I severely 'restrict calories' but I don't have an eating disorder

Sep 24, 2015 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Image News/Getty Images

In my social circle, I'm known as the fanatical clean-eater. I'm also a calorie counter. This life practice that has become a religion of sorts keeps me trim and keeps my energy levels high. Researchers say it may help me live longer too.

What is calorie restriction?

The concept of calorie restriction — often paired with yo-yo dieting — is nothing new, but using calorie restriction to thwart aging and disease is something many people can't wrap their minds around. When I joined the Calorie Restriction Society, a group devoted to the same ideology of limiting calories to extend lifespan, the pieces started coming together.

The CR Society International has a long list of studies that support restricting calories to improve quality and length of life — like the study that found long-term calorie restriction to be effective in reducing risk of atherosclerosis or another study that linked reduced protein intake to anti-cancer and anti-aging intervention, to name a few. There's also a simple Calorie Restriction Guide that explains everything.

More: The pros and cons of calorie counting

Bring up calorie restriction among friends and you'll get some weird looks. You'll also probably get a few silent judgments that may never be spoken to your face: Does she have an eating disorder? Why is she on such an extreme diet?

Once you dip your toes into the waters of calorie restriction, it's easy to see that it's more than an extreme diet or a new form of disordered eating. True calorie restriction, popularized in books like The Longevity Diet and The CR Way, focuses on both quality and quantity: Limited quantity of very, very high-quality foods.

Eat better, live longer

This phenomenon is touched on in a recent The New York Times article that discusses the fascinating longevity secrets of five communities around the world that "forget to die." Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones Solution, says people living in Ikaria, Greece; Ogliastra region, Sardinia; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica outlive most Americans because of the quality of their diets.

Allison Stowell, registered dietician for Guiding Stars, explains, "The people of Sardinia love food — good food and wine — and they live long. In fact, it is where you will find the greatest number of people living to 100. Their diet is based on whole foods — mostly grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy — that come from their own animals (mostly goats and sheep). They eat meat, but it isn't the center of their diet. They don't avoid carbs, they don't count calories, they simply use the herbs and grains from their land to create wholesome meals and savor their food. They also do a very important thing: move. They are pretty much always walking. It is this activity that may have the greatest influence on them as it allows them to not only benefit from the exercise, but also helps them maintain an ideal body weight (and keep their balance of calories in/out in check)."

Practice calorie restriction while eating these high-quality foods and you've got the calorie restriction diet.

Most calorie restriction groups have specific recommendations as to how much you should reduce your intake — the major calorie restriction and longevity study conducted in 2011 showed a reduction of 10 to 40 percent while eating a nutritious diet. As with any diet, it's important to consult with your doctor before making any drastic cutbacks.

More: 6 Foods to cut from your diet for significantly better health

"Choosing foods that are high in nutritional value is extremely important when choosing a low calorie diet. 100 calories of broccoli has 11 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber, not to mention tons of vitamins and minerals (vitamins A, C and E and minerals iron, calcium and magnesium, etc.). Compare that to 100 calories of steak — 6 grams of protein, 0 grams of fiber and very few vitamins/minerals," says Dr. Michael J. Glickert, director of clinic operations at The Vanguard Clinic. "100 calories of broccoli is about 12 ounces, whereas 100 calories of steak is about one ounce. The broccoli will fill you more and give you more value in terms of usable content compared to steak."

Mind over matter

To reap the potential longevity benefits of the calorie restriction diet, it's as simple as basic math. Plug your daily calories and nutritional stats into a calorie counting app to make sure all your nutritional requirements are met, without eating too much. Jeff Cannon, founder of The Simple Truth Project and creator of the Mindful Diet — which incorporates intermittent calorie restriction to reduce the toxic load on the body — says effective calorie restriction is about more than calories in and calories out.

Cannon explains, "As someone who has undergone nine brain surgeries over the past 22 years to remove more than 20 brain tumors, I came upon the concept of caloric restrictions as a way to help reduce the growth of new tumors. Yes, it helped to bring me down to 15 percent body fat, but it did more. It helped to charge my metabolism, changing the way my body processed the food I ate and the fat it stored."

As the name suggests, the Mindful Diet focuses on a mind-body approach that includes mindful fasting — when calorie restriction and mindfulness meet. "One of the key methods behind the Mindful Diet is adopting a meditative and mindful approach to the food you eat and the choices you make. So much of our lives are lived in auto-response to our body's needs. It is why we end up in the same place so often at mealtime," says Cannon.

Cannon's brand of calorie restriction advocates one day of mindful fasting, where calories are lowered to 600 to 800 calories to reset and detox the body. Cannon writes in his diet guide, "When you cut back on your caloric intake, you will start to realize how little you actually need. You will also become more aware of your cravings and of how you have been satisfying them. As you become more comfortable with it, your day of fasting will become less about food and more about the feelings of clarity and lightness that you will gain. It's simple and easy and recognized by more and more health professionals as a healthy way to manage your weight and your life."

Far from an extreme diet and gaining a major following, long-term calorie restriction isn't a passing fad. It is a personal decision. After about six months on a nutrient-rich, calorie-restricted diet — bolstered by nutrient supplements — I've noticed a big change in myself. I'm thinner, yes, and I'm also more balanced and energetic. I'm still a mom chasing after two toddlers, but I don't always feel like I need to crawl into a hole and die at the end of the day. If I end up living longer because I'm eating less today, I'd consider that the icing on the (gluten-free) cake.

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