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Calorie restriction for longer life: One man's experience

August 31, 2012|By Rosie Mestel | Los Angeles Times
  • Joe Cordell, shown here in 2006, serves himself dinner. Cordell limits his calories to 30% below normal to reap the benefits of calorie restriction that have been reported in animals.
Joe Cordell, shown here in 2006, serves himself dinner. Cordell limits… (David Kennedy / Los Angeles…)

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.

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