Has Calorie Restriction Jumped The Shark?

Calorie restriction used to be cool in 2006 — and now it's back, with the Times Magazine covering a new study of ascetic eaters and their enviable "biomarkers." But in these lean times, the practice seems kind of dated.

Maybe, sorta. Times Magazine writer Jon Gertner profiles a group of human guinea pigs whose feed seems a lot less spartan than the Quorn-and-asparagus regime Julian Dibbell described in his 2006 New York article. Participants in the Calerie (Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy) study are supposed to reduce their caloric intake by 25% for two years, so researchers can measure the effects on the aging process. But they still get to eat potatoes, pasta, even Häagen-Dazs. And most of the subjects say their biggest problem isn't hunger, but the fact that counting and reporting calories is a pain in the ass.

Then again, Gertner talks to Jeffrey Peipert, who occasionally woke up in the middle of the night because he was so hungry, and couldn't go back to sleep without a bowl of cereal. These incidents, researchers determined, were caused by his active lifestyle, and their advice was just to move around less. While calorie restriction is apparently better at increasing lifespan than exercise, it seems a lot less entertaining. And, of course, a few people had to drop out of the study because of anemia or bone loss. Everybody needed sweaters. People deemed prone to eating disorders were excluded at the outset.

This exclusion, along with a number of others, may point to the biggest problem with the Calerie study. Not only do participants have to be of "normal" weight and free of any tendency towards anorexia or bulimia, they also have to be the kind of people who are willing to restrict their diet for two years for only a few thousand dollars. In fact, those who were motivated by even this small amount of money were excluded from the study, so basically everyone participating had to kind of want to eat way less for a long time, which sets them apart from most people.

One investigator in the study, John Holloszy, says 99% of people aren't capable of calorie restriction. He also thinks the participants will quit doing it when their two years are up. And neuropsychologist Robert Krikorian says, "I don't think humans are designed to pay attention to how much they eat." Participants in the Calerie study have enviable blood pressure and cholesterol readings, and other research indicates that if they stick with it, they may enjoy longer live. But they're also the kind of people who say things like, "I've never gotten so much pleasure in my life. I'm wearing a medium shirt now. I haven't worn a medium since high school." Some people may get more pleasure out of not having to weight their potatoes.

Back in 2006, the media cliché about calorie restriction was that it was so unpleasant it wasn't worth the added lifespan. The Calerie study may be less extreme than what hard-core, arugula-counting restricters do, but its participants' diets are still pretty rigid and circumscribed. And if anything, this now seems unfashionable. Three years ago, eating next to nothing might have seemed like a cool rebellion against excess. But now excess is harder to come by, and eating like a pauper seems a lot less hip if you are one. Not only that, but the obesity crisis has been so variously trumpeted and debunked that the Times Magazine's whole Food Issue (tagline: "putting America's diet on a diet") seems a little dated. Diet is such a dirty word now that even Weight Watchers won't admit it is one, and something as, well, restrictive as calorie restriction just seems pretty passé.

This doesn't mean America isn't still obsessed with weight and weight loss, just that the buzzwords now tend to be things like "sustainable" and "lifestyle changes." And while one calorie restricter claims the practice just "teaches you how to eat normal foods but make better choices," it's pretty clear that it's not sustainable for most people. Which might be fine. American food culture is still pretty fucked up, but in the last couple of years there has been a little more emphasis on eating food you enjoy with people you like. This may not increase anyone's lifespan, but compared to a lot of recent diet fads, it seems pretty healthy, not to mention fun. Holloszy says hard-core calorie restricters are motivated by "fear of death," but someone once told me that people fear death more if they're not enjoying their lives. And except for a select few, logging every calorie just isn't enjoyable.

The Calorie-Restriction Experiment [New York Times Magazine]