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Can Low-Calorie Diets Fight Disease?

Here is how reducing your caloric intake may help ward off aging, heart disease, cancer, and more.

When it comes to building muscle, fueling up with plenty of high-protein foods is the way to go. Yet those calorie-restrictive diets that have been making a buzz in the news may have some benefits when it comes to slowing down the onset of age-related diseases such as cancer, according to a number of previous studies on animals. Researchers had a hard time explaining why calorie restriction might delay the aging process exactly—until now.

A team of scientists at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden identified a specific enzyme while studying yeast cells that’s needed in order for calorie restriction to work.

"We are able to show that caloric restriction slows down aging by preventing an enzyme, peroxiredoxin, from being inactivated. This enzyme is also extremely important in counteracting damage to our genetic material," says study author Mikael Molin of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology in a press release.

This particular enzyme appears to protect cells by breaking down damaging hydrogen peroxide.

“Restricting calories may prevent cellular damage and aging by reducing the amount of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the body. ROS, including hydrogen peroxide, are created in cells during the normal metabolism of protein, fat, and to a lesser extent, carbohydrate,” says David J. Clayton, MD, author of The Healthy Guide to Unhealthy Living. “The more calories you consume over time, the more ROS are created.”

These highly-reactive ROS molecules are a normal by-product of metabolism, but they also speed aging and the development of illnesses such as heart disease and cancer by damaging cells’ DNA, RNA, and protein. The trouble is that you won’t want to drastically cut calories if you’re trying to bulk up. Not to fear: Dr. Clayton says there may be some other ways you can get similar anti-aging benefits without starving yourself.

1. Eat just a little less. Cutting calories by only 8% from your basal metabolic rate (BMR) while increasing daily exercise replicates most of the benefit found in more aggressive calorie reduction, says Dr. Clayton. Think: cutting only about 200 calories from your daily intake and adding a 30-minute jog or weight-lifting session to your normal routine.

2. Drink to your health. Resveratrol (an antioxidant found in red wine) can also reduce ROS-mediated cellular ageing that’s similar to how calorie reduction works. Just remember everything in moderation, which is about two glasses a day for men.

3. Cut the fat. Though overall calorie reduction has consistently proven to be behind a diet’s anti-aging benefits, fat metabolism is the greatest source of ROS formation (which damages cells). “Fat restriction is preferable to protein restriction, since fat has the most dense calories and subsequently creates a relatively high amount of ROS,” says Dr. Clayton. Plus, past research has found that protein keeps you feeling full longer than either carbs or fat, so you can eat less and still be satiated. You might start by limiting foods high in unhealthy fats, such as cheesecake or French fries, and swap in lower-calorie, unprocessed foods, such as baked sweet potatoes.

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