A phenomenon known as calorie restriction is currently being scientifically tested for health benefits and longevity. The practice stems from the idea that cutting back on your daily calories by 30% might be the key to extending your lifespan and avoiding diseases associated with old age. Though it may seem extreme from from its name (no we’re not advocates of starvation!), calorie restriction is not as torturous as it might sound and is very closely related to the idea of mindful eating. This type of consciousness about food is not new, or specific to Japanese culture, and was even part of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) daily rituals. But is it true and what is science now showing?

What is Calorie Restriction?
Portrait of an old Asian woman with a Vietnamese hat

The concept is simple; you reduce your current food intake so that you are getting 20-30% less calories each day. This doesn’t mean starving yourself, it simply means upping your intake of low-calorie, highly nutritious foods. You must still make sure you are eating foods that will provide you with all of your recommended intakes of protein, vitamins, and minerals. We prefer to call it ‘calorie restriction with optimal nutrition’ so that we don’t send the wrong message that the less you eat, regardless of quality, the longer you will live!

The first step on the calorie restriction route is cutting out highly processed, ‘modern’ foods. Cakes and biscuits might be delicious, but they pack on empty calories without giving you much nutrition at all. With calorie restriction, you would be aiming to nourish your body with every calorie you eat.

What Are the Benefits?
The Okinawan population in Japan are the longest living people in the world, and calorie restriction is at the core of their eating habits. From this observation, much research has been conducted to see whether calorie restriction is the key behind their long, healthy lives or not.

Studies on animals showed dramatically extended lifespans, as well as less cancer incidents and healthier hearts. Calorie restriction also reserved brain volume, which leads to less dementia and other old-age brain diseases. Notably, calorie restriction also has a great impact on gut health. Your gut microflora’s (good bacteria) number and quality improve with restricting your calorie intake. This has a positive impact on your digestion, and also your immunity.

How Does it Work?
Scientifically, calorie restriction is known to directly alter the expression of hundreds to thousands of genes, some of which are related to longevity and some of which play a role in metabolism, cell growth, reproduction, immune response, and more.

The Take-Home Message
As a nation, we are overfed while being undernourished. Most of us consume too many empty calories, and this is why even slight calorie restriction will have benefits on your body. Try it out for the next week. Every time you eat something, ask yourself how this will be nourishing your body. If you find that it won’t nourish you, don’t eat it.

Donia Hilal is a certified nutritionist with a degree in Nutrition from King’s College London. Her work focuses on women’s health in the Middle East, wellness, weight loss, and optimal pre- and post-natal nutrition. Passionate about real food and evidence based nutrition advice, Donia welcomes and enjoys guiding clients throughout every stage of their journey towards a healthier, happier life.