Low-Calorie Diet Staves off Aging & Death in Monkeys

By Allison Bond | July 9, 2009 4:12 pm

macaque monkeysIt’s been a big week on the longevity front: First, scientists found that an immunosuppresant drug called rapamycin extended the lifespan of mice. Now, a 20-year-long study reported in the journal Science shows that a diet 30 percent lower in calories than normal decreased the incidence of age-related diseases in macaque monkeys as the animals got older.

Half the monkeys were fed a low-calorie diet, and the other half a standard diet. All were closely monitored, with researchers regularly measuring their body composition, blood chemistry, endocrine function, and heart and brain function. When monkeys died, they were necropsied and the causes of death established [Wired.com]. Researchers found that monkeys on a calorie-restricted, nutrient-rich diet (on the left in photo) were three times less likely than monkeys on a full-calorie diet (on the right) to die from age-related diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Scientists have hypothesized that calorie restriction triggers mechanisms that evolved to help organisms survive in times when food was scarce, but the exact process is still mysterious.

The anti-aging benefits even extended to the monkeys’ brains. MRIs reveal less shrinking with age in areas important for decision-making and controlling movement in the brains of calorie-restricted animals [Science News]. This corroborates previous studies that found calorie restriction helps mice, dogs, fruit flies, and yeast age more slowly and can even help them live longer. But because macaques can live to the age of 40, scientists cannot yet ascertain whether a low-calorie diet actually extends lifespan in monkeys.

Researchers speculate that further research will eventually show that humans, too, can benefit from a low-calorie diet. “Up until now, all the clear-cut evidence that caloric restriction slows aging has come from lower organisms,” said John Holloszy, … who studies caloric restriction in people and was not involved in the current monkey study. “This is the first study to show that caloric restriction slows aging in a primate species. And of course, we’re primates, too. It’s a lot more relevant to humans than the mouse” [Wired.com]. In fact, a person who switches from the typical nutrient-sparse, high-calorie American diet to one that is high in nutrients and low in calories may benefit more than the monkeys did. That’s because even the macaques that ate a higher-calorie diet consumed plenty of nutrients.

Still, a lifetime of deprivation may not be feasible, much less enjoyable, for most people (although it’s estimated that a few thousand people already follow a calorie-restricted diet for its suspected anti-aging effects). Instead, scientists hope to deliver in a drug the anti-aging effects of a low-calorie diet, or of chemical compounds that seem to replicate the effects of a calorie-restricted diet. Several teams are hoping to harness the age-defying benefits of red wine. GlaxoSmithKline last year spent $720 million to buy Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which has developed a souped-up version of the red wine compound resveratrol that has been found to make mice live longer and stay healthier [Reuters].

Related Content:
80beats: Immunosuppressant Drug Extends Lifespan of Elderly Mice
80beats: Stress–the Genetic Kind–Really Can Make Hair Go Gray
80beats: Surprising Study: Put Down the Vitamins & Free the Free Radicals
80beats: Improved Recycling Helps the Cells of Old Mice Keep Their Youth

Image: Jeff Miller / University of Wisconsin-Madison

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
  • Jumblepudding

    LOL at the monkeys. The one on the left has better posture, to be sure. Hopefully the resveratrol compound will be available over-the-counter, even if it’s stupidly expensive, so there will be more “test subjects” in the general population.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    I take resveratrol and am on something of a self-imposed calorie restricted diet… at least, I assume that’s why I struggle to keep weight on – I’ve lost 10-15 lbs this year – I have a BMI around 20 and bodyfat around 13%. I’m not manorexic – I thoroughly enjoy food, I’ve just trained myself to eat in a grazing manner that makes me less *HUNGRY* and merely hungry. I think it helps regulate my bloodsugar as well. Supposedly if you eat in a grazing manner you’ll pack on the pounds, but I sure ain’t seen it. I even eat more food later in the evening, which is supposed to pack on the pounds.

    So, it seems to work in humans, at least for the staying in shape part. I do exercise fairly regularly.

  • Jeff

    Hemp powder contains a high amount of fiber, all of the essential and non-essential proteins, omegas and vitamins/minerals.

  • YouRang

    Since macaques live to 40 and the experiment has been going on for 20, it seems to me that what has actually been proven is that a calorie restricted diet staves off death in susceptible macaques. For those macaques that don’t have a genetic predisposition to diabetes, heart disease or cancer, the jury is still way out. Since both my grandma’s lived to over 103 and neither were small women, and the average age of all my first and second degree relatives whom I have not already outlived (an uncle tried one of those “never attempt this at home”, and I weigh down my sister’s average life span since I’m older but she doesn’t weigh down mine) is 89 2/3; and none of them were thin (except maybe my slightly potbellied grandpa who died at 80), I think I’ll stick to normo-caloric eating. (I do do a variation of the injunction “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper”. I do “breakfast like a king, lunch like a king and dinner like a king :-) . No seriously, “b like a prince, l like a king and dinner like a store clerk”.) I think it works, being a 51, 37, 41 male who can climb the 30 ft/min for hours that everyone with normal CV health should be able (though I’d like that 37 to be 33–but then the ratio of my chest to waist would be higher than Marilyn Monroe’s) . (PS I used to count my parents as 2 people so my 2 grandma’s wouldn’t overweight the average; but the giving a lower average by counting them as 1, occurred just before my mom died.)
    It occurs to me: Were the restricted macaques on the high, low or middle part of the social ladder, since it is very stressful to be on either extreme of the social ladder? Although the restricted macaques could have been on the low end of the ladder and the only ways that being on the low end is stressful are access to food and to sex. So since they were given access to the amount of food they got independent of their status, the only bad part of being on the low end of the ladder is access to sex. So if access to sex was afforded them, being on the low end of the social ladder wouldn’t be stressful. (The humans on calorie restricted diets that I’ve seen look like they were on the low end of the ladder before they went on their diets and most look like they fell off the bottom of the ladder afterward (although a few might have risen from looking like they have a fatal illness.))

  • YouRang

    Caloric restriction ((CR) meaning restricted or … as the context requires) may not work in humans absent a deep recognition that sexual conquest is not the end-all of life. If the CR’er still wishes he or she were higher on the sexual ladder (even if only to the extent of only wanting to survive until the fountain of youth is discovered) then CR might not work. Those low-end of the social ladder on the TV show who were CR’ers may only have succeeded in giving themselves a noble excuse for being at the bottom of the social ladder.

  • YouRang

    It occurs to me that the mouse experiment and the macaque experiment were on animals for which the similarity to humans (for this question in any event) are NON-EXISTENT. I say that, because Nova Science Now made an interesting observation on Homo Sapiens. Homo Sapiens IS THE ONLY ENDURANCE ANIMAL AMONG THE PRIMATES. The MOUSE ISN’T an endurance animal, clearly NEITHER is the MACAQUE. In order to get some sense of the effect of caloric restriction on late life ailments, they should have been experimenting on an endurance animal. Nova Science Now called the horse and migrating birds endurance animals; but a human can outrun a horse over a distance of a half marathon or greater (the indians of northern Mexico hunt deer by chasing them until they drop). About the only animal a human can’t outrun is canis canis–the wolf. A good thing about dogs too is that dogs have a relatively short lifetime (compared to macaques say); so the experiment should be very doable. It isn’t clear if chihuahuas are endurance animals or not; so they probably would have to use midsize dogs so the food bill wasn’t prohibitive.

  • chris

    I wonder what the activity level of the calorie restricted Macaque is compared to the full calorie diet.

    I’ve long held the belief or theory that less fuel = less activity = less wear and tear, though I have no scientific proof of any real relationship between these.

    As science continues to unravel the mysteries of aging, perhaps we will learn to repair the genetic damage and renew our bodies thus living longer.

    What kind of thoughts does a 700 year old man with the body of a 25 year old have?

    Will the individual moments be less interesting for the sheer span of them he would’ve seen?

  • Jeff


    So, when the world is critically overpopulated because of our longer lifespans, at least it’ll take me longer to starve to death because I don’t eat as much as some of the other guys.

    Thanks science.

    Hopefully rapamycin will cause sterility, too. We certainly don’t need individuals spewing out offspring for hundreds of years. I don’t think the earth can support a trillion near-immortal humans. If so, it’ll just be us, the rats, the squirrels, the roaches and our little microbial friends.

    That should be great fun.

  • Jeff

    @ you rang

    Are you against those who aren’t obese? What is this ladder you speak of? Is it some kind of symbol at which you are the pinnacle, because you eat a lot and have sex with whoever you want? What does human food consumption have to do with sex? Please tell me your secrets.

    Modern humans aren’t endurance animals, we only need high caloric intake in times of extreme physical exertion. I don’t eat like a pig, but I can handle my body pretty well. Did you ever think that maybe you’re a big dude because you eat too much. Is being big practical, that is, unless you have a sudden need to lift a car?

    We need quality, not quantity.

  • Dewalt

    I eat a bucketful of sausage gravy every morning and I am the picture of health.

  • Nick Vachon

    My grandma lived to 102 by smoking heavily, eating fatty foods and enjoying her life. She said “it’s not what you eat, it’s what’s eating you!”

  • subby

    Ascetics since the dawn of humanity have practiced a low calorie diet and they all live to a ripe old age with very alert minds. Of course all they do is sit on their ass and talk. But isn’t that what most of us do anyway?

    I think it may have advantages. Such as reduce the sex drive, (which helps one concentrate and discard need to have sex or masturbate) make your mind more alert due to your body pumping your brain full of more blood so you can think of ways to get food. (constant mild hunger makes you preternaturally alert and able to concentrate) And it may also reduce toxic buildup due to your body metabolism slowing down and you digesting less food.

  • Jennifer Angela

    I don´t count calories, as in my opinion that´s no way to live, but I avoid food that makes me feel as if I have to digest it for a whole day and a whole night: meat combined with a carbohydrate e.g. such as a meat pie or meat with bread crumbs on it, the way you would normally eat “chicken mac nuggets” or meat with sauce and potatoes. It makes me feel like a drowning ship, so I can tell it IS heavy and unhealthy – at least for me! I attempt to eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible and I could swear that this kind of diet provides me not only with an energy boost, but also with a far better mood. I need to add that I am not a health food fanatic. I do eat buns too, usually two or three a day… I can get away with doing that as I am not an actress, so I do not intend to fit into a size zero. On the whole I try to eat in a healthy way without going nuts about it and refusing to eat “fun stuff” (such as a nice bun in the morning). But at the same time I assume that eating (just like everything else in life) requires certain restrictions: I think eating ANYTHING you like can lead to diabetes: My Grandma died of the consequences of diabetes at a rather young age (early seventies). Personally I eat as little artificial sweets as possible (one or two jelly beans a day) and entirely avoid the consumption of chocolate, having read once what kind of ingredients chocolate has. My Grandma used to be a genius at home bakery (and many other things) including all sorts of cakes containing loads of sugar and in some cases chocolate too, so I am wary of these things. Certainly, I totally agree that worrying is also something that can lead to chronic illnesses or an earlier death, as my Granny was very concerned about people within her social environment. Yet she would probably still be alive these days if she had not been such a huge fan of bakery and had instead been a fan of healthy food. My other Grandma tends to get worked up about all sorts of matters but is far from dying, because she was always very careful about what she eats.

    I can imagine being hungry all the time is frustrating on the long run, so I would suggest to always eat enough to be aware that you are far from hungry (at least that´s what I do), but continuously eating until you almost burst (certainly we all do it at Christmas and Easter or Hanukah or Pesah.. or whatever you celebrate…) can´t be healthy either.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar