David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
from the world's big
Start Learning

Why we need to restrict calories right now

A new study shows the benefits of calorie restriction. Never has such advice been more needed.

Photo: Getty Images
  • A new study based at Salk Institute has discovered the cellular mechanisms behind calorie restriction.
  • Rats on a higher-calorie diet experienced more inflammation and immune problems than rats that ate less.
  • This research is especially relevant right now, as immunodeficient patients are at high risk of complications from COVID-19.

Finding kale and quinoa has never been easier than it is right now. Oreos and Spam, not so much.

We know about the toilet paper and hand sanitizer shortages. There are other problems. I've visited at least five grocers in the last week in my Los Angeles neighborhood, and the processed foods shelves are empty.

That problem is not only occurring here. Food giants like General Mills and Campbell Soup are experiencing sales gains between 10-20 percent. Popcorn, pretzels, and potato chips are even higher, between 30-48 sales increases over this time last year.

This is not the direction we should be moving in during a pandemic—or ever, but especially right now.

First, we must differentiate between processed foods and packaged goods. The latter is understandable: beans, pasta, rice, sauces—these too have been filling carts. The issue is "comfort foods," processed and packaged foodstuffs high in sugars and emulsifiers, which are selling at an even higher rate. At a time when we need our immune systems to be as healthy as possible, diet has never mattered more.

Emotional eating during such an unprecedented time is understandable, expectable even. We gravitate toward sugar- and carb-heavy foods when stressed. But for the sake of not only your health, but our overtaxed health care system, we all need to think more deeply about what we're putting into our bodies.

Salk scientists show how caloric restriction prevents negative effects of aging in cells

I've covered health for Big Think since 2012 and have read hundreds of studies concerning diet and fitness. Time and again, two methods appear to work best: closing your feeding window and calorie restriction. The former is usually packaged with the title "intermittent fasting," but really it's just about not eating from the moment you wake up until right before bed. Restricting your feeding window to 10 hours a day or less seems to bestow the greatest benefits; even 12 hours is beneficial. The majority of Americans eat over the course of 14 hours per day.

Calorie restriction is usually associated with the Singularity set as an anti-aging protocol, but don't be dissuaded by that crowd. Plenty of research has backed up the health benefits of reducing your caloric load. A new study from a team of collaborators from the US and China discusses why that is.

Published in the journal Cell, a team at Salk Institute's Gene Expression Laboratory in La Jolla (along with former Salk alumni now based in China) tested 56 rats over the course of nine months, age 18 months to 27 months. For comparison sake, that is the equivalent of tracking human diets from age 50 to 70.

The parameters are pretty simple: one group was given one caloric load, while the other was fed 30 percent fewer calories. The team then analyzed 168,703 cells from 40 different cell types, including cells from bone marrow, skin, brain, and muscle tissue.

Cells from rats on the calorie-restricted diet resembled young rats by the end of the study. A total of 57 percent of the aging changes in the non-restricted rats were not prevalent in the dieting group. Co-corresponding author Guang-Hui Liu (at the Chinese Academy of Sciences) breaks it down:

"This approach not only told us the effect of calorie restriction on these cell types, but also provided the most complete and detailed study of what happens at a single-cell level during aging."

portion size plate with vegetables fish and eggs

Photo: Getty Images

The cells most affected by higher calorie intake include those linked to lipid metabolism as well as immunity and inflammation response. In fact, inflammation kept increasing in rat bingers. Chronic inflammation is one of the biggest consequences of the "Western diet," which negatively impacts a range of cancers and metabolic and cardiovascular diseases.

Even more urgent at this moment are the cytokine storms caused by COVID-19. While the virus is hitting elderly and immune-suppressed populations hardest, victims of every age group are experiencing this deadly inflammatory response. Whether or not diet is specifically related to COVID-19 is unknown, but we do know that two consequences of obesity are immune problems and inflammation. If you prime your body by eating foods that promote inflammation, you're going to have trouble fighting off disease.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, also a co-corresponding author on this paper, is hopeful that this research will open up new avenues of treatment.

"We already knew that calorie restriction increases life span, but now we've shown all the changes that occur at a single-cell level to cause that. This gives us targets that we may eventually be able to act on with drugs to treat aging in humans."

Never in history has it been so apparent that we're all in this together. Social media keeps us dialed in for constant updates. If a greater emphasis on our health care system (as well as individual health) is an outcome of this pandemic, we can at least chalk that up as one small victory.

Right now, of course, we need to focus on the most vulnerable populations. While we live through this, however, don't put yourself at risk of being in that population. Eat smarter, and eat less.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

LIVE ON MONDAY | "Lights, camera, activism!" with Judith Light

Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
Keep reading Show less

Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

A truck pulls out of a large Walmart regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Washington, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
Keep reading Show less

Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

A girl and her mother take an afternoon nap in bed.

Personal Growth
  • We spend 40 percent of our childhoods asleep, a time for cognitive growth and development.
  • A recent study found an association between irregular sleep patterns in childhood and either psychotic experiences or borderline personality disorder during teenage years.
  • The researchers hope their findings can help identify at-risk youth to improve early intervention.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

    Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?

    Scroll down to load more…