August 31, 2005
Calorie Restriction Will Add Only A Few Years To Human Life Expectancy

The benefits of calorie restriction (CR) for humans have been overstated.

Severely restricting calories over decades may add a few years to a human life span, but will not enable humans to live to 125 and beyond, as many have speculated, evolutionary biologists report.

"Our message is that suffering years of misery to remain super-skinny is not going to have a big payoff in terms of a longer life," said UCLA evolutionary biologist John Phelan. "I once heard someone say caloric restriction may not make you live forever, but it sure would seem like it. Try to maintain a healthy body weight, but don't deprive yourself of all pleasure. Moderation appears to be a more sensible solution."

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey has been making this argument for years. He expects humans to get a much smaller percentage gain from calorie restriction as compared to much smaller creatures.

"With mice, if you restrict their caloric intake by 10 percent, they live longer than if they have unlimited access to food," Phelan said. "If you restrict their intake by 20 percent, they live even longer, and restrict them to 50 percent, they live longer still; but restrict their intake by 60 percent and they starve to death."

Calorie restriction is not a panacea according to Phelan. I agree. A real panacea would make your body young again and not just slow down the rate at which you get old.

"Humans, in contrast, will not have rodent-like results from dramatically restricting calories," he said. "Caloric restriction is not a panacea. While caloric restriction is likely to be almost universal in its beneficial effects on longevity, the benefit to humans is going to be small, even if humans restrict their caloric intake substantially and over long periods of time."

Phelan developed the first mathematical model demonstrating the relationship between caloric intake and longevity, using representative data from controlled experiments with rodents, as well as published studies on humans, diet and longevity. He and Michael Rose, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine, published their findings in a journal article titled, "Why dietary restriction substantially increases longevity in animal models but won't in humans," published in the August issue of the peer-reviewed journal Ageing Research Reviews.

Phelan says CR might deliver as much as a 7% increase in life but 3% is more likely. So you get two more years.

Their mathematical model shows that people who consume the most calories have a shorter life span, and that if people severely restrict their calories over their lifetimes, their life span increases by between 3 percent and 7 percent -- far less than the 20-plus years some have hoped could be achieved by drastic caloric restriction. He considers the 3 percent figure more likely than the 7 percent.

"The trade-off between calories and longevity appears to be close to a linear relationship, but the slope isn't very steep," said Phelan, whose model predicts the relationship between calories consumed and life span.

Phelan thinks it is not worth it to go through life feeling hungry.

Phelan's conclusion is that the few extra years of life are not worth the suffering necessary to achieve them.

The vast majority do not have the will power to do this in the first place. I bet even if the benefit of long term calorie restriction was shown to be 20 or 30 more years few people could bring themselves to follow a CR diet.

But suppose CR would buy you 2 years of additional life starting in, say, 2034. Well, if rejuvenation therapies hit the market in 2035 then that extra two years could save your life.

"Do you want to spend decades severely limiting what you eat to live a few more years? You will be unhappy and then your life will end shortly after mine ends," Phelan jokes.

Scientists have known for six decades that cutting the caloric intake of rodents by 40 percent or 50 percent results in dramatically longer lives for them.

"You can practically double their life span," Phelan said. "The same result has been found in fish, spiders and many other species. If it works for them, some thought, it should work for us; I'm here to tell you it doesn't."

Phelan, co-author of the book, "Mean Genes," conducted his dissertation at Harvard University 10 years ago on caloric restriction and on why it works in extending the lives of rodents.

"When you restrict the caloric intake of rodents, the first thing they do is shut off their reproductive system," said Phelan, citing a finding from his dissertation. A normal rodent reaches maturity at one month of age, and begins reproducing its body weight in offspring every month and a half. If humans shut off reproduction by severely limiting calories, "our reduction in wear and tear on the body is minimal," he said.

Rodents on CR have continuous bad moods.

The rodents placed on severely restricted diets bit people who tried to hold them, and had an unpleasant demeanor, unlike the more docile animals given more "normal" amounts of food, Phelan said.

"I think about food all the time," he said. "I'm not going to be so extreme that I become the mouse that bites anyone who touches me. My advice about food is be sensible, and don't be a fanatic about it because the payoffs are not worth it."

While the relationship between how much you eat and your life span is not so dramatic, there are very real costs of being overweight -- including greater risk for heart disease and other life threatening illnesses, Phelan said.

The human data factored into the mathematical model include the caloric intake of people in Japan, and their longevity, compared with sumo wrestlers, who consume more than twice the normal male diet, and men in Okinawa, Japan, who consume less than the average Japanese male.

We need rejuvenation therapies. The idea of finding a way to slow aging with CR or sirt1 or the latest hope Klotho all seem like misplaced hopes to me. Klotho may eventually deliver the same (limited) benefit as CR but without the perpetual hunger and might be worth taking some day. But we really need gene therapies, cell therapies, immunotherapies that can remove extracellular junk, and other therapies that can do repair.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 August 31 01:08 AM  Aging Studies

Emerson said at August 31, 2005 10:42 PM:

Phelan's methods seem to rely far too much on speculation and guesswork for my liking.

Curious said at September 1, 2005 11:59 AM:

I think that Phelan is finding only the increase in lifespan brought about by reduced incidence of disease (heart attack, cancer, diabetes, ...) that is brought about by weight loss. That is significant, but as he notes, it is relatively small. I believe that the much greater benefit of reducing caloric intake is the reduction in metabolism. - The cells slow down their activity when caloric intake reaches some level.

Obviously, he is correct that if you reduce caloric intake too much you starve to death. However, there is an in between area where calories are reduced, but not to the point of starvation (some lower than normal weight is maintained) where the metabolism slows down and the individual cell life is extended.

I don't believe that there has never been a long term study of reduced caloric intake (without starvation conditions) for humans and I still have hope that this approach will be proven out.

apocalypse said at September 2, 2005 3:09 AM:

I've even thought that those who've reached 120+ might've done so as the result of cr-mimetics(IIRC, I think the longest lived human used to drink wine frequently...) or favorable genetic factors that offer similar rare lifespan increasing benefits. I mean look at us right now, with modern medicine what'd have killed many a member of our species does not do so, skewing the average and max stats when compared to other species. Species that last century+ in the wild, are in a whole nother ballpark entirely(not to mention some of them've exponentially more cells, which should've increased the probability of cancer.).

Personally, I think it doesn't matter if the max natural(thanks to non-extremely rare mutations, cr, cr-mimetics) lifespan of the race was lower than the fabled 122, anyone who lasts even 30yrs more is going to see a new world of possibilities and advances that are bound to significantly extend lifespan.

Robert Bradbury said at September 3, 2005 12:08 PM:

"We need rejuvenation therapies". The problem is
that this requires significant re-engineering of the
the genome. Both homologous recombination DNA repair
and non-homomologus end joining DNA repair have problems.
Until you have a strategy for eliminating those you have
significant problems due to the fact that the "code" in
each cell is becoming corrupted over time.

There is no problem with humans living thousands of years,
*if* the genome were designed to allow it. That has not
been the case from an evolutionary standpoint in the past.
But that does not imply that this problem cannot be corrected.


ah said at September 5, 2005 6:56 PM:


Suprised you havent blogged on Kotho yet.

Randall Parker said at September 5, 2005 7:23 PM:


I mentioned it briefly at the bottom of this post. Go look for it. I didn't do a longer post on it because I just do not think it is that important for the same reason that calorie restriction is not that important: At most it will add 2 or 3 years onto life. Klotho might make it easier to get the CR effect without feeling hungry all the time. But probably won't do much more.

For middle aged people the effect will be even smaller since a lot of damage has already accumulated. For young people the effect won't be necessary because they will get rejuvenation therapies before they get old.

Rejuvenation therapies are far more important than efforts to slow down the rate of aging.

Russell Gardner said at September 6, 2005 6:36 AM:

I have been loosely following the calorie restriction since I learned about the McCay research in the 1930s. I understand it's a robust effect. I know that many people are doing it. Was interested in a report in May 2003 that said every other day fasting created the same effect in rodents as did the constant restriction. So I did it for 15 months but once weekly, never missing a week but not fasting the same day per week. I would drink water coffee and in the evening some wine/beer. In August 2004, after a trip to Europe, I was heavier than I liked and thought that since doing it weekly was so easy and freed up time from meals, that I would do it more than once weekly, depending on social schedule. Have done it since and this early August was 20 lb lighter than the year before. I may be a bit more irritable on fast days. On the other days I feel food is "feasting". I call a fast-feast regimen. Some gourmand friends note that I must be sanctimonious and perhaps I am, but feel it an interesting and fruitful regimen. I work out an hour daily in one form or another. Am fortunate in not having any major condition except for heriditary hypothyroidism for which I take replacement thyroid. No other prescription medications. My wife is happy with the diminished food preparation and my seeming good condition.

About Phelan's widely publicized contribution, I read 7% as quite significant really, 6-7 years perhaps. I suppose I calorie-restrict but don't feel myself to be suffering! I don't care for the santimonious tone of the quotes from him.

David said at January 22, 2007 7:18 AM:

did you know, that your a google whack

doctor said at January 22, 2007 7:23 AM:

did you know, that your a google whack?

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright