By Willow Lawson, published on May 1, 2004 - last reviewed on October 31, 2007
In early January 2000, Dean Pomerleau stepped on a scale and was shocked to find that he'd become a typical American: He was overweight. It was only a few pounds, but he worried: Was this the beginning of a downward spiral?
Pomerleau, a computer-software engineer, had recently seen a documentary about people who follow the Calorie Restriction (CR) diet and was intrigued by the mechanics of it. Followers believe sharply reducing calories over the course of a lifetime will extend their lives by perhaps a decade or more. The research is promising; restricting calories considerably lengthens the lives of all animals that have been studied, including rats, dogs and primates.
Several years later and 50 pounds lighter, Pomerleau is an avid follower of CR, along with thousands of people around the world. He has given up pizza and the weekly pints of superpremium ice cream. Now, he eats two large, identical portions of vegetables, fruits and nuts each day along with nutritional supplements. He talked to PT news editor Willow Lawson about the hurdles and rewards of CR.
Many "CRonies" report becoming obsessed with food. Was this your experience?
Yes. Food clouded my thoughts for at least a year. I would have the Food Channel on in the background while I was preparing my food in the morning, watching Emeril prepare horribly decadent things that I would never consider indulging in. That has been one of the biggest issues for me and other CR practitioners, but I never broke my calorie restriction to binge on a decadent dessert. I was always in control that way.
You're never tempted?
For a while I did have food cravings when I was still occasionally indulging in things that weren't on the meal plan. So I went cold turkey on all treats.
Do you bring your own food to a restaurant?
I eat virtually my normal meal prior to going out. Then at the restaurant, I either have a side salad or a real dinner salad, but I skip the dressing. I eat pretty slowly, so it ends up that I'm eating what appears to be a pretty normal meal right along with everyone else. Almost invariably though, when the meal is being delivered, they bring the salad to my wife and the steak to me.
Do most CR practitioners give up favorite foods as you have?
I think there are actually two schools of thought: You go cold turkey on treats, and after a month or so you just stop thinking about it. Other people like to "tickle the dragon" as we call it. I did that for quite some time and found it didn't result in a peaceful existence for me. It would be Thursday or Friday and I would start to think, "OK, where do I want to eat out this weekend? Which restaurant has the best desserts?" It clouded my judgment.
CR is not like the Atkins diet or the South Beach diet or the Weight Watchers point system, where there's a very prescribed set of things you can and can't eat. It's a thinking man's diet. And in fact, probably 80 percent of practitioners are men.
You can't practice a cookie-cutter version of CR. You have to decide how many calories you need, how far you want to drop, what the easiest way to practice is. A lot of engineers do CR, I think partly because life-extension appeals to that type of person. They think, "If I feed my body the right things, it will work better" as opposed to "I want to look better." The science of it and the tweaking and tuning of it appeals to a different demographic.
Is our society too focused on food and pleasure?
I think people are, to a large extent, slaves to food in our society, and they perpetuate that by subscribing to food magazines, watching Food TV, etc. We engage in a lot of mindless eating, as well. We believe that we couldn't give up our decadent desserts and our eating habits, but in fact we often don't really enjoy the food that we are eating. It's sort of a paradox. I enjoy my food much more than most people do.
You say you've experienced many psychological benefits because of CR.
The psychological calming that's largely a result of the hormonal changes—markedly less testosterone—and some of the neurochemistry changes that occur as a result of CR are really why I'm in it at the moment.
Do other CRonies feel the same way?
I think I'm reasonably rare in that respect. The more common way of experiencing CR is less of an emotional calming and more of an emotional deadening, which is very unfortunate.
So CR is no longer about life extension for you?
It's part of the package. People practicing CR are shocked when I say this, but I would not go back to a standard diet if it meant giving up the emotional stability and bliss.
Do you consider the possibility that CR may not work in humans?
I think it certainly will work to a degree. It will probably add at most 8 or 10 years, but it could be half that or a quarter of that. The big uncertainty is how much of what CR accomplishes, human physiology has already acquired to get to the long life that we already enjoy. If our bodies are already exploiting what CR does in rodents, then the benefit on top of it may be relatively small. I'll probably never know.
Many CR practitioners lose their sex drive. How is that healthy?
Obviously, it's not for everyone. When you're on the high testosterone side of the fence and your libido is going strong, it's virtually impossible to see the appeal of the side of the fence that I'm on now. Some veteran CRonies, but not all, have observed this virtual disappearance of sexual desire. Like most men, I used to think about sex many, many times a day. It's inconceivable to think about not having that as a large focus. Now, however, it's very hard to see the appeal of going back to that testosterone-driven way of life. I don't miss my libido one bit.
One of the biggest difficulties for my wife is that I'm not as attractive and she isn't as attracted to me as she used to be. But psychologically and emotionally, she's much more attracted to me now. I'm a much more considerate husband and father than I was prior to starting the diet. My testosterone is extremely low, in the ballpark of an average woman.
There is a lot of discussion of anorexia on the CR society website. Do you think CR could segue into an eating disorder, or mask a disorder?
There are certainly anorexics who at least claim to practice CR. But I don't know of anyone who was not anorexic and who became one after starting CR.
Do you think CR will ever take off as a way of life?
I'm skeptical. I think this will always be a niche diet. It's really a lifestyle. It takes a lot of self-discipline that not many people in our society have. And that's unfortunate because I think it has a lot of health benefits and a lot of psychological benefits. I'm in it for the adventure. I enjoy doing something different from everyone else.