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Starving to extend your life?
Restricting calories may lengthen life, but at what cost?

Date published: 5/7/2006

ARE YOU WILLING to starve yourself to live longer? More importantly, would it be worth it?

Research in animals suggests that calorie restriction--a lifelong diet resulting in low weight--makes animals live longer.

There is very little research in humans, but recent news headlines like "Live and let diet" and "Eat less, live more" proclaim that eating less is the new fountain of youth.

Studies in mice, fruit flies and other species suggest that eating about 40 percent less can extend the life of some bugs and animals, including dogs, by 40 percent. Eating 40 percent less also can decrease risks of cancer and heart disease, the studies suggest.

It's not clear whether these results would apply to people. The diet may have stronger effects in smaller creatures like insects than in larger mammals.

Last month, the respected Journal of the American Medical Association published a study of about 50 overweight people showing that six months of intensive dieting improved two markers of long life: The strict diet reduced insulin and body temperature.

This was touted as the first major research in human beings showing that calorie restriction theoretically might add years to our lives.

The human study doesn't prove a darn thing, in my opinion.

The study examined overweight people--not normal-weight or underweight people, which is what those who restrict calories for years become. The study lasted only six months, not years, so it couldn't show if people actually lived longer or instead would ultimately succumb to dangerous effects from semi-starvation and underweight.

I have seen the effects of starvation up close. As a registered dietitian, I have worked with many people with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, and the fans of calorie restriction sound familiar to me.

Sure, starving oneself for the sake of living longer is slightly different than starving oneself for the sake of being thinner.

But starving oneself, no matter what the reason, requires obsessive behavior and can have the same dangerous physical effects.

Starvation can lead to reduced bone density, causing severe osteoporosis and crippling even young people with broken hips and backs.

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