Calorie restriction for longer life: One man’s experience
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 calorie restriction of this type could significantly lengthen a creature’s life span, as well as ward off diseases of old age.
We spoke with Cordell about how he got into calorie restriction, what his daily diet is like -- and what his wife of 21 years and his two teenage daughters feel about it. We asked him what he felt about a new study that didn’t prolong the life of calorie-restricted monkeys -- although it did seem to help ward off cancer.
Here’s what Cordell had to say, edited for length and clarity:
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, and over the next two days as I rode in a car with my parents who were coming to visit in St. Louis, I was immersed in this book. I found it fascinating – my mother probably didn’t find it quite as fascinating; I was telling her things as I was reading. I was amazed then, and am still amazed, that such earth-shattering, revolutionary information about not just longevity but health and longevity could be out there and so few people know about it.
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.
What appeals to you about it?
It wasn’t just the longevity piece, though I know that’s emphasized. Just as radically impressive are the [chronicled] reductions in cancer rates, in heart disease and diabetes. It’s just a truly healthful diet and far beyond what else is out there.
You could make the case that it requires too much. But I think it’s a very difficult case to make that it’s not an intelligent way to live your life.
Was it hard to start off with?
I’m not trying to be dismissive about the challenges [but] it’s like anything: If you’re really excited about something, it’s easier. I can’t say I agonized over restricting my calories that first year. I implemented it slowly, as recommended, over a period of six months or so.
Because it’s become more routine, it’s more difficult in some ways.
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.
The only thing keeping you really honest on the compensation is tracking your calories and your weight.
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.
What about Thanksgiving and Christmas Day?
Not anything I want. I’ll eat more calories, but there are certain things I just categorircally don’t eat. Bread. Sweets. Desserts. Mashed potatoes, not much -- they are calories with very little nutrition.
This is not necessarily CR [calorie restriction] orthodoxy. If you lined up 10 of us doing CR, what we’ll have in common is we’re restricting calories and we’re taking in extra amounts of nutrition -- lots of vegetables, a substantial amount of fruit.
But we would disagree about things such as how much much meat to eat or whether to eat any meat at all.
How do you make sure you’re getting adequate vitamins, minerals and other nutrients?
It takes care of itself. if you focus on a plant diet, you’re good. I eat lots of plants, but good plants: richly colored vegetables, berries. And nuts, which have calories but have oils and other things that are healthful.
Most Americans, even those taking in 4,000 calories a day, get easily less nutrients than I do. I’m not suffering from a deficiency. But I have to be sure to do that in the context of a smaller number of calories.
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 two 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.
What’s a typical meal plan for the day?
My typical menu is kind of boring to some people, not to me.
Breakfast is my biggest meal of the day. I have two cups of strawberries, two cups of blueberries. Sometimes I’ll shake it up and put in bag of raspberries. You’d be surprised by how many berries you can eat -- and you feel very full. I eat mine frozen; that’s a personal taste. It’s cheaper and easier to get year-round and you can buy organic that way too.
Add apple peels, some nuts -- generally walnuts -- and sometimes stevia on it to sweeten it up. And that’s my breakfast. I don’t eat it immediately. I generally make my bowl, take the dog outside, walk her, then sit down and eat it and then it’s perfect. Kind of like ice cream.
Lunch I’ll often skip, actually. But if I don’t, it will be the mega salad. If I don’t have a large salad at lunch, I’ll be sure to have it at dinner.
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 reconcilations. 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 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.
My daughters oscillate between on the one hand being frustrated and finding it annoying because we’re out traveling and I want to go to a restaurant I can eat at, and they’re saying “No no, we want to go to the pizza place.” But they also get delighted by the occasional publicity that seems to roll around CR. They really thought it cool I was on “Oprah” with Dr. Oz.
Do you eat meat?
At present I don’t -- and again, this is not a core tenet of CR, I want to make that clear. But I kind of prefer it. I think a plant-based diet is much healthier.
Do you take vitamins?
Off and on – I’m not a big believer in vitamins. I think it’s much too complicated, that what we need from fruits and vegetables is more like a symphony of nutrients, some of which we’ve identified and many of which we haven’t. I think that explains the ambiguous results they get from science that regularly whipsaw us with reports saying taking vitamins is good or saying not only is it not helpful but also harmful.
What percentage of your calories are you restricting?
I’m doing about 25% or 30%, closer to 30% probably. The way you do it is whenever you start doing CR, first you go through a week or so just monitoring what you eat. You eat what you want, being careful not to deliberately gorge or diet. You track that. And that represents your baseline for determining CR.
That’s your set point: Everyone’s set point is different, as you know. Some have very fast metabolisms and some don’t.
That brings me down to 1,900 calories a day. That’s an average. At times I eat less and at times I eat more.
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 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.
I wouldn’t change the way I’ve lived my life because it’s a challenge, but it’s the type of challenge that makes life fun.
Are you disappointed by the results of the new monkey study?
I’m mildly disappointed, but still excited about CR. I was aware there were ambivalent results from the rhesus monkeys at Universities of Maryland and Wisconsin and NIH.
The study has some substantial flaws, among them the fact that the control group did not eat ad libitum. Even the results are suspiciously inconsistent internally. But either way, as we discussed, I’m not especially invested in the extreme longevity piece of the program.
My brother will have fun with this study.
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