For 10 years, Joe Cordell has been living a life diametrically opposed to that of most Americans: Instead of eating too much, he’s deliberately been eating too little.
The 54-year-old St. Louis lawyer was inspired by the science that suggests that serious calorie restriction (CR) could significantly lengthen a creature’s life span, as well as ward off diseases of old age. We spoke with Cordell about his diet of about 1,900 calories a day. He says he felt “mildly disappointed” but not dissuaded by a recent study that showed calorie restriction didn’t prolong the life of monkeys -- although it did seem to help ward off cancer.
How did you get into calorie restriction?
I had previously been interested in health and fitness and had a pretty traditional approach. Then I was visiting my parents in Florida and was in a bookstore when I came across a book called “The 120 Year Diet” by [pioneering calorie restriction scientist] Roy Walford.
I read the blurb on the back and saw the guy’s credentials, that he was on faculty at UCLA. Then he started quoting these animal studies in which animals had lived beyond the maximum life span of their species and it wasn’t a controversial thing, it was a well-settled fact. I saw enough to intrigue me. I bought the book.
I was converted. Not only that, I was an evangelical convert. I naively thought others would be as excited to hear the information as I was -- I probably was a bit of an annoying dinner guest over the next few years. But I’ll tell you, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve converted in 10 years.
How do you watch your weight?
My weight has stayed the same for 10 years at 129-130 pounds. When I get out of bed I go straight to the scales. It’s very important to me that I do not vary.
The diet doesn’t require a machine-like consistency in number calories taken in every day, happily -- animal studies show that what really counts is the average. So if I have a holiday coming up or big family event with lots of gourmet food there, if I want to splurge, that’s OK -- but you have to compensate.
At times, my weight will go up to 131 pounds. And on New Year’s Day I often will weigh 132 pounds, because New Year’s Eve is a day I allow myself to eat whatever I want.
You learn to like salads without lots of dressing. There are other things you can use, like balsamic vinegar. Mustard is delicious in a salad; most people think mustard only goes on lettuce in a hamburger. I use a rich variety of vegetables, just a really, really varied salad. You can eat a tremendous amount of food, as you can see from pictures and whatnot that are out there of me. I walk away from lunch much fuller than anybody else at a table. They’ve eaten much less food and I’ve eaten 2 pounds of salad and taken in maybe 400 calories and feel completely satisfied.
If I ate what they ate for lunch, I would be hungry.
Peels -- that’s another tip. With an apple, you can decide to cut off a little thicker peel and get a bit of the taste of apple. Eating predominantly the peel eradicates 80% of the calories. You have a ton of fiber in peel plus you get rid of all the sugar and it tastes wonderful, and it’s just a load of phytochemicals, plant chemicals.
How does your family feel about your diet?
My wife loves to cook. It’s an irony that my wife’s favorite hobby is to make food and mine is to not eat it. We have come up with reconciliations. In recent times, I’ve reduced or eliminated what I eat at lunch. It allows me to be more productive during the day, and then in the evening I’ll have some of my budget left.
But I would be less than completely frank if I didn’t say it can be frustrating to her. For everyone who does CR, it’s always a little inconvenient to the chef in the family and others who are eating with them.
What do you hope to get out of this?
First and foremost, I would like to live to the outer limits of what human beings normally live. [But] I would be delighted to take 90 to 95 years without cancer, without heart disease, without diabetes or other chronic illnesses. To me, that would have warranted this.
My brother and I are about the same age, 14 months apart. He’s about an inch shorter than I am [Joe is 5 feet, 9 inches] and weighs 120 pounds more than I do. His approach to life in many ways is the opposite of mine: He enjoys eating what he wants when he wants it. He’ll often joke with me around the Thanksgiving table that wouldn’t it be funny if he lives longer than I do. All this suffering would be for nothing. He gets a kick out of that.
But people do lots of things that are strenuous but very enjoyable: They climb mountains and run marathons. And I can tell you without batting an eye that my life has been richer, fuller, more enjoyable with calorie restriction than it would have been without it even if I were run over by a truck today.