Periodic fasting is gaining traction among the longevity-obsessed, but I’m having trouble seeing how it differs from yo-yo dieting.
Dave Asprey wants to live “beyond 180 years” and says he is “doing every single thing I can to make it happen for myself.” Asprey is CEO of Bulletproof, the company that brought us coffee with butter, so he clearly has something to live for, but he’s only one of a batch of Silicon Valley moguls tossing their millions at treatments designed to delay the inevitable.
As Alexandra Sifferin reports in TIME, Asprey, Oracle cofounder Larry Ellison, PayPal’s Peter Thiel, and other big thinkers are gambling that their investment in “biohacking” — a mix of science and entrepreneurism — will pay off in the long, long term.
The “hacks,” as Sifferin calls them, range from young-blood transfusions and genome sequencing to superpills and brain drugs. They come with high price tags and about the level of scientific skepticism you’d expect. One path to immortality, however, has been gaining more traction than most: Just eat less food.
That’s the idea behind ProLon, a five-day low-cal meal program developed by Valter Longo, PhD, director of the University of Southern California Longevity Institute. The kit, which costs $299 and must be ordered by a doctor, delivers 700 to 1,100 calories a day in the form of soups, energy bars and drinks, teas, and supplements.
If this conjures visions of Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, Longo’s team is quick to point out that the plan “provides the body with the necessary macro and micronutrients while keeping it in a fasting mode and activates stem cell–based regeneration in multiple organs and systems.” Results of a recent three-month clinical trial, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, showed significant reduction in life-shortening indicators such as blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and C-reactive protein among the 100 study participants.
Longo’s not the first scientist to suggest periodic fasting as a way of extending lifespan. Scientists have long theorized that restricting caloric intake can slow the aging process, but it’s never been completely clear why. Last week, however, researchers at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory identified the molecular mechanism at work. Apparently, the body responds to a curb of its calories by synthesizing fewer proteins, which in turn triggers a stress response that helps maintain cell balance and growth.
In a study published in the journal Aging Cell, MDI researchers found that this “quality-control” mechanism ensures that damaged proteins are destroyed while its newly synthesized counterparts are properly shaped. Damaged and misshapen proteins can mess with proper cell function, which can lead to accelerated aging.
“We think therapies to activate these protective pathways could not only prolong lifespan, but also delay the onset of age-related diseases,” lead study author Aric Rogers, PhD, said in a statement. “Most older people suffer from multiple chronic diseases. Anti-aging procedures applied to disease models almost always delay disease onset and improve outcomes, which suggests that disease-suppressing benefits may be accessed to extend healthy human lifespan.”
I lack the credentials to spout any received wisdom about dieting. My one experience a couple of years ago — a poorly enforced 28-day elimination diet — taught me only that optimal cellular function seems to come at the expense of gastrointestinal efficiency. But there is plenty of research suggesting that regularly slashing your caloric intake in an effort to lose weight — yo-yo dieting — is often futile and generally dangerous.
Brown University researchers, for example, recently reported that yo-yo dieters among 158,000 study participants were three and a half times more likely to suffer a fatal heart attack during the 11-year follow-up period than those whose weight remained stable.
Longo and his ProLon colleagues have sold more than 3,600 meal kits, and the company reports a customer satisfaction rate of 86 percent, which seems fairly impressive when you consider these customers are spending at least a nickel for each calorie they’re being allowed to consume. But that’s pretty cheap next to the $8,000 folks are spending for a young-blood transfusion or the $25,000 you’ll need to get your genome sequenced. So I guess I can see some of the appeal.
But I’m with Rozalyn Anderson, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, when it comes to fasting. “I certainly wouldn’t do it,” Anderson told Sifferin when asked whether she’d consider the ProLon approach, “Life is too short, even if calorie restriction extends it.”