Calorie Restriction to Combat Aging

One of the holy grails of weight loss was punctured today – that restricting calories would lead to a longer life. A study that began in 1987 following monkeys discovered that the skinny ones didn’t live longer than the normal weight monkeys. The skinny monkeys still developed heart disease and cancer – but in their lives they didn’t get to eat as much.

There were monkeys placed on calorie restriction at different times of their lives – and while some had laboratory changes that looked great – they still lived the same amount as monkeys who were not skinny.

This was in contrast to a study that reported monkeys who were calorie restricted lived longer (that study published in 2009). But that study had an uncomfortable caveat that no one wanted to talk about: some of the deaths of the calorie restricted monkeys were disregarded. Had they included all of the monkeys, there would have been no extension of life for them either.

It is hard for scientists to let go of an assertion- one that we have held dear for a number of years. In fact, it was in the 1930’s that the first studies done on rats showed that those who fed less lived longer. No one repeated that study, but there were signs that it might not be so.

Leonard Hayflick, Ph.D. – the first scientist of aging

At the cellular level Leonard Hayflick did studies in the 1960’s showing that human cells were programed to divide about 50 times and then go into a senescent period. Elephants who lived longer had more cell divisions, and mice had less. This Hayflick limit was seen as the maximum of lifespan – and what it means in human years is a matter of debate. The cells didn’t live longer if they were starved for nutrients.

Still others did calorie restriction studies on fruit flies, worms, yeast, and while there lifespans appeared to increase, it was difficult to draw that conclusion to human beings. There then came some evidence based on mice studies that showed lab mice who were calorie restricted lived longer than lab mice that were fed normally. But even those studies came into question because when this theory was tested on wild mice, those mice didn’t live any longer if their diet was restricted.

Confused – so were most. So the decision was made to test this with the closest relatives of humans, the monkeys. This meant years of study. The first to conclude was The University of Wisconsin, who cherry picked their data and when all monkeys were included there was no increase in lifespan. Sadly, most of us got the headline version – eating less means living longer.

You may have seen the Sixty Minute report of the group of people, who based on that study, began in earnest to eat less, much less than other people. All with the belief that if they ate less they would live longer, live better, and avoid the diseases of aging like cancer and heart disease.

The advantage of science is we keep testing the hypothesis – and now it appears that the data from human cells by Dr. Hayflick was correct.

Hayflick was the first to note decrease in telomere length as cells divide. However, as Hayflick is quick to point out, telomere length is more correlation than causation. And yet many people use telomere length as a marker for their aging therapy.

What we know now- don’t over eat, because that does lead to decreased life span. So when someone says they have the answer to aging- chances are they don’t.

Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit

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  1. Nick says:

    This NIA study compared adult HD mice who ate as much as they wanted with HD mice who were kept on an intermittent fasting diet during adulthood. HD mice possess the abnormal human gene huntingtin and exhibit clinical signs of the disease, including abnormal metabolism and neurodegeneration in the striatum. The mice on the fasting program developed clinical signs of the disease about 12 days later and lived 10 to 15% longer than the free-fed mice. The brains of the fasting mice also showed less degeneration. Those on the fasting program also regulated their glucose levels better and did not lose weight as quickly as the other mice. Researchers found that fasting mice had higher brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels. BDNF protects neurons and stimulates their growth. Fasting mice also had high levels of heat-shock protein-70 ( Hsp70 ), which increases cellular resistance to stress.

  2. thedoc says:

    We are men and not mice. Primates are closer to what we are than mice – hence, calorie restriction in primates might show less of some disease, but lifespan does not increase.

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