Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

Eating Fewer Calories May be Therapeutic

Modifying your diet might slow motor neuron disease

Currently, there is overwhelming evidence showing that consuming fewer calories helps one live longer: this is true whether you’re a single-celled amoeba or a human. Consuming excess calories day after day accelerates aging and then significantly contributes to your death. Simply stated, the results of decades of research confirm that caloric restriction is the only valid, scientifically proven dietary intervention that has been shown to slow the aging process. Also, it can save you lots of money on your weekly food bill.

Now there’s more good news about caloric restriction diets. Scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio published the results of a study in the journal Aging Cell showing that eating fewer calories may actually be therapeutic for people with various neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, myasthenia gravis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The purpose of their research was to try and better understand the mechanisms underlying the benefits of caloric restriction. The researchers were surprised to discover that caloric restriction could directly affect the amount of neurotransmitter secreted by individual neurons in the brain.  No one before had observed, or expected, that simply eating fewer calories would change how individual neurons would behave. Their results suggest that modifying the diet might become an effective therapy for improving muscle function during motor diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, myasthenia gravis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

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How much calorie restriction is enough? Scientists are trying to answer this question by studying monkeys. In one study published earlier this year in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, a group of monkeys were fed only 70% of their free-feeding diet for about 15 yrs. Essentially, for someone eating a 2000 calorie per day diet, this would be about 600 fewer calories per day. As a result of eating just 30% fewer calories, the brains of the monkeys aged significantly more slowly, showed virtually no indication of diabetes, almost no age-related muscle atrophy, and they lived much longer.

Take notice of one crucial fact: these were studies of diet restriction, not exercise. Unless you plan on becoming a long distance runner, or something similar, exercising is never going to be as beneficial to your brain as restricting the number of calories you consume. 

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford University Press)

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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