Eating less food (within limits) is perhaps the most well-researched strategy for living a longer and healthier life.
Why? Excess food intake puts undue stress on all the organs associated with digestion—not least the liver— which is responsible for a myriad of functions in the body.
The concept that we might be eating too much is not new. Back in 1935, the first paper on calorie restriction was published, which suggested that lifespans would be extended and diseases could be avoided by restricting calories without hunger or starvation. (1)
How do we implement the benefits of this research in a culture of endless choices in the supermarket aisle and packed-to-overflowing fridges?
Simultaneously, how do we heed this recommendation responsibly, with awareness of the reality of eating disorders, malnutrition, and low-calorie diets from decades past that have put folks in the danger zone instead of supporting health?
And, of course, how do we know how much to limit our food intake, and how do we do so in a way that feels natural and comfortable?
Join me this week as I discuss the research and strategies of this seemingly simple yet potentially controversial health recommendation, and feel out the fine line between a health-supportive, low-calorie diet and one that can put us at risk.
Here Is The Problem!
We have spent the last 200,000 years trying to get enough food so as not to starve. Since most of those years were in Europe during the Ice Age, we also spent much of those years trying to store fat for both insulation and reserve fuel. Well, after a couple of hundred thousand years of trial and error, we finally succeeded on all counts. We have figured out how to get enough food, store enough fat and stay warm in the winter.
The irony is that, to a certain degree, we are genetically wired to not just survive but to actually thrive in times of food scarcity. When food and sugar levels are low, the cells live longer and the mitochondria of the cells make more energy in the form of ATP. (2, 3)
Of course, this dynamic happens within limits—after a certain point, malnutrition and starvation do set in.
But it seems there is a sweet spot for optimizing nutrition without putting strain on the organs and actually robbing the body of energy. Based on this evolutionary standpoint we simply do not have the genetics to live long and healthily with an excess of food.
But there are ways to do this without pain. We can restrict calories without malnutrition or hunger—I’ll talk you through this approach in just a little bit. But before we get there, let’s review some of the most recent research on calorie restriction.
In the most comprehensive study on calorie restriction to date, which spanned 20 years, the results were nothing short of amazing. The study divided Rhesus monkeys up into two groups. One group ate naturally without restraint and the other group ate a diet that was 30 percent lower in calories then the unrestricted group.
After 20 years, 30 percent of the unrestricted diet group had died and only 13 percent of the calorie-restricted group had died from age-related illness.
This translates into an almost three-fold reduction risk in age-related diseases.
The monkeys that were calorie restricted had half the incidence of heart disease as the controls. Not one monkey in the calorie restricted group got diabetes, while 40 percent of the monkeys that ate as much as they wanted became diabetic or pre-diabetic.
Americans typically consume 100 percent more calories than they need. So if we just reduced our calorie intake by 30 percent of the 200 percent of our caloric needs that we ingest daily, we would still be eating 40 percent more calories than we need.
This is not as difficult as it sounds—bear with me for a little while longer and I promise we’ll get to the “how to!”
Some Human Stats
In one study where a group of humans only reduced their calorie intake by 20 percent for 2-6 years, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and weight were all significantly improved. (5)
Looking at all the research, it is hard to find any other intervention that has such compelling benefits on health and longevity than eating just 20-30 percent less food.
Eating Less: Simple Strategies
Okay, now that we know why we would benefit from eating less, the question is, how?
When we compare ancient humans to modern humans, ancient humans ate about 35 percent of their diet as carbs and we eat around 45 percent. Not a huge difference, but they got only 2 percent of those carbs as sugars, while we get 30 percent of our carbs as sugar! (6)
1. Eat More Good Fats
Sugars burn fast and quickly, leaving us wanting more.
There is no way we are going to reduce our calorie intake by 20-30 percent if we are eating a lot of simple carbs or sugar. Ancient humans also ate much more good fats that we do. Fat is actually the body’s genetically preferred source of fuel rather than sugar. One way to help cut back on the calories is to eat more good fats and reduce your intake of sugar and simple carbs (processed breads, chips, crackers, sweets).
One of my favorite ways to do this is to eat 1 teaspoon of very fresh, raw coconut oil with each meal. This will deliver ketones (fat fuel) to the brain in minutes, and allow the brain to quickly get the message that we are full and that no more food is required.
2. Eat More Good Fiber
Increasing fiber in the form of beans and veggies will also help trigger a sense of fullness, so you can leave the table without being hungry and with 20-30 percent fewer calories in your belly.
3. Relax and Dine
It also helps to relax, eat slow and “dine” when you eat your food, rather than shoveling it in while driving, standing or hurrying out the door. The more time it takes to eat your meal and the more relaxed you are, the less food it will require before the “I am full” message gets released into the brain.
4. Drink Water Between Meals
When we are dehydrated, the signals to our brain often get translated as hunger signals, making us think we need a snack rather than reaching for the H2O. Getting plenty of plain, room-temperature water (water is easiest for the body to assimilate when pure and already close to body temperature) also hydrates the bicarbonate layer of the gut wall, sending the signal to the stomach that it is safe to produce ample stomach acid, thereby preparing for optimal digestion. A pre-hydrated bicarbonate layer has also been found to increase thermogenesis, which is linked to natural weight balancing. (7)
5. Move Your Body!
Exercise is key. Ancient humans were very active, walking 10-15 kilometers (approximately 7-10 miles) per day. In the articles on my website, I talk a lot about exercising intelligently, which refers using certain techniques to get the most out of your exercise in a sustainable way.
For example, I am a big fan of nose breathing because it will slow you down.
The slower you go, the more you will be burning fat instead of sugar. In other words, the faster and more intense the exercise, the less fat you burn and the more sugar you burn. Exercising at the pace that you can comfortably maintain nose breathing is a good indicator that your workout is fueled by fat burning.
To get your “fast fix,” I suggest only short bursts of vigorous exercise as I have laid out in my 12-Minute Workout – also known as Chasing the Rabbit!
Make Eating Less a Natural Process
My approach to eating less is not necessarily about measuring out portions or counting calories, though these can be helpful tools to use hand-in-hand with acutely tuning in to your own body and its needs. Once you start paying closer attention, you may realize that leaving the table overly full is the norm for you, and start experimenting with eating lighter.
This is a process. Let it be a natural process that ultimately brings you closer and more in tune with your body, not in the spirit of deprivation, but of optimal self-nurturing and self-care.
Eating Less is Not for Everyone
Not everyone overeats in the first place, so this might be a moment to be really frank with yourself. One of the major reasons we overeat is that we are using food to allay our emotions, rather than treating food purely as sustenance. While I am not saying that food shouldn’t be enjoyed and fully experienced, relying on food for pleasure is dangerous business.
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Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: World Health Organization