Once in a while my family and I watch the Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss show on TV. Without fail the person being coached is in the extreme category- they likely will never feature a person needing to just lose 20 lbs, by the nature of the show itself! When people are extremely obese, the threat of their weight to their health is much greater than the average individual. They almost always state that they want to be around for their kids or loved ones, because if they don’t do something about it, they’ll likely die young of obesity caused illness or disease.
But for the average individual watching or just going about their life, the extra pounds they carry are not likely a matter of life and death. Very few people diet down fifteen pounds to live longer- they do it to look better in a bathing suit, or to be able to run that 5K a few minutes faster than before.
A lot of talk and research is going into the field of life extension- that is, figuring out what we can do, eat, or take in order to live more than the average 70-80 years that seems ordained for us for many generations. What a concept it would be to have another 40 years to live on this earth- imagine all the other things you’d be able to do if you lived to be 115 on average… wait, what?!
The truth is that if we just learn to extend lifespans, we will likely just postpone our death, not really enhance our life. We’d extend our years of being elderly and alive, and not our youth. In fact, we may make things far worse. Why is that? Because as we grow into old age, we find we can do less and less in life. Whether we want to or not, the modern world dictates that most people over 75 (and perhaps even 70) should not be working. Those over 75 are often either physically or mentally unable, or their education is so outdated that they are technically obsolete in today’s high-tech world. So by adding another 40 years, we’ll just extend those enjoyable retirement years and spend time seeing the world, right? Not so fast- we are already struggling with the load of supporting medicare and social security already, imagine if people were living 3x longer in their retirement?! We’d surely be crushed by the weight of that.
No, instead of extending our lifespan, the focus needs to be on our healthspan. That is, make the years that we do live more enjoyable by improving our ability to learn, work, play, and just live a healthy, vibrant life.
So why this post? Recently a new study was published that conflicted with earlier studies regarding life extension in rats and primates. From the 1930s it was believed that a reduced calorie diet led to an extension of the lifespan of the subjects. This is because those very experimenst- reducing the calories in rats and primates resulted in adding 20-60% more average lifespan to the subjects! Recently, researchers were trying to confirm this with a long term study and the results contradicted that of the earlier studies- the calorie restricted monkeys didn’t live longer than the regularly fed monkeys.
But what they didn’t account for was the actual diet used. In the prior studies, the subjects were fed a diet of refined foods, consisting of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and 30% of it coming from table sugar. Of course, the ones fed more of that died earlier- they were eating garbage! And in fact, so is most of the world today…
The new researchers fed the monkeys whole grains, with only a 4% sugar content overall. And the control and underfed groups both lived on average longer than the previous studies had with either group, tested high for cardiovascular health, and had less instances of cancer and diabetes, even in their old age.
So the point of all this- we don’t eat healthy to live longer, we eat healthy to live better. Adding life to our years and not adding years to our life. As a nice side effect, both the control (normal calorie intake) group and the reduced calorie group that ate whole grain, natural foods lived longer on average than either group in the prior studies. So a longer life is indeed possible, not based on quantity of food like we thought, but based on the quality of food!