"The point is, nutrient density, not calories, in food, is key. "
That’s all I needed to hear. The next day I gave CR a try. For about 14 hours. The experience made me understand why even researchers who are convinced that calorie restriction will extend life span doubt it’s of much practical use. Let’s face it: it’s hard enough to get people to make the changes that are already proven to increase the odds of a long and healthy life, like eating more vegetables and exercising half an hour a day.
There’s a delicious paradox here. Research into calorie restriction comes at a time when people around the world are consuming more calories than ever—and packing on the pounds. Calorie-restriction diets may seem extreme. But the truth is, most of us would do well to follow the basic tenet, which is to favor low-calorie, nutrient-rich foods. To offer support and advice for people trying calorie restriction themselves, a group of enthusiasts started the CR Society in 1994 (calorierestriction.org). Their advice is anything but controversial: avoid simple sugars and flours, eat lots of leafy greens and other vegetables, choose monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats and avoid saturated fat. Peter Voss’s typical daily fare is a nutritionist’s dream: strawberries with nonfat yogurt, almonds, steamed vegetables, salmon, five-bean chili, peanut butter and bananas. If more of us helped ourselves to a menu like his, we’d be healthier for it even if we didn’t cut calories. And probably add years to our lives.
Long before the verdict is in on calorie restriction, in other words, and even longer before effective longevity pills hit the market, there’s a lot most of us can do to better our odds of living long and staying active and alert. For my part, I decided to dish up a few extra servings of vegetables, snack on nuts, treat myself to a small square of dark chocolate for dessert and get to the gym a little more often. Oh yes, and to take a page from those long-lived Okinawans, who have been practicing their own simple form of calorie restriction long before modern science came along. According to Bradley Willcox, the Okinawans have traditionally followed hara hachi bu, a custom of eating until they are just 80 percent full. The practice allows them to consume fewer calories without bothering to read nutrition labels—and it means they don’t have to obsess about what to eat and not eat but can go about enjoying themselves.
And that, in the end, may be even more crucial to their longevity than, well, sweet potatoes or sanpin tea. Finding delight in family and friends, having something to look forward to every day: studies of centenarians around the world suggest that these intangibles, even more than the specifics of diet, may be the most powerful secret to longevity. The Okinawans have a name for it: ikigai, or “finding your reason to live.”