WSJ Reports Low Cal Diets Make Monkeys Live Longer. No Comment From Monkeys

Yep. This was kind of expected. I wrote previously on calorie restriction having a beneficial effect on health and longevity. Unlike a lot of research that asks complicated questions that are hard to answer (does dietary cholesterol cause high cholesterol levels in blood, for example), this question is pretty simple: if I take an animal and give it less food, does it live longer?

If you’ve got the time to wait until your test animals start dying of age-related diseases, it’s pretty cut and dry.

The answer, up until now, has been yes for shorter-lived critters like mice. Now some researchers with a lot of time on their hands say it’s the same for monkeys.

In 1989, the researchers started this experiment with 30 unfortunate rhesus monkeys, and added 46 more unlucky animals to the mix in 1994. Twenty years later, the research is showing that the calorie-restricted monkeys don’t get heart disease or cancer as often, and their brains show less sign of age.

The part that gets lost in this is what the monkeys think of all this. If they could express themselves, they would probably say: ‘Screw longevity – I’m tired of being hungry all the time!’

The lead researcher said about as much:

“I found it difficult to adhere to such a diet, despite studying it for so many years,” he said, adding he had been able to cut his calories by about 20% for only a few months. “I’m not the poster child for human application,” he said.

I’m sure if we locked this fellow in a cage for 20 years and fed him 30% less than he was accustomed to, he would have been able to sustain the calorie reduction, though he might not have been particularly happy about it – and might not have been cheered up with the fact that he’ll live longer.

It’s the problem I keep having with the folks at Now, pretty much everybody would like to live a long and healthy life – but at the expense of being hungry all the time?

There are other costs to this as well – outlined on the Calorie Restriction website. Here’s a slightly redacted version:

  • “negative” appearance changes — CR-induced weight loss can affect the appearance ofthose who pursue it. In the overweight, these changes may be perceived positively — but in others, negative perceptions may arise.
  • bone health — while evidence suggests that CR may support long-term skeletal health, weight loss is often accompanied by reduced bone mass, which may place you at risk of fracture. Work with your physician to monitor your bone mass and markers of resorption.
  • cold sensitivity — reduced body fat and decreased body temperature can make practitioners more sensitive to cold temperatures, while perhaps decreasing their sensitivity to extreme heat. Reduced fat can also make one’s skin more sensitive to very warm or hot surfaces or liquids, such as hot tap water. This may put you at greater risk in case of unexpected, prolonged cold exposure — such as after a car failure on the highway in winter.
  • loss of “cushioning” — discomfort sitting on hard surfaces, etc., due to reduced body fat. Similarly, body tissues will be less protected from impact, leading to greater risk of damage to underlying tissues – such as bone or soft tissues.
  • reduced energy reserves (due to less body fat) — being unexpectedly stuck on a boat, locked in a room or lost in a wilderness are all scenarios where energy reserves may be important.
  • hunger (both psychological and physical effects), cravings, or food obsession — thoughts about food sometimes increase while practicing CR. For some, this may interfere with other aspects of their life.
  • menstrual irregularity — dramatic weight loss can sometimes interfere with reproductive function in women. Women planning to get pregnant soon, should not begin CR until after having (and weaning) their baby.
  • pregnancy — low BMI is widely regarded as a risk factor in pregnancy. It can result in ovulatory dysfunction and thus infertility. Underweight mothers have higher levels of preterm delivery – and more low birth-weight infants. Women planning to get pregnant soon, should not begin CR until after having (and weaning) their baby.
  • loss of strength and/or stamina — the weight loss on CR almost invariably includes some loss of muscle mass. This could be an issue in an emergency situation such as preventing a heavy object falling on you. This may also reduce performance in certain athletic activities.
  • decreased testosterone
  • slower wound healing — potential hazard in car accidents, violent attacks, surgeries, etc.

Does this sound like a recipe for happiness?

It reminds me of an old joke I’ve posted before – here it is:

Patient: Doctor – how do I live to be 100?
Doctor: Give up smoking, chasing women, drinking, and rich foods.
Patient: Will I live to be 100 if I do that?
Doctor: No, but it will feel like it.

You might be saying at this point (like I am): Great! Miserable, chronically-hungry monkeys live longer. What am I supposed to DO with this fact?

There is something.

Here’s a quote from Brian Delaney, president of the Calorie Restriction Society. In the WSJ article it is mentioned that the Calorie Restriction society claims 3000 members.


With billions upon billions of people online, having every possible interest imaginable (and unimaginable), this club can only scrounge up 3000 members.

And it’s not like they just formed last week: It was started in 1994, and had an email list as far back as 1995.

So in 15 years, the best they could do is find 3000 members.

The reason is simple: BEING HUNGRY SUCKS! Those monkeys would tell you that if they could talk.

But, as I said, there is something here, something worthwhile for all of us not willing to endure a life of misery and hunger. Here it is:

“Any degree of restriction beyond what you’re currently eating will confer health benefits and will slow the aging process”

OK – something maybe we can grab onto. If you are reading this, you want to lose some weight – or you have and you work daily to keep it off. If you do some aspect of low carb, you might be able to eat more than your low cal diet buddies, but there still needs to be some restriction of calories at the end of the day for weight loss.

The trick is hunger. Those of us who do low carb know that a low carb diet can reduce hunger. It’s a start. There are scads of other reasons why we eat as well – I just read a fascinating book: Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink that discusses these other reasons. I won’t even try to summarize the book here – check out the review on Amazon I linked to above if you’re interested.

My opinion on the standard tricks for hunger control is: they suck. Drinking water? Doesn’t work for me. I just get bloated and hungry. Eating lots of low cal veggies – volumetrics? No dice – same thing.

I think there are better, and more subtle means to reduce hunger – check out the Mindless Eating book for research in this area – and at present, I’m trying to figure out what these are.

Reducing hunger means caloric restriction, which then means weight loss, better health and longevity – and not being miserable the entire time.

3 thoughts on “WSJ Reports Low Cal Diets Make Monkeys Live Longer. No Comment From Monkeys

  1. The big unanswered question for me is what the heck was the content of the ‘restricted’ diet? they publish the fat and protein content, but not the relative carbs between the ‘control’ monkeys and the calorie restricted. I’ll bet that you could get the exact same results by altering just the carbs (if my suspicion is correct) and leave the calories to take care of themselves. Eventually someone will dig up the exact makeup of the diets and comment on this issue.


    “The long-awaited research on the effects of calorie restriction on aging in rhesus monkeys from the University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin National Primate Research Center have just been released. It found no statistically significant difference in the number of deaths among the monkeys who’ve been eating a calorie-restrictive diet for more than 20 years compared to the monkeys who’ve been allowed to eat ad lib all day as much as 20% over their normal calories.”

    1. Damn! that was a good article! Thanks, Tracy.

      My fave quote is this:

      Nourishment is one of life’s greatest pleasures, as well as one of its most basic necessities. Advising people to live their lives obsessed with counting calories and restrained eating, where the pleasures of eating are replaced by punitive dietary regimens and chronic hunger, and where avoiding death becomes the main preoccupation of living, takes on more of a religious ideology, than sound science.

      Here’s my thinking on this at present. There’s *something* to proper caloric intake – and maybe slightly less than proper – that has beneficial properties, if done here or there. Our evolution didn’t not count on regular eating – 3 squares a day. It was no doubt, a rather haphazard affair, and certainly unbalanced.

      Perhaps this comes down to us in rituals of fasting, or of proscribed foods. Maybe mixing it up and eating in a constantly varying haphazard method is somehow better for our health.

      I think chronically starving yourself is an awful way to go through life. But might there be some benefit to the occasional fast? This happens naturally in small children. A 3-year-old going through a ‘picky-eater’ phase might seem to subsist on air alone, freaking out the parents – but this phenomena has been observed for ages.

      As always, I don’t have any answers here – just a lot of questions – and the question I’m interested in is: might there be some benefit to erratic eating?

      Thanks for posting,


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