Texas Chows Down: How Decreasing Food Intake May Increase Life Span

“Eat less and exercise” is traditional advice dispensed to those wanting to lose weight, improve health, and reduce susceptibility to certain diseases. With the national obesity epidemic growing by the day, particularly in Texas, this is sound advice. But recent studies show the first part alone of that classic line may be sufficient to lengthen one’s lifespan by up to 40%.

Simply eating less may not only add years to life, but also may improve cardiovascular health, lessen the chances of such diseases as diabetes and cancer, and slow neurodegeneration due to aging all also of considerable concern in Texas. And, hey, with so many individual health insurance premiums skyrocketing, who couldn’t use a discount for good health?

It seems so simple. With all the latest gadgets, gizmos, fitness club machines, weight loss programs, herbs, supplements, medications, and scams in Dallas, Houston, throughout Texas and the rest of the country amounting to an all-out, take-no-prisoners, product assault on the increasing number of health-conscious individuals how could this possibly work? Health insurance companies and other medical facilities release regular warnings that the best, and most sure methods, for maintaining and increasing health are old news namely, eating well and exercising. Far from putting a deeper hole in the pocket of the average American consumer (who is already in debt), eating less may actually save money.

“It can’t be,” you say. Oh, but it can.

The answers aren’t entirely clear yet, but scientists from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the National Institute on Aging are slowly closing in on all the whys of this revelation. Anecdotal evidence has existed on the subject since the 1930’s, but 2002 saw this hypothesis’s first big break. It was then that George S. Roth of the National Institute on Aging confirmed that the lives of lab animals were extended by up to 40% through the application of a reduced calorie, highly nutritious diet. While nutrient levels were maintained, calories were cut by approximately one-third. Similar studies have been done on roundworms and monkeys with similar results.

Originally, the effect of calorie restriction on longevity was believed to be mediated by the insulin/IGF-1 pathway. A research group headed by Andrew Dillin, Ph.D., from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, published a study in May 2007 stating his team had actually discovered a specific gene linked to calorie-restriction induced longevity. Other factors believed to affect longevity were also expressed in experimental worms through a “forkhead family” of genes. One by one, these fifteen “forkhead-like factors” are being isolated and tested, but so far, only one other has proved to be a promising link to longevity.

The specific gene Dillin is highlighting is one encoding the PHA-4 protein found in worms, which operates independently of the insulin/IGF-1 pathway. In humans, the group of genes similar to the PHA-4 gene is known as the Foxa family, which is involved in the development and regulation of glucagons – a pancreatic hormone that increases blood sugar concentrations and maintains energy levels, especially during fasting. What this means is that there may be several pathways influencing longevity, and scientists are slowly isolated what they are, and how they work.

According to Dillin, “we know three distinct pathways that affect longevity: insulin/IGF signaling, calorie restriction, and the mitochondrial electron transport chain pathway PHA-4 is specific for calorie restriction as it does not affect the other pathways.”

Calorie restriction may set off certain biological markers common in those with increased longevity, as well. Both experimental animals, and certain people with longer life spans (either set off by calorie restriction or occurring naturally) display lower body temperature, lower insulin levels, and a steady level of the steroid hormone DHEAS. The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging found that, among their experimental group of aging men, those dying more slowly displayed these biological markers, begging the question: Which came first – good genes, or good bio markers? Can they, if not inherent, be induced by calorie restriction? Such an intriguing twist will, surely, inspire further studies benefiting all, including the disproportionately overweight population of Texas.

Nationally, obesity is increasing at an epidemic rate; so is heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and many of the other conditions often associated with it. In Texas alone, the percentage of obese individuals is hovering around 27% nearly 3% above the national average and studies in Dallas and Houston show equally alarming trends in those 18 years of age and under. Calorie intake is certainly not the only cause of obesity, but it is a major contributing factor. The growing number of health problems associated with the condition is not only dangerous on a biological level, but is also one factor pushing the rising costs of individual health insurance for many companies.

But cutting calories by 30-40% just may not be realistic for the majority of the American populace, and, doctors warn, is probably not actually healthy. It’s difficult for most in Texas, and the rest of the country, to imagine living as an ascetic sinewy body, constant hunger just to live life somewhat longer. It contradicts modern Western culture, in which indulging in sweets and large meals is considered an unvoiced right. The moral of the story, as it were, may very well be to learn from an even older saying, “All things in moderation.” If it’s not realistic to cut calories by nearly half, Americans can at least limit themselves to the Recommended Daily Allowance to enjoy better health.

So it’s possible, and it’s even simple. Good health is entirely within our reach through intelligent moderation and applied discipline. Reducing calories by 40% may not be the best thing for most, but choosing lower calorie, highly nutritious food offerings just may add years to your life. Besides, your health insurance company will love you for it.

How you eat when you’re young will certainly affect your health as you age, and eventually your wallet.

Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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