Dr. Valter Longo, author of “The Longevity Diet” is a leading longevity researcher with a message about why eating less has more advantages than you could have imagined. In his book, he consolidates strategies for health and longevity into a sensible guide. His research on fasting is fascinating and encouraging for anyone seeking new strategies to improve health and longevity.
What Dr. Longo has compiled is a longevity formula that includes diets, exercise recommendations, and fasting strategies for a healthy body and mind. Unfortunately, some may dismiss the book as just another fad diet with a clickbait title. What separated this book from fads are Dr. Longo’s decades of research, his commitment to peer review of his data, and a five-pronged methodical approach to assessing the value of data that the recommendations have been drawn from.
When a world-renowned longevity researcher writes a new book, it’s interesting to learn what’s new. The gem this time is research showing that a five day reduced calorie fasting mimicking diet (FMD) can be as effective as water fasting. Given the difficulty most have with water fasting, the effectiveness of the FMD is good news. Dr. Longo also reminds us that, on average, no known method beats a calorie restricted diet for health and longevity. Interestingly, the same effect has been observed in every species it has been tested on (flies, worms, rats, dogs, apes, etc.)
At the center of longevity research is the living cell. A combination of healthy cells create a healthy person that can live longer with a better quality of life. For this reason, finding ways to switch on the body’s ability to promote cellular protection, regeneration, and rejuvenation is at the heart of longevity research. Among the most interesting and repeatable finding are studies about the effects of cell underfeeding and cell overfeeding. This research shows that overfeeding shortens the life of all organisms and food reduction to the minimal nourishment needed extends life and improves health. Experimentally, research also shows that protein and sugar consumed in excess are the foods that have the greatest effect on shortening a cell’s life.
Interestingly, a period of fasting or reduced food intake not only burns excess calories, it also stimulates a condition in which the body begins to feed on itself (autophagy). While this may seem at odds with health there are good things that happen. The body has the ability to identify cells that are the weakest and consume or dispose of them first. That’s a good thing since these are the cells most likely to misbehave and become cancers. What happens next is even better. When fasting stops, the body regenerates new cells that are healthier and better able to promote health. Another advantage of the fasting mimicking diet (FMD) over traditional fasting approaches is that it stimulates the loss of abdominal fat while conserving muscle and bone mass. While there is much to like about the effects of fasting, there are conditions that can make fasting dangerous. If considering a new diet or fasting, let’s discuss it at your next check-up visit.
A new recommendation from Dr. Longo’s research for cancer patients is to incorporate a fast with traditional treatments for cancer. Dr. Longo’s research shows that fasting can often improve the effectiveness of traditional cancer therapies. Unfortunately, in cases where the body is frail, fasting would be contraindicated. In either case, a talk with the oncologist is in order before trying this strategy.
Having been raised near one of the Blue Zones (Molochio, Italy), Dr. Longo provides his direct knowledge of centurions and their lifestyle. From this experience, he reminds us that most centurions in a region fit into a lifestyle pattern that’s common to the group. Curiously, a very few manage to maintain long healthy lives despite the worst lifestyles imaginable. For example, one of the longest living people smoked until the last few years of life. The message is a reminder that in all populations there will be a few outliers that will have exceptional characteristics. From this background, Dr. Longo offers a set of recommendations that include the following guidelines:
- Eat a mostly vegan diet with a little fish once in a while and avoid fish high in heavy metals.
- Consume low but sufficient protein
- Minimize bad fats and sugars, and maximize good fats and complex carbohydrates.
- Eat the foods your ancestors ate if they lived long lives and were healthy.
- Restrict your feeding window to 12 hours or less each day.
- Eat two meals a day plus a snack unless you have weight loss issues.
- Use the fasting mimicking diet periodically for 5-7 days.
- Exercise at least 150 minutes a week.
The goal is to create a lifestyle that encourages the body to rebuild cells. The advantage being that rebuilding can shift the end of the body’s youthful state from the 50s on out to the 80s or 90’s. While fasting may seem a tough recommendation to follow, the FMD as a calorie reduction strategy makes fasting far easier.
Perhaps a diet change like the Longevity Diet is at odds with what you believe would bring you happiness. Because of peculiarities in human nature that would not be an unusual response. Many assume that their food habits are what make them happy. As with many assumptions, this is an illusion. What makes us happier is the vitality that good health gives us. Our human inclination to pursue false beliefs is demonstrated by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert in his Ted Talk “The Surprising Science of Happiness.” The reality is that in contrast with common beliefs about eliminating foods high in saturated fats, red meat, fried foods, cheese, refined foods, and soft drinks the options for healthy foods are incredibly varied, tasty and nutritious. Should you find Dr. Daniel Gilbert’s explanations compelling you may also enjoy more from this happiness expert.
As for Dr. Longo’s book, “The Longevity Diet,” there are more gems to be enjoyed from a leisurely read. If interested, pick up a copy from the public library. If not ready to take on a 300-page book, consider watching Dr. Longo’s 20-minute video, “Fasting: Awakening the Rejuvenation from Within.”
There is much more to learn from the Longevity Diet. An appendix to the book provides a two-week meal plan. A separate appendix to the book contains a reference for food sources of vitamins and minerals. In general, the diet recommendations for the Longevity Diet would probably be met with almost any of the current whole food plant-based diets from authors like Dr. Neal Barnard, Dr. Joel Furhman, or Dr. Caldwell Esselton.
If you are the type that prefers to read a personal story, you may find Jenni Russell’s experience, “Fasting transformed me after medicine failed,” helpful. While her experience is anecdotal, she may have it right. Perhaps fasting is the panacea that western medicine forgot.
While diet is a significant factor in how gracefully we age, the importance of physical activity is not far behind. As that thought lingers in your mind, recall the 100 benefits of walking. At least a dozen of the benefits could apply to everyone I’ve ever met. Find your dozen benefits, set the alarm clock as a reminder, and join me for a life boosting walk around the lakes.
Factors Within Your Control
Among the longevity factors within your control, the food you eat has the greatest effect. The dilemma is which foods to choose from with so many conflicting claims. Fortunately, there is a methodology for identifying the recommendations for longevity. This methodology is based on testing each food recommendation against the five premises described below.
- What has been learned from experiments with other life forms? Even simple life forms often have 50% of human DNA. This research provides insights that help explain why interventions work and in the absence of better research is sometimes all that’s available.
- Epidemiology is the study of diseases in populations. By studying the effects of foods, toxins, lifestyle, etc. on large populations it’s possible to test a hypothesis with varying degrees of statistical confidence. Often these studies involve thousands or even millions of subjects.
- Clinical studies based on randomized trials are the gold standard for lifestyle and longevity research. Unfortunately, this is also the most expensive and time-consuming type of research. When humans are the subjects, obtaining meaningful longevity research is a problem unless you don’t mind waiting a lifetime for the results.
- Studying the lifestyle of centenarians is another approach. It’s hard to argue with success.
- Analysis based on simulation of our body’s processes can complement the previous approaches. In essence, this approach views the body as a set of interconnected processes. Unfortunately, understanding the complexity of these processes is a work in progress that limits the use of this approach.
Each of these approaches has value but also has limitations. The true value is when all approaches point to the same conclusion. This is where recommendations in popular diet books and magazine articles often fall short. Most fad diets rarely measure up to even one criterion. A case in point is the Atkins diet which fails all five test.
More Thoughts about Longevity
Dr. Longo’s book contains many more insights than space in a short post allows. At the risk of over-saturating you with information, below are a few more gems.
- All living creatures appear to be programmed to die except for the rare situation where certain genetic errors occur. One group in Ecuador (Laron group) has a genetic defect that diminishes their production of growth hormones which stunts their growth. Interestingly it also leaves them largely free of cancer, diabetes and many other diseases despite eating a very poor diet. In essence, their genetic defect allows them to live their lives in younger bodies.
- Our biological age is the greatest risk factor for cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and many other diseases. Once diagnosed, most treatments for cancer and cardiovascular disease only extend life a little over three years on average. If all major diseases were cured tomorrow, it would only increase life expectancy by about 12 years. By comparison, delaying aging with lifestyle interventions can potentially add several decades.
- In the United States, the population that lives the longest is the Seven Day Adventist community living in Loma Linda, California. Their common characteristics include a vegetarian diet, 12 hour time-restricted eating, light dinners, exercising often, and maintaining a healthy weight. In this population, the vegans (eating no meat) have health outcomes that are even better than the vegetarians.
- The fact that exercise is good for us is hardly news. Not so well understood is what kind of exercise is best and how much is needed for health and longevity? The short answer is that the best exercise for longevity is the exercise you enjoy doing and will keep doing as the years go by. While any exercise is better than none, the best combinations of exercises are those that use every muscle in the body. So, how good is exercise for us? In several large studies, 150 minutes of exercise per week reduces mortality over eight years by about 47%. Increasing exercise time to 300 minutes per week reduced mortality by 54%. Decreasing time to 75 minutes per week decreased mortality by only 20%. Exercising more than 300 minutes per week provided no additional reduction in mortality and in some studies reduced the health value of exercise. For most, the best return on effort is a goal of 150 minutes per week. Exercising more can increase the benefit but at a diminishing rate of return for the time and effort expended.
- Patients that used the FMD for five days a month over a period of three months had remarkably positive outcomes that included.
- Eight pounds of weight loss (mostly abdominal fat)
- Reduction in fasting glucose
- Reduction in blood pressure
- Reduction in triglycerides and cholesterol (total and LDL)
- Reduction in IGF-1 which is associated with risk for cancer
- Reduction in C-reactive protein, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease
- Not everyone should fast. In general, fasting is not recommended if pregnant, underweight, over 70 (unless in excellent health), fragile, affected by pathologies, diabetic, hypertensive, etc. Unless very healthy, the first step in preparation for a fast should be a talk with a doctor about your fitness for an extended fast.
- The Fasting Mimicking Diet typically last for 5 days followed by a nutrition recovery day. In general, it’s a calorie reduction diet that provides about 1,100 calories on the first day. On days 2-5 the diet provides about 800 calories per day. Side effects vary. Some feel weaker during parts of the diet, others feel they have more energy. Most feel hungry on days 1-3, with hunger urges decreasing on days 4-5. For best result from fasting, fasting should be preceded by a period of healthy foods.
- Benefits of the FMD typically include younger looking skin, better overall health, stronger mental focus, and an ability to better resist binge eating.
- Reducing food intake to 12 hours a day is often observed in long-lived populations. Further restricting the hours that food is consumed can be advantageous for weight loss purposes. However, restricting the hours food is eaten to less than 12 hours per day can have adverse side effects including gallstones.
- The FMD has been demonstrated to improve mental function in animal studies involving normal mice and mice with Alzheimer’s. Given that fasting after the age of 70 is only for those in peak health, the frail would usually be inappropriate candidates for the treatment. The greatest proven merit for the FMD remains as a preventative measure.
- The FMD has been shown to reduce the effects of twenty-nine diseases including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, polymyalgia, psoriasis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. Following a diet based of foods eaten by your ancestors prior to the advent of the globalized food delivery system is another approach to discovering which foods are least likely to induce autoimmune reactions.
- Small animal studies often provides insights into what may be expected in humans. As an example, in mouse studies, a low protein/high carbohydrate diet improved adiposity (weight loss), improved metabolic health, and improved longevity. In contrast, a high protein/low carbohydrate diet decreased adiposity (weight loss) at the risk of greater metabolic health issues and shorter length of life. Just as in mice, many diets produce weight loss. Only the best diets produce weight loss along with health gains.