particular moment is actually a plus." (Or she could use birth control and eat. But you know, amenorrhea. Whatever.)

It used to be that having an abundance of food signified wealth, status, a Darwinian desirability and the ability to reproduce and nurture. Now, it seems, certainly not simply because of CR, food and weight signifiers have been turned upside down. It costs a lot to shop at Whole Foods, even more to purchase nutritional software and obtain the kind of education that will help you use it effectively enough to not accidentally starve yourself to death. What's more, forget Darwin: Between their lower libidos and the amenorrhea, these poster children for long-lived good health may have trouble reproducing themselves.

Part of what's so damaging about diseases like anorexia and bulimia -- besides the body-image distortions -- is their fixation on control. What could be more tightly controlled than CR?

As Bob Cavanaugh, secretary for the Calorie Restriction Society, wrote in a letter to New York, "CR practitioners must be in the habit of monitoring their micronutrients. Balancing caloric intake with essential nutrition requires diligence." A diet like this sounds like a full-time job, one that could impede the rituals and opportunities of a full life. Restaurant dinners, accepting invitations to friends' houses, traveling to countries where dietary information is in another language -- all made more difficult by a voice in your head ascribing some higher value to keeping calories at an absolute minimum. Forget even the satisfaction of a particular food. What about the contentment of coming home after a busy day, ordering Chinese, putting your feet up and watching a movie?

And who gets to do this thing right? People with access to spreadsheets and dietitians, yes, but also those with the time to shop for specialties and fiddle-faddle with microproteins at every meal. In other words: not people who get 15 minutes for lunch, work night shifts, and just want to sit with friends over a bottle of wine or a six pack on the weekend.

Diligently monitoring and balancing and weighing and considering and adding and subtracting and measuring and constantly, constantly contemplating every morsel that enters your body, including the two Brazil nuts and two-thirds bag of microwave popcorn: How much time do these people have on their hands anyway? Oh right, centuries.

As CR dieter Paul McGlothin asked on "Today," "Who wouldn't really like to experience the joys of life for a little bit longer?" And McGlothin's CR buddy Meredith Averill crowed to Lauer about "planning [her] 125th birthday for absolutely decades now!"

Bully for McGlothin and Averill, though one would hope that neither has the misfortune of getting hit by a bus or contracting a degenerative disease like CR god Roy Walford. Walford pioneered calorie restriction after his years in Biosphere 2, wrote the book "Beyond the 120 Year Diet : How to Double Your Vital Years," and died at 79 from ALS. If these bodies are all juiced to live for more than a century, let's hope they are also hermetically sealed against dementia, stroke, broken hips, and other afflictions that could make all those additional decades more endless hell than ultimate reward.

And while the CR dieter is enjoying all the moral and physical superiority that comes with self-abnegation and endless gnawing hunger, what toll must it take on friends and loved ones? Imagine spending time with people who eat one-third of what you do and make you feel like a glutton on a suicide mission when you spoon yourself an extra helping of squash. In fact, one of the horrifying things about this diet is the creeping realization of how easy it would be to come to see your every tasty snack as a sin against yourself, every culinary concoction a reason for self-flagellation.

I think about the new pizza place near me. It has weathered yellow walls and a chef whose focused attention to the blistering crust and sweet creamy full-fat ricotta on his menu recalls Nicholas Cage in "Moonstruck." I consider the dinner I just ate at an Italian place: short-rib ravioli in a sauce of smoked marrow, Brussels sprouts with a poached egg and pancetta, chicken liver mousse with fig jam, and pickled green beans on toast. I think about the carafes of wine, the first briny sip of a hard-earned martini, the malty cool of a second beer at a sultry summer barbecue.

And I think: From my side of the short-rib ravioli, immortality really is overrated.

A 150-year life sounds sort of tiring. Isn't it the sort of thing that makes vampires so grumpy? Imagine living through all those wars, all the tragedies. You think teenagers and their loud music and LOL-isms annoy you now? Imagine if there were 100 culturally unbridgeable years between you and them. Think of all those presidential administrations you'd have to endure! Those of us who, barring illness or accident, can expect to live several more decades are probably already looking down the barrel of a Jenna Bush administration. Do you really need to live through George VI?

I know it's easier to say all this at 31 than it will be at 61 ... when I hope to be meeting my children's children. It's already hard for me to say as I look at my 60-something parents, whom I want so very badly to meet my own kids. There is no limit on the number of years I want to continue to know them.

But do I want another 80 years with my loved ones in which we all eat Quorn? In which we measure arugula onto our plates using postal scales? In which I don't bring cheeses and truffle honey and chocolate cakes home from New York on Thanksgiving? Of course there is shared joy in life that doesn't revolve around food. But honestly -- there's so much less of it.

And then of course, there is the chilly little truth that being with loved ones for a "just little bit longer" means just that: a little bit longer. The CR life-extenders in New York magazine fantasize about reaching "actuarial escape velocity," whereby they basically live forever (oh, and not incidentally, in this scenario no one -- or at least no one wealthy -- dies: Good luck with that, planet Earth! Hope you've alerted Social Security!), but that seems pretty unrealistic. For the time being, what remains true is that we are all going to die, whether when we're 40 or 140.

This sense that, by putting outrageously strict limits on what we consume, we can forestall the reality that has befallen every generation of man, woman, and beast to have come before us feels dangerously, hubristically, Icarian.

It seems to me -- and I realize this thought is every bit as profound and intricate as is usually found in a Hallmark card -- that part of enjoying life is being aware that it doesn't last forever. And that means that this Thanksgiving, I'm going home and loving my family and calling my friends and cooking the potatoes in goose fat.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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