Caloric Restriction: Fountain of Youth or Orthorexia?

By Mike Howard

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Want to live to be 120? No problem! Just cut your calories by at least half (maybe 3/4), eliminate wheat, sugar, dairy, meat, and stop cooking at high heat.

Suddenly, I’m okay with checking out at 82.

Devotees of caloric restriction (CR) are banking on their restrictive lifestyle in hopes that father time will cut them the same deal as Dick Clark. Animal research is somewhat promising, but at what point does a few extra years become, well… not worth it?The Daily Mail profiled a couple who are strict adherents of the CR way. Elvira and Claus Bonrich believe they can live longer than anyone in the world by monitoring every single mouthful of food. (Source)

Says Elvira;

We think about every single morsel of food we put in our bodies… We’ve been following the programme for two-and-a-half years…We do not eat wheat, gluten, dairy, sugar, meat or even drink tap water. I take nutrient supplements and I go to the gym at least three times a week and run nearly every day.”

As the theory goes; eating less will bring about metabolic changes that slow aging and improve health.

One of the CR gurus is researcher Roy Walford, who authored the book “Beyond The 120 Year Diet: How To Double Your Vital Years”. Walford is a pathologist at the University of California, who took part in an experiment in 1991 in which eight bioscientists were sealed in an airtight atrium in the Arizona desert for two years. They essentially subsisted on whatever they could grow (they consumed about 1,500 calories/day). When they emerged, tests suggested they were healthier in every organ function than anyone of their biological age.

CR: Is there a Sensible Middle?

There is no doubt that most of us should eat less food – period. The idea of eating less has become sacrilegious in pop diet book culture, Government dietary recommendations and society in general. It is not “pro anorexic” to suggest somebody eat less food, but how far should this pendulum swing?

In my opinion, the Bonrich’s lifestyle is orthorexic. Where the line is drawn on the healthy/orthorexic continuum varies based on the individual, but when you don’t travel or socialize with others for fear of not adhering to your diet (as quoted by the Bonrich’s), I would say this crosses the line of rational dietary practices.

What do you think? Is CR a sensible lifestyle practice, or an unnecessarily extreme measure in hopes of living longer?


  1. M.C.

    LOL. I would like, please, to know the source of your 4000 cal/day consumed by the “average” overweight person statistic.

  2. Alison

    Calorie restriction? Hmmm. I eat around 1500 calories a day and I don’t feel like I’m being restricted. Maybe if I was used to eating 4000 calories a day, like the average overweight person, then went to my 1500 calories a day, then I might feel restricted. It’s all about perception. Also, if I went from my 1500 calories a day to a 500 calorie a day diet, like an anorexic, I would feel restricted. In any case, if you are overweight, you are eating too much. If you are underweight, you are eating too little. If you are perfect, like me, you are eating the correct amount.

  3. Torres

    Roy Walford did die at the age of 79. Some of his colleauges tried to blame it on the bio-sphere experiment he took part in…how does that happen? The study showed how healthy all the particpants were and then they blame his caloric restricted lifestyle failing on his time in the bio-sphere? I think this is just a shot in the dark chance at making oneself feel more secure with their own mortatlity.

    Life has so many variables. We should all try our best to stay ‘healthy’ as one’s definition reads, but this is a bit much. Counting every single morsel of food and monitoring every thing you eat is way too obsessive for my taste(pun intended). 25-50 years from now there will be solid factual studies showing all of our attempts at a ‘healthy’ lifestyle were wrong. You could almost guarantee that. Enjoy your life…if this truely makes you happy, more power to you. If you are doing it because you are insecure about living a life you really want to, in my opinion that is about as unhealthy as a human being can be.

  4. rixfit

    Hmm, quality of life or quantity of life? Many who follow this diet think they can have both, but I’m not so sure. I think you give up quality when you become so obsessed with diet that it limits your ability to enjoy all that life has to offer with your friends and family.
    Personally, I want to live as healthily as I can, but if you can’t enjoy life, that is not healthy. Every year, we learn more about how to be healthy, and I want to take advantage of that knowledge. What I don’t want, is to sacrifice quality of life to take part in a lifetime experiment that turns out to be wrong!

  5. Jim Purdy

    Roy Walford died in 2004.

    He was 79 years old.

  6. Susan

    I think Dan’s thoughts make total sense! A calorie level that would be considered “restrictive” is dependent on many factors, including activity level and the amount of fat a person has. Someone who is heavy has extra energy stored as fat on their body, so they can exercise intensely and simultaneously restrict calorie intake. I know from my own past experience that once I got thin, I couldn’t restrict my calories AND continue exercising intensely – I just got too weak and tired and grumpy. That would be no way to live even for a few weeks, let alone 120 years! For me to maintain a thin and healthy weight AND have enough energy to exercise and feel good, I need to eat about 2,500 calories per day.

  7. Susan

    I think that 1,500 calories per day is much more restrictive for some than for others. I have read that 1,500 calories is about the amount that some “starving” populations in Africa eat daily. I know that for me 1,500 calories feels VERY restrictive!

  8. Ash

    Well, I think all this really depends on what kind of lifestyle you already have. If you’re already very very healthy, monitor your diet etc., this might just be going a bit further and really ensuring that your efforts pay off.

    On the question of “is it worth it”, I don’t think the answer is as evident as we think. I mean, there are loads of people who would never cut down on junk food, salt etc. even though they need to, just because they don’t think “it’s worth it”. Whereas for some people a healthy lifestyle is very “worth it”. Also, who’s to say these people don’t have lots of energy and feel happier because of CR.

    Ultimately I think it really comes down to what the reason for this diet, for you, is.

  9. Anggoro

    The solution is simple. If you want to live longer (naturally, ignoring the the probability of accidents) do it like himalayan people. They can live longer because they eat moderately, they only eat organic foods, and they work out often. Don’t get me wrong, farming and gardening could still be count as an exercise, himalayan people do that till 100 years old

  10. Melanie | Dietriffic

    I don’t have a problem with the calories so much as how they try to restrict certain foods. Personally, I think that’s unnecessarily strict.

  11. Melanie | Dietriffic

    You make some great points, Lana. I think you are correct, study results like these are pretty unrealistic in the “real world.”

  12. Melanie | Dietriffic

    lol, you can’t even offer them a cup of water — total nightmare!

  13. Hannah

    This reminds me of myself. But you can’t live like this without giving up alot of your quality of life. I reckon it’s best to stick to your chosen “restrictions” most of the time, but not all of the time. Isnt it better to live shorter and be happy than longer and miserable?! And i dont believe this lifestyle is orthorexic unless you obsess and think about food and restrictions all the time.

  14. Anna

    I think young girls and women will read this and become anorexic. This will just make our already food conscious and body obsessed society become even more of a problem.

  15. Dan

    There is much scientific evidence from animal studies to back calorie restriction up. What I am unsure of is how someone can engage in regular vigorous activity and be able to restrict their calories so much. I have now lost about 95 pounds, going from 255 to 160. I have kept up the bicycling that enabled me to get down to this level. I, just like the persons doing calorie restriction, pay attention to everything I eat. I count every calorie I eat. I find that I can maintain my weight if I eat between 3000 and 3100 calories a day, that is if I bicycle over a hour everyday. There are studies which indicate that animals live longer if they are lean because of calorie restriction, than if they exercise. On the other hand, there is a recent study which shows that persons doing the most exercise live longer than persons doing only moderate exercise. Only an obese person can simultaneously engage in regular, vigorous activity and be on a calorie restricted diet. Once a person is thin, like myself, I don’t see how they can simultaneously do both. Possibly one way to do this is to restrict one’s calories relative to one’s calorie expenditure. Maybe I could eat only 2800 calories a day. That of course would be very high for other people, but possibly low for persons who are even far more active than I am. Nutrient density is something everyone should strive for, but maybe athletes should not restrict calories as much. Ideas?

  16. Mitch

    I would like to live a long and healthy life but what these people do is too much.

  17. Spectra

    I think it’s probably fairly legitimate that you’d live longer if you restrict your calorie intake that much, but what good is it to live to be 120 if you are miserably sitting there counting out your 46 lima beans and 3.45 ounces of tuna fish for lunch every day? Besides, if I ate this way and lived to be 120, I’d have to get remarried at some point because I’m fairly certain that my husband would not be willing to restrict his calories that much…he’ll probably check out at about 75 or so, 80 if he’s lucky. What fun would it be to be a widow for a good 40 years after that?

  18. bijou

    i believe there’s some scientific merit behind the CR movement. however, i restrict calories not to live longer, but to fully enjoy my time NOW on this earth. besides, as meghan said, 1500 calories/day is not extreme restriction by any means, though i can see how an overfed society would gasp at it.

  19. Ryan

    I’m ok with checking out today. I don’t know why people want to live longer.

    Doesn’t the calorie restriction thing only average about 3 years of extra lifespan? Even if you wanted to live longer, that’s a little too much stress for 3 measly years.

  20. meghan

    I don’t understand how 1500cal/day is “restrictive.” I eat that or less just at maintenance, and much less for weight loss. For a small woman, that is pretty high for daily calories.

  21. SueK24

    I think there is a happy medium when it comes to calorie restriction. I’ve been follow the Zone diet and lifestyle for 15 years and it’s been fantastic for me. The Zone diet is calorie restricted and nutrient sufficient. In other words, you’re feeding you body everything it requires, while still following a calorically restricted eating plan. It’s taught me how to eat to enjoy the best of health, and it’s easy to do anywhere. I even ate my way through Italy in the Zone. It’s easy to do in any type of situation, from vacations, to parties and holiday celebrations. I’ve lost 100 pounds and maintained it for many years now, I have tons of energy and I have excellent labs from my checkups every year. It’s definitely working for me.

  22. Lana

    I think it is an “unnecessarily extreme measure in hopes of living longer”. Ridiculous. There probably were a lot of other factors contributing to why the scientists emerged from the atrium ‘healthier’ than people of the same biological age. I have not read the study, so I can only voice my opinion. Who’s to say that it was only the restricted calories and omission of certain food groups that gave them the health benefits? Perhaps it was a mix of leading a more active lifestyle by growing their own food, no access to man made over processed packaged products, more pure air (I assume they recycled and filtered the air in the atrium) etc etc
    My point- could it really have been just restricted calories that did the trick?

  23. Murney

    They sound like wonderful house guests.

  24. weightlossguru


  25. O.

    Why does this remind me of an eating disorder?