For Brian Delaney, the hardest part of his low-calorie lifestyle is not, he says, coping with hunger pangs. Nor is it having to dress more warmly because his body temperature is always below normal. It's not even having to watch friends order rounds of drinks while, he says, "I'm kind of sitting there sipping my glass of wine all night." The real problem, says Delaney, is "you meet people and they think you have a disease."
Yet if Delaney is right about diet, his gaunt, 5'11", 135-lb. frame may one day represent the very picture of health. Delaney, 39, is a leading proponent of Calorie Restriction for Optimum Nutrition (CRON), an approach to eating that can limit daily food intake to between about 1,200 and 1,800 calories—at least 20 percent below the generally recommended intake for adults. (The program doesn't make exercise recommendations.) The point of the caloric deprivation that Delaney and a growing number of like-minded eaters (the Calorie Restriction Society, of which he is president, has about 1,000 members) endure, though, isn't to be stylishly skinny. "This isn't about freaky people on a freaky diet," Delaney says. "We're doing it to live longer."
Almost seven decades of research by UCLA School of Medicine professor emeritus Roy Walford and others has indicated that drastically cutting calories can extend the lives of animals, including mice and monkeys. Practitioners of CRON, who maximize nutrition while minimizing calories by consuming foods like salmon, hummus, roasted beets and egg whites, are betting their Ben & Jerry's that the results also apply to humans. The approach is gaining scientific support—or at least, curiosity: The National Institute of Aging will spend about $25 million over the next seven years to see if a link can be established between calorie restriction and increased human life span.
The research will also explore such questions as why the diet might work (one theory is that when food is limited, the body shifts energy away from growth and toward maintenance and repair) and whether the CRON program poses any health risks. "We don't know what 'optimum nutrition' means," says Van Hubbard, director of the division of nutrition and research coordination at the National Institutes of Health. "Optimum for what? The optimum for cardiovascular health may not be what you need for cancer prevention or for the elderly."
Or for peace of mind. Suzanne Cart, 50, an Orange County, Calif., fitness trainer, says two years of CRON is helping her go "through menopause without a hitch." But, says Barbara Moore, president and CEO of the nonprofit nutrition-and exercise-education group Shape Up America!, "any simplistic recommendation of 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day is foolish. Everybody's caloric needs differ."
The diet does have some flexibility; for example, there are no "forbidden" foods, which means that followers can, on occasion, go over the daily 1,200-calorie allotment and indulge in chocolate or fries. "We still go out and eat German food three or four times a year," says Peter Voss, 48, a Los Angeles computer researcher who follows the CRON diet with his girlfriend, accountant Louise Gold, 46. "And when we went to Germany two years ago, we sampled all kinds of things, even pastries." Still, occasional indulgences can't kill all cravings. "The thing I miss desperately," Delaney says, "is the fatty, salty blood of the hamburger dripping down the caverns of my mouth."
After all, that's what he grew up eating. One of three children raised in Boston by a commercial airline pilot and an artist, Delaney "was just a normal bratty kid who didn't want to eat vegetables," he says, especially when there were "hot dogs, Fritos and Twinkies" to be had.
As a music theory major at Brown University, Delaney continued his poor eating habits, subsisting mostly on fast food. But in 1992, while a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of California at San Diego, Delaney had an epiphany. After a beer and a burrito in nearby Tijuana, he contracted a case of suspected food poisoning and spent two days in the hospital. "The episode," Delaney says, "gave me insight that I was much more mortal than I'd realized."
Inspired by his newfound respect for healthy living, Delaney started doing research at the UC San Diego library, where he came across the CRON studies. Today Delaney follows the diet in Stockholm, where he lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment while finishing his dissertation and teaching philosophy at SÖdertÖrn University College.
Delaney's last long-term relationship ended in 2000, in part, he says, because "I was thinner than she was, and for her that was horrible." But he is willing to make such sacrifices. "For me," Delaney says, "wringing an extra 20 or 30 years out of existence would be worth it."
Ellin Stein in London, Debbie Seaman in New York and Kurt Pitzer and Mike Tharp in Los Angeles
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