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Calorie Restricting for Longer Life

Posted by on 08 Dec 2012 | Tagged as: diet

A few months ago, I watched a BBC Horizon documentary on the effects of calorie restricting and how it affects the body’s aging process and I was intrigued to say the least. I watched it again a few nights ago just to remind me and press home the importance of the message it was getting across. Here’s my own take on what I learned from this.

The documentary explored the way in which restricting the calorie intake of mice resulted in greater longevity compared to mice that ate normally and resulted in reduced life span of those that were fed a high calorie diet. So far so good. These kinds of tests have been running for decades.

Restricting Calories

What I didn’t know was that there is a pretty big group in the United States that deliberately calorie restrict on a daily basis. A comparison set of tests done by the Horizon presenter, Michael Mosley with a man of similar age and build revealed that while they looked similar on the outside, it was a very different story on the inside. The physical age of the guy who had been calorie restricting for over 10 years had the internal layout of a 20 year old!

There were many more huge differences such as fitness, stamina and balance with physical/mental differences such as reaction times, motor skills etc. This guy was so healthy he had no need of any medication and the doctor carrying out the tests said that he would be unlikely to need them even going into old age.

I was particularly interested in the mental side of these tests, as it seems that restricting calorie intake can positively affect mental ability and reduce the risk of age related mental illness such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. After all, if this kind of lifestyle can mean living longer, I’d want to get old with my mind in as healthy a state as my body!

Cell Life

But there appear to be well understood reasons for this increase in physical and mental health as well as life expectancy. It all comes down to not necessarily what a person’s genes say, but in how their DNA “ages”.

Scientists now know that at the end of each strand of DNA is a “tail” known as a “telomere” and these are there to protect the DNA from damage. It is also known that as cells divide and reproduce, the length of the telomeres shortens slightly. The more times the cells divide, the shorter the telomeres get, leading to an indicator of how a person is aging. You can read more about this fascinating branch of science here: Are Teleomeres the Key to Aging and Cancer?

We also know that when we feed ourselves normally (as we perceive it), our bodies are in GO-GO mode, constantly replacing damaged and aging cells with new healthy cells. We can make that process go even faster by working out and eating a high protein diet to force the production of new muscle cells. We do that in order to build bigger and stronger muscles as any bodybuilder or athlete knows.

IGF-1

This process is determined in our bodies by the levels of a growth hormone called Insuline-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). The more of this stuff our bodies secretes, the faster we build new cells to replace old ones. Up until I saw this documentary, I probably like most people, regarded this process as a good thing.

I appear to have been wrong!

The obvious putting of two and two here is that by accelerating the speed at which cells reproduce, we are speeding up the shortening of telomeres and that means speeding up the race towards the end of life! It also increases the risks of cancer cells growing faster as well as causing faster aging of the body.

The documentary focused a lot on how we can reduce our levels of IGF-1 and thereby literally slow down the aging process. This would happen because it would slow down the cell reproduction rate. Better still, instead of cells dividing and new cells being produced to replace old or damaged cells, they instead go into “repair mode” and repair themselves instead of self destructing to make way for new cells.

“As levels of the IGF-1 hormone drop, a number of repair genes appear to get switched on according to ongoing research by Professor Valter Longo of the University of Southern California.”

Eating and Fasting

The way to do this is to restrict the intake of calories daily. Goes back to where this article began, where we can literally prolong our normal life expectancy by choosing what we eat and drink. But there’s more…

If the idea of severely restricting your calorie intake every day doesn’t sound very appealing, you can get what is believed to be an even more profound effect by regular fasting. This means going for long periods without eating anything and just drinking water.

In many cultures, fasting on a particular day of the week is quite common. But there is fasting and there is fasting. The Horizon documentary covered several forms.

Michael Mosley had his IGF-1 levels checked via a blood test and found them to be relatively high. He then underwent a three day fast, at the end of which a further blood test showed his IGF-1 levels had halved. Unfortunately, the effects are not long lasting and regular fasts would be necessary to sustain the lower and safer levels of IFG-1.

He tried other kinds of fasting.

Alternate Day Fasting

Alternate Day fasting (ADF) is a more civilized way of restricting calorie intake, whereby you eat normally one day, and restrict calorie intake (600 for men and 500 for women) the next. The results of tests carried out by Dr Krista Varady of the University of Illinois at Chicago over an eight week period are consistent with reducing IGF-1 to desirable levels. She said,

“If you were sticking to your fast days, then in terms of cardiovascular disease risk, it didn’t seem to matter if you were eating a high-fat or low-fat diet on your feed (non-fast) days.”

Another form of this kind of fasting is the 5:2 Diet, where you eat normally for five days in the week and calorie restrict the other two. Mosley placed himself on this version and after several months reported low levels of IGF-1 and naturally some weight loss (14 pounds) along with reductions in blood cholesterol, glucose and triglyceride levels and an similar increase in health.

What Does it All Mean?

If you’re reading this and wondering what the implications could be for you should you decide to try reducing your weekly calorie intake, prepare to be amazed. I was so interested that I tried my own experiment, fasting one day a week but also reducing my calorie intake on normal days to 2,500 max, although I often stayed well below that.

I did this for a month, after which I got a blood test and y IGF-1 levels are now low, with cholesterol, triglyceride and glucose blood readings that pleased my doctor! I also lost around 10 pounds in weight. I continue with this routine although not quite so strictly and to date have not gained any weight.

My exercise levels are unchanged, with about an hour a day dog walking. I always take the stairs when I encounter them and feel more energetic than I have done in years. I don’t know if this will result in longer life expectancy, but I do hope that I keep my health for as long as possible this way. That alone makes it worth doing.

I’m not sure too many people will be willing to participate in anything similar, because eating the way we do in the West has become so ingrained in our culture that it will be tough to change it. Giving up the hamburgers, fries, red meat, dairy, white bread, cakes, cookies, candy, soda and all those other nice things can be pretty tough if you’re used to having them all the time.

I found it fairly easy, as I already eat a predominantly Mediterranean diet because of where I live (on the Mediterranean coast!) and do not eat anything processed or out of a packet or can. That means my sugar intake is very low (see my last post). I don’t drink any soda or other flavored drinks, almost no dairy or red meat, so yeah, it was an easy transition.

The implications of this information are huge. It appears that we can, by adjusting what we eat, how much and when we eat it can seriously prolong our lives and improve our health. Who wouldn’t want that? You can read about the BBC Horizon documentary here: The power of intermittent fasting.

Terry Didcott

How Healthy is Your Diet? Part 4: An Apple a Day…

Posted by on 31 Aug 2012 | Tagged as: diet

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”

healthy appleThat’s an old saying that I remember from my childhood and even though I probably didn’t understand it back then, time and research has revealed there is a lot of truth back of it. Apples have been used as a food for about as long as humans have walked on two legs and have a variety of culinary uses. But what is it that the humble apple has that makes it such a valuable and healthy food?

There are several factors that make an apple a great source of nutrition, vitamins and minerals and all-important fiber. Apples should be eaten as fresh as possible, raw and with the skin on because that’s where most of the beneficial nutritional constituents are to be found. Let’s take the main reasons why apples are so healthy one at a time:

Healthy Fiber

Dietary fiber is important for the efficient functioning of the intestines and colon, helping to keep things moving along properly and helping to prevent the build-up of unfriendly bacteria and other unwanted infiltrators. A medium size apple contains around 4 grams of dietary fiber which is made up of soluble and insoluble fiber.

Soluble fiber such as pectin helps to prevent the buildup of cholesterol in the blood vessel wall lining. This is essential in reducing the incident of atherosclerosis and heart disease. The insoluble fiber, which present in the skin of apples provides bulk in the intestinal tract which helps to hold water which cleanses and helps to move food quickly through the digestive system.

Antioxidants

There is around 8mg of vitamin C in a medium size apple, most of which is found directly beneath the skin. Vitamin C is an important antioxidant as well as an immune system booster and has recently been found in studies to possess anti-aging properties. It is an important factor in helping the body to remove harmful free radicals effectively decreasing teh risk of certain cancers.

In addition to vitamin C, other antioxidant phytonutrients found in apples help fight the damaging effects of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood stream.

Malic Acid

Malic acid is found in many fruits but the apple is the best known source. When used in conjunction with magnesium, malic acid has been found to offer some relief from muscle pain and fatigue which is associated with fibromyalgia. It also plays an important role in the Krebs cycle that promotes muscular energy. The acid binds to metal toxins and can be a useful substance for detoxifying the body of certain heavy metals.

There is also some evidence to suggest that the malic acid contained in apples plays a role in the prevention of the onset of arthritis and also as a natural cure when contained in apple cider vinegar. It is believed that this acid is capable of slowly dissolving the hard uric acid deposits that occur in and around affected joints, thus helping to retard the progress of the disease at its root cause.

Nutrition Facts

Apples contain the essential trace element boron, which has been shown to strengthen bones. This is a good defense against the onset of osteoporosis. Apples also contain fructose, a fruit sugar that is more easily processed by the body than refined sugar (sucrose, which is also present in a lower amount) into glucose for energy.

Information on exact nutritional information for apples can be found here: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

While the humble apple may not be considered a total protection from disease or health related conditions, it does provide a valuable service in being a small, portable, nutrient packed package that is a far superior snack (health-wise) to anything man-made (such as energy bars or other confection). It helps the body digest its food thanks to a relatively high level of fiber and makes a tasty, sweet snack that is infinitely preferable to getting a sugar hit from a candy bar or bar of chocolate.

So does it really keep the doctor away? Well, if you eat one a day you are less likely to suffer from certain conditions that would call for the doctor, so at least in some ways the answer has to be “YES” …although it will not protect you against everything a doctor may be needed for!

Terry Didcott

Does Nutrisystem Need Fixing?

Posted by on 03 Jul 2012 | Tagged as: diet

The popular American diet program Nutrisystem is not broken, but it may need some fixing in areas that are causing it to under-achieve, especially in areas such as the stock market and the returns it is giving investors. While that may be of little or no interest to dieters who are relying on this program to help them lose weight, or to those who are seriously considering signing up for a diet plan that they hope will turn their problems of increasing weight around, it probably should be. For there are cracks in the woodwork and they need to be repaired sooner rather than later.

First of all, let’s make one very important thing clear. The diet program itself is still one of the best in its class and there is no denying it gets results. Thousands of successful Nutrisystem dieters cannot be wrong!

The problems that are associated with a lack of confidence in the company as far as investors and the stock markets are concerned are related to decreasing performance figures and a drop in the value of their stock from a high of over $72 in 2006-2007 to the current figure (as at July 2 2012) of just $11.61 (*see below). Clearly things are not as good today as they were just five years ago, so what happened to cause such a huge drop in the value of the company?

We can’t really speculate on what is happening behind close boardroom doors, so there is not much point in bandying theories around as they could be false. But what we can see is customer reaction to certain aspects of the diet program from the many customer complaints and concerns that are registered in a variety of online forums and blogs that provide Nutrisystem reviews. While many complaints are made by people that are complainers by nature, there are a whole load more that are articulately written by people with a genuine grievance or a story of an unsatisfactory experience that simply cannot be discounted or ignored.

Canceling Nutrisystem Diet Plan

One of the more common complaints is not with the diet itself, but with the customer service department especially when people call to cancel their diet plan. While there are many good reports of customer service experience, there are many bad ones and it is these that potential customers read and find difficult to ignore. The result is a drop off in the number of new customers who choose other diet plans (which may or may not be better or more suitable for them), on the strength of a negative report they read on the difficulty in canceling and the penalties that are incurred.

What is the answer?

A big part of the problem is that customers who sign up for diet plans and take advantage of whatever current discount or special deal promotion the company is running, do not realize that if they cancel before accepting and paying for their second month’s supply of meals, they will incur a penalty for early cancellation and be charged the cost of shipping the food. While this information is published on the official Nutrisystem website, it is not as clearly marked as it could be since many people sign up and do not bother to read the FAQ or look at the terms and conditions they are signing for.

Let’s face it, who wants to read through several long paragraphs of boring, legal sounding text? Not many people, that’s for sure.

So in general, when a customer sees a great deal on their first month of food, they immediately think that they can order it and cancel the subsequent month’s delivery and save themselves a load of money by not having to pay full price for that second shipment of meals. But when they phone up to cancel, they are met with the harsh reality that they are going to have their credit card charged a cancellation penalty as well as be billed for the “free shipping” they thought they were getting for the initial shipment.

What do you think the reaction of most people to this news is?

NutrisystemThey get angry, for sure! And in the heat of the moment, it quite often happens that the customer gets loud and abusive and the customer support person has to endure a lot of verbal abuse which they do not deserve to put up with. Most are well trained and will try to calm the customer down, but that’s a very difficult thing to do over the phone.

Let me ask you something: How do you think you would react to an angry person on the other end of the phone shouting and probably swearing at you because they think they are hard done by and you are to blame? Maybe you don’t know because it has never happened to you. Maybe you think you stay calm and be a heroic rock or something. Let me tell you, I’ve been there and you do NOT stay calm for very long, especially when you’re being abused verbally. All the training in the world will not help you when you’re being threatened with physical violence by a customer who says they are going find out where you live and do bad things to you and your family.

OK, point taken? Good.

Greater Transparency?

So what is the answer to this real and ongoing problem? Well, its simpler than you might think. But its one that few big companies have the guts to implement because they believe it will harm sales more than it helps their reputation.

The short answer is not just greater transparency, but full disclosure right there on the main page of the official Nutrisystem website and also on the page where customers are signing up. Tell them in clear and understandable words that they can’t just have the first month and then cancel, but that if they want to take advantage of the special deal, they MUST commit to ordering a minimum of two months supply of meals. Make that crystal clear to customers and you improve the trust factor of customers while removing any ammunition from potential cancelers who are aiming to get the deal and not continue with the diet after that. That’s because they can’t claim they didn’t know about the consequences of canceling early!

Loss of Sales

Will full disclosure result in loss of sales? Possibly. But the majority of sales that would be lost would be from potential customers that were aiming to enjoy the cost saving of the discount and then cancel early anyways. Does any company really need those kind of customers? You could argue that many customers will change their minds about canceling and stay on the program, paying for their second month because it is the lesser of the two evils of being charged the cancellation fee and shipping costs. Sure, but then you have an unhappy dieter on the plan and guess what they’re going to do at some point?

They’re sure to write a scathing review on how they were manipulated by the company into paying for a second month they didn’t want. They will tell of how unhelpful the customer support were (although they are sure to leave out that part where they verbally abused the person on the other end of the phone). They will rant on about how they are disgusted by big companies using such strong arm tactics to fleece customers with bait and switch tactics. But most damaging of all is that they will warn other poeple to stay away from the program.

People are easily swayed by opinions. Opinions are the cheapest commodities on the planet and everyone has an opinion on something or other. People like nothing better than to put they opinions on anyone who cares to listen. The problem is that people do listen!

While the current setup may bring in a sizable income from customers “forced” to stay on the program, the numbers of lost potentially new customers is something not factored into the equation. Could it be that in attracting these “lost” new customers through a more trustworthy full disclosure policy might very easily balance out the loss of customers only out for the first month discount? I don’t know and I’m pretty sure the marketing people at Nutrisystem don’t know either. Because they aren’t trying it.

Success in business is all about taking measured risks. At the present rate of decline in Nutrisystem’s stock value, maybe its time to take a measured risk and try and attract a whole new demographic of customers who know what they are signing up for before they sign up.

There might be some pleasant surprises in store. Or it might not work. Either way, Nutrisystem need to do something to attract (and keep) more customers and get them writing more positive reviews to attract even more customers. Food for thought? I’d say so!

Terry Didcott

*Source Google (NASDAQ:NTRI)

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