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Calorie Intake and Health: Major Study Reveals a New Relationship

Understanding the biology of aging can help us develop strategies to slow or even overcome it.


One of the most significant aspects of the modern world is that food scarcity is at its lowest point in human history. Tens of millions over the past few decades have been lifted out of poverty. Of course, world hunger is still a serious problem. We know that in ancient hunter-gatherer societies however, times of scarcity and famine cropped up periodically. Agricultural societies too, due to drought, war, a natural disaster, or some other factor, saw smaller yields from time to time, or worse, and needed to cut back on their food intake, just to survive.

Instead today, obesity is becoming an epidemic worldwide. New middle classes are starting to gobble up more meat and other items, so much so that alarmists warn that we may run out of arable land in the future to grow food, and that a significant increase in livestock could contribute heavily to global warming. Studies over decades have hinted that rather than taking in more food, a calorie restricted diet is healthier for humans. This isn’t to say malnutrition is desirable, but rather getting all the nutrients you need in small portions.

The idea that calorie restriction might extend the human lifespan goes back to the 1930's, when lab workers first noticed that rats who didn’t get as much food as their brethren tended to live longer. Since then, similar studies have shown consistently that calorie restriction prolongs the life of certain organisms such as yeast, worms, flies, fish, and even mice. The increase is significant, in some cases up to 40%. So does it work in humans? We don’t know yet. Where this research got stuck was with rhesus monkeys.

A 25-year University of Wisconsin-Madison study, beginning in 1989, used such monkeys to test calorie intake on longevity and health. These primates share 93% of our genome and age similarly to us. In this study, one cohort could eat whatever it wanted while the other was put on a restricted diet. The latter ate 30% less calories than their peers.

The face of a rhesus macaque monkey, like the ones used in the experiment.

In the end, the results were clear. Those monkeys who ate a calorie restricted diet had a risk of death three times lower than those who ate whatever they wanted. They also had a 2.9 times lower risk of disease. These included things like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. You would think such results would launch a public health campaign heralding the benefits of a calorie restricted diet. Instead, its publication created one the most compelling controversies ever to emerge out of aging research.

For a similar, 30-year study, conducted by the National Institute of Aging (NIA), found that a calorie restricted diet in rhesus monkeys offered no significant difference in health or longevity. So what to do? Blame? Finger point? Well, they did what any good scientists do. They collaborated. And the findings of this review were published in a recent issue of the journal, Nature Communications. Together, they went through the data of almost 200 monkeys, gathered over the course of many years and found the source of the discrepancy.

Turns out, the age, diet, and sex of the monkeys counted for a lot. The cohorts who endured calorie restrictions in these studies differed in age for instance at the outset. Researchers agreed that in younger monkeys, calorie restriction did not seem beneficial. Yet, in older adults, it led to increase health and longevity. This is the opposite of previous, rodent studies, where the animals benefitted more, the earlier calorie restriction took place.

Walter Breuning at age 112 is the world’s oldest man.

Another difference, diet restricted monkeys in the UW study consumed more calories than those in the NIA one. Researchers took this to mean that such a diet must be carefully planned. Small variations resulted in large differences in terms of health and aging. Another discrepancy was the composition of each study’s diet. UW monkeys ate processed foods high in sugar, whereas their NIA counterparts ate natural foods. Those in the control group of the UW study were fatter than in the NIA one, which indicates that the quality of the diet makes a huge difference.

Lastly, what sex the subjects were influenced results. We know that in humans, women tend to outlive men. That’s also the case for rhesus monkeys. With the monkeys, scientists say, it’s because females were less affected by the buildup of adiposity or fat than males. Researchers believe that this could be the case in humans.

So if you want to live longer and have a higher chance of being disease-free in old age, restrict your calorie intake and eat a balance diet containing natural, healthy food. Of course, no such experiment has been conducted on humans, yet. These results only indicate that there’s a good chance such a thing might be true. And one must check with a doctor or dietician before radically changing their diet, or they may end up malnourished, undermining their efforts.

Researchers concluded that, “A clear understanding of the biology of aging, as opposed to the biology of individual age-related diseases, could be the critical turning point for novel approaches…” slowing or even overcoming the aging process in humans. But it will take years or even decades until that understanding is fully within our grasp.

Robert Butler of the International Longevity Center explains more about the research behind the benefits of restricting calories in human diets. 


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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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