I am not exactly health-obsessed. Although I've been married for six months, I still order pizza twice a week, and the drive-through guys at In-N-Out Burger know me by my first name. My job as a magazine writer with never-ending deadlines leaves little time for the gym, beyond the odd free-weight routine and maybe 20 minutes on the treadmill. Even so, I was OK with my 5'7" 162-pound frame, and so was my wife. My only real worry, health-wise, was holding on to my teeth.
But recently I found myself obsessing over every calorie, every carb. At the suggestion of Men's Fitness, I went on a diet that cut my calorie intake from around 2,700 to a meager 1,200 a day. For two weeks, I ate nothing but cabbage soup, steamed greens, and jicama. In other words, I deprived myself--extremely. Why would anyone do this? Because it just might help you live forever.
The Calorie Restriction Diet, as it's called, is rooted in a 70-year-old Cornell University study, in which rats were fed at least two-thirds less than they normally would be and rived some 30% longer and appeared younger than their well-fed counterparts. Whether this translates into a longer life in humans remains a subject of debate, though an unusually high number of people in places where low-calorie living is the norm--Okinawa, Japan, for example--live past the century mark. More recent studies have argues that by eating the minimum number of calories to keep the body functioning, the metabolism rate is severely slowed, and with it the rate of cellular and genetic disrepair. In addition to helping you live longer, the theory goes, a low-calorie life could improve everything from eyesight to memory, while lessening the chances of cancer, diabetes, and heart failure. Not even the mega-popular Atkins Diet promises that.
But calorie restriction is meant for the zealous, not the masses. The 1,200 or so members of the Calorie Restriction Society (calorierestriction.org) take the benefits of CR as a kind of gospel. "Your life is just better on this diet," said Warren Taylor, a 58-year-old Californian, when I first asked him to guide me through a CR diet. "You have a much greater feeling of peace, self-confidence, and control. You're not nervous, you don't fidget, and you don't wory." A former powerlifter and long-distance runner, Taylor gave them up four years ago when he joined the group, since the calorie restriction life doesn't include much exercise. Even sex is an iffy proposition. For anyone doing CR, the diet slows your metabolism to a crawl, and it has roughly the same effect on your libido as a Kirstie Alley film festival.
While I wondered how my 33-year-old body could survive on CR, Taylor delivered one of the pep talks that I would come to crave and loathe during the next two weeks: "Sure your energy level will be lower than what you're used to. But when you realize all the benefits, you'll be hooked."
DAY 1 Taylor faxes me what he calls a CR free-choice diet, meaning I could eat anything I wanted from the list as long as I stayed within the calorie limit. I decide to consume all the nutrients I can muster based on his plan--collard greens, spinach, Belgian endive--to make up for the lack of beer, sausage, and everything else I enjoy. I am to avoid starchy vegetables like corn and squash and skip fruits altogether, save berries, where the sugar content is balanced by a bounty of dietary fiber. I go through two bags of bitter-tasting dandelion and turnip greens before noon. A few hours later, I graduate to Brussels sprouts--more peppery and flavorful than I remember. Dinner is frozen okra, which tastes less like snot when you dust it with curry powder. I go to bed hungry but not Survivor-level hungry. This is going to be easy.
DAY 2 I wake up at 6 a.m. with such hunger pangs, I'm convinced I'm giving birth. So as the sun rises, I begin to make the soup that is to sustain me for the next two weeks. Although my version of the recipe for "CR 3 Day Soup" is pretty austere--three 32-ounce cartons of organic chicken broth (60 calories total), equal parts water, and a pound each of cabbage, carrots, and onions--it does include the only meat I will have in the next 13 days, which today is a little less than a pound of chopped lean turkey breast. I eat soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That night, I worry that this may be the last chance to make love to my wife for the next 12 days, so I insist we give it a go. Afterward, I find myself craving roast beef.
DAY 3 One of the drawbacks of my job is a regular 6 a.m. deadline, which typically means I'm writing until about 5:57. With nothing but soup and collard greens to go on, I find my typing speed is cut nearly in half. The real problem is revealed when I read over my story the next day about a Hollywood event: ME: So what are you wearing tonight? STARLET: A vintage hunger from the house of Hunger. And I thought this diet was supposed to make me think more clearly.
DAY 4 The dull ache that began in my stomach has moved into the back of my head. My computer bag feels twice as heavy as it once did, and every time a co-worker asks how I am, I want to slap him.
DAY 5 By coincidence, I'm attempting my CR diet while my wife is in the early stages of the Atkins Diet. Her breakfast: poached eggs and bacon. Mine: celery dipped in Smart Beat nonfat mayo. Her snack: cookies and cream Atkins bars and salami. Mine: carrot sticks and jicama, a Mexican root vegetable that tastes something like watermelon rind crossed with cucumber. The capper comes at dinner. "Can you make that filet mignon the way I like?" she asks. "And put some blue cheese on it." While she smiles through her dinner, I try to think about all those extra years I'm adding to my life.
DAY 6 In an effort to take my mind off my stomach, I head to the gym. But my usual routine--30 or so curls with two 20-pound dumbbells, a quick jog on the treadmill, followed by a brisk dog walk--leaves me sucking wind, and my arms and legs feel like kindling. Taylor says the problem is the fitness ideal we men strive for: "When I was powerful and strong, I could vanquish the world physically. But the value system I had developed--that strength and stamina were the markers of good health--was replaced with a more truthful one that values longevity over muscularity." Fair enough, but this is cold comfort when I can complete only five push-ups, my lowest output since I was 12.
DAY 7 For the first time since I started my diet, I'm not on deadline, so I sleep--a lot. On CR, your metabolism slows down, and you need to slow down with it, which isn't an option at my job. That night I drink some wine, which, low in calories, is allowed in extreme moderation. (Beer, on the other hand, is strictly forbidden.) Since I'm eating so little, two glasses get me pretty loopy. Finally, I have achieved something useful on this diet: I'm a cheap date.
DAY 8 On my way to work, a white van cuts me off and my Tupperware of soup goes flying, hitting the windshield. Now my car and my clothes smell like the swill that I have been eating for the last week. I have no desire to take a nine iron to the guy's skull. Maybe this is working after all.
DAY 9 For the first time, I feel like nay body has moved past the panic mode. I don't pace when I write, something I've always done, and I don't get tired in the afternoon, another affliction that has haunted me as long as I can remember. Even so, I'm still hungry. That night, I stare lustfully at a magazine ad for granola bars until my wife pulls it away from me.
DAY 10 What I've lost in strength I seem to have made up for in focus. At work, my pace is decidedly more deliberate, but I waste less time getting updates of basketball scores. Perhaps soup and kale could one day make Ritalin obsolete?
DAY 11 Another downside of eating soup for all your meals: You pee more often than a pregnant woman. For the first time in my life, I have to find a restroom while driving home. Somehow, I find this much more embarrassing than being able to do only five push-ups.
DAY 12 Considering what CR has done to my workout, I am convinced it will leave me worthless in bed. Fortunately, that night things function properly, though it takes me longer to get in the mood. I don't even get that tired: In sex, unlike push-ups, you can have someone else do most of the work.
DAY 13 The tranquility of a few days ago has left me, replaced by a sharp headache. In my clouded state, I substitute my normal cabbage and broth with purple cabbage and bouillon. Somehow, the combination renders my soup--"precious" as I have come to call it--totally unpalatable. That night I go through two containers of jicama and two bunches of beet greens. I go to bed feeling weak and pitiful.
DAY 14 I'm pretty sure that if I tried to have sex today I would snap in half, so I don't put myself through the humiliation. Instead, I boost my spirits by hitting the scale: Amazingly, I'm down to 151, a loss of 11 pounds. This small triumph does not make up for the fact that I have been cripplingly hungry for two days. My wife and I spend the evening debating whether I can quit the diet at midnight. Begrudgingly, I go the distance, ending it at 9 a.m. with a goat cheese omelet that I can't even finish.
After two weeks of having near pornographic images of roast beef sandwiches in my head, I suddenly want nothing to do with food. Apparently, this is not uncommon among people who have tried CR. A recent British study revealed that men who drastically reduced their caloric intake for a short period managed to keep the weight off afterward with more regularity than those who followed moderate diets. Feeling stuffed isn't a sensation that I particularly miss.
Nearly a month later, I considered a return to CR. Then I realized I would face at least one all-nighter the following week, and doing that on no food was too brutal to contemplate. There's a reason why CR appeals mainly to people older than 50: Not only is it a hands-on way to confront the fear of death, it's also only practical if the most exhausting thing you do all day is play canasta.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Weider Publications
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