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The Fast Supper

Is a life lived on the edge of starvation worth living? Our hungry reporter gives the ultra-extreme Calorie Restriction Diet a two-month taste test

It’s 7:30 p.m. in Soho, that magic hour when the scent of first-course dishes wafts heavenward from the tables at Savoy, the anxiety of last-minute meal planners courses through the aisles of Dean & DeLuca, and a grown man’s fancy turns to thoughts of food. My own thoughts, at the moment, are of practically nothing else. Half-sprinting through the Prince Street crowds, I am late for a dinner party I’ve been planning for weeks, and I’m starving.

I’ve been starving for the past two months, actually, and that’s precisely what the party is about: My dinner guests—five successful urban professionals who for years have subsisted on a caloric intake the average sub-Saharan African would find austere—have been at it much, much longer, and I’ve invited them here to show me how it’s done. They are master practitioners of Calorie Restriction, a diet whose central, radical premise is that the less you eat, the longer you’ll live. Having taken this diet for a nine-week test drive, I’m hoping now for an up-close glimpse of what it means to go all the way. I want to find out what it looks, feels, and tastes like to commit to the ultimate in dietary trade-offs: a lifetime lived as close to the brink of starvation as your body can stand, in exchange for the promise of a life span longer than any human has ever known.

Seat belts, vaccines, clean tap water, and other modern miracles have dramatically boosted average life expectancies, to be sure—reducing annually the percentage of people who die before reaching the maximum life span—but CR alone demonstrably raises the maximum itself. In lab studies going back to the thirties, mice on severely limited diets have consistently lived as much as 50 percent longer than the oldest of their well-fed peers—the rodent equivalent of a human life stretched past the age of 160. And it isn’t just a mouse thing: Yeast cells, spiders, vinegar worms, rhesus monkeys—by now a veritable menagerie of species has been shown to benefit from CR’s life-extending effects.

Despite the mounting evidence, however, the link between CR and longevity remained for many years a medical curiosity, its implications for human health intriguing, certainly, but unexplored. Partly this was because nobody, to this day, has figured out exactly how the CR effect works. Some have suggested that the threat of starvation triggers certain self-preservative responses in animal physiologies; others have pursued a sort of “fuel efficiency” hypothesis, proposing that lightening the body’s load of food-energy processing reduces wear and tear on cellular machinery. But no one theory has ever settled the question firmly enough to prove that humans would benefit from CR as much as other animals have. That has left direct experimentation as the next best route to an answer, and for obvious reasons, finding human subjects willing to live on concentration-camp diets has historically been a tricky proposition.

In 1991, however, the proposition was simplified somewhat when a team of eight bioscientists sealed themselves up for a two-year stint inside a giant, airtight terrarium in the Arizona desert—and promptly discovered that the hypothetically self-sustaining ecosystem they’d settled into could barely grow enough food to keep them alive. This revelation might have doomed the experiment (known as Biosphere 2) but for the fact that the team’s physician, UCLA pathologist Roy Walford, had been studying the Calorie Restriction phenomenon for decades and convinced his fellow econauts that—as long as they all ate carefully enough to get their daily share of essential nutrients—a year or two of near starvation wouldn’t hurt. When at last the Biosphere 2 crew emerged from their bubble, tests proved them healthier in nearly every nutritionally relevant respect than when they’d gone in, and the case for Calorie Restriction in humans was no longer purely circumstantial. Fifteen years later, Walford’s CR primer, Beyond the 120-Year Diet: How to Double Your Vital Years, is in its fifth printing, and an estimated 1,400 people have taken up the diet as a full-time, lifelong practice.

It isn’t hard to see the diet’s appeal to a certain very familiar New York type: You’re skinnier than any social X-ray, you’re practicing a regimen as extreme and as grueling as any yogi’s, and you’ve got some impressive medical science on your side. For someone attracted to control, accomplishment, and power, this is the life. And I’m living it.

The hardest part, I find, is the math: not just the labor of tracking everything I put in my body but the way in which calorie counting makes the no-free-lunch adage so viscerally clear. Bacon cheeseburgers, chocolate, a martini—all are pleasures now completely ruined by the knowledge that the massive caloric debts that they create must be paid for with days or even weeks of caloric cutbacks. Other abnegations—the dinner invitations regretfully declined, the awkward orders of soda water on the rocks at “drinks” with friends and colleagues, the freakishly ascetic feeling of sitting gaunt and empty-plated before a calorie-packed family dinner—are met with the compensatory feeling one gets when walking a righteous, if lonely, path.