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The Big Gift

Posted Dec 16 2009 4:48pm

By Barbara Berkeley

At this time of the year I’m always searching for motivating tips that will help my patients get through the holidays. I often remind people that their new eating habits are a gift they are giving themselves. “If you are going to give yourself that gift,” I say, “then DO it! Don’t pull it back at the last moment just because of the Christmas cookies!”

I think that maintainers understand more about this gift than dieters do. This is because we have to experience a period of prolonged maintenance to “get it”; to feel the true benefits of changed eating. While staying at a lower weight is part of that benefit, it is often a smaller part than we might have expected. The gift we receive is a feeling of being in healthy harmony. This harmony allows us to enjoy powers of energy, a new smoothness of mood, a feeling of strength, and a body that stays well when other bodies fail. Escaping from the daily fear of illness – that’s probably the ultimate maintenance gift.

We know that maintenance makes us feel better. But could the gift be even greater? Could maintenance be helping us to live longer?

Recent research in the field of caloric restriction continues to be intriguing. As most readers know, cutting calories leads to longer life and slower aging in most species. But how does that happen? A study from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, looked at this question and came up with the following answer: “It may not be about counting calories or cutting out specific nutrients, but how a reduction in dietary intake impacts the glucose metabolism, which contributes to oxidative stress.” (Dr. Charles Mobbs, principle investigator).

Oxidative stress is the damage done by substances called “free radicals” which are created as a byproduct of certain body processes. You can think of these free radicals as rogue particles which shoot through cells causing injury. When we take “anti-oxidant” vitamins, we are attempting to sop up these free radicals and thus get rid of them. A better approach would be to generate fewer free radicals (and less damage) in the first place. As it turns out, overeating – the great American pastime – appears to increase free radical damage. Restricting calories means less oxidative stress and healthier cells.

The Mt. Sinai team discovered that caloric restriction increased body levels of a substance called CREB binding protein, or CBP. High levels of CBP were associated with longer and healthier lives in worms and mice. In mammals, Dr. Mobbs believes that an equivalent effect might be seen at about a 30% reduction in calories.

If CBP levels are known to be high in mice who eat less, what would they look like in mice with sugar problems – in other words diabetic mice? Mobbs’ team discovered that CBP was low in these animals, predisposing them to accelerated aging and disease. It seemed that CBP might work by blocking glucose (sugar) processing in the cells. Higher CBP might mean less glucose metabolism and less free radical damage. Most intriguing, Mobbs found that CBP levels were quite fluid and responded to changes in blood sugar within hours of feeding. Calorie restriction elevated CBP for as long as restriction was maintained.

This research is another small piece of evidence that points to the wisdom of primary diet (eating as anciently as possible). It is intriguing on two levels. First is the issue of optimal meal frequency. Paleo diet afficianados have become interested in figuring out how often our ancient ancestors ate. It appears that many tribal peoples ate one large meal per day. This means that we may be optimally adapted to spending longer amounts of time in the non-eating state. The SAD encourages us to eat constantly and in large quantity. If Mobbs’ data translates to humans, overeaters would theoretically have a low level CBP and a higher incidence of aging and disease. Maintainers generally eat many fewer calories per day than their free-eating counterparts.

The second important issue raised by this study is the suggestion that cell aging and glucose metabolism are linked. If aging and age related disease can be lessened by reducing glucose metabolism, does this mean that we can create the same effect by lowering our S Food consumption? As we know, ancient diets were low in starches and sugars (carbohydrates). Our body design seems to reflect this by having difficulty dealing with large amounts of these substances.

Might eating anciently raise CBP levels? We won’t know until studies target humans. For now, most research is geared toward finding drugs that can mimic the effects of caloric restriction. But here’s the problem. Drugs take years to develop and, once developed, have the pesky habit of manifesting unpleasant side effects. If CBP turns out to be a real marker for the pace of aging wouldn’t it be great to have a portable CBP monitor? Perhaps someday, people will carry an “age-meter” instead of a glucometer. If you could painlessly monitor your longevity factor and aim to keep it over a certain level, wouldn’t it be easier to wait another hour for dinner or pass up pasta in favor of salmon and salad? In the meantime, I strongly believe that the gift of longer and healthier life is there for the taking. Keep starches and sugars low, eat with less frequency and in smaller quantities and use your scale as your longevity tester. If you are maintaining weight, chances are you have things in the right balance. Enjoy the holidays with the knowledge that your heart, your eyes, your kidneys, your liver, and your blood vessels – right down to your tiniest capillaries – are sending you grateful messages of thanks.

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