We all want to find the fountain of youth. And we’d like it to be pleasant to partake of, thank you very much. If we don’t get sparkling water from a legendary fountain, a simple supplement or two is an acceptable alternative.

Research in animals, including primates, has uncovered a potential candidate for the fountain. But it sounds much less pleasant than we would like - caloric restriction (CR).

The effect of CR on lifespan was first noticed in rodents. Rats lived up to 40 percent longer when placed on the CR diet from a young age. While promising, what works in rats doesn’t necessarily do the same for humans.

In 1989, though, researchers at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center began to study the effect of CR on rhesus monkeys. Monkeys still aren’t human, but they are a lot closer than a rat.

This research found that, at any point in time, rhesus monkeys on a normal diet “had 2.9 times the rate of death from an age-related cause when compared with animals under CR.” Monkeys under CR also had lower all-cause mortality than their pals who got to eat a normal diet.

Again, this isn’t a human study. More research needs to be done to definitively say humans would experience similar results. But it does get the wheels turning, no?

Sadly, this approach to longevity is neither the stuff of legends nor an easy fix. In fact, one wonders if cutting calories - for life - to add a few extra years is even worth it. Won’t the misery it adds negate those years? If it were a brand it might market itself like this:

Caloric Restriction: Eat Less, Eek Out a Few Extra Miserable Years

We aren’t the only ones who wonder about the unpleasant effects of such a CR lifestyle. A study in the June 16th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine looked at how a calorie-restricted diet affected quality of life. In humans.

They took a group of 220 normal weight people and put one-third of them on an ad libitum (eat what you want) diet. The other two-thirds were placed on a 25 percent calorie-restricted diet. After two years, researchers asked the subjects a few questions about their lives. They found the CR group had:

  • improved mood,
  • decreased tension,
  • improved general health,
  • improved sexual drive and relationship and
  • improved sleep duration compared to the group who got to eat as much as they wanted.

All members of both groups started out at a normal weight, with BMIs ranging from 22 to 28. But the CR group lost weight as one would expect – an average of 7.6 kilograms, compared to the control group’s 0.4 kilograms. The greater weight loss was associated with increased vigor, less mood disturbance, improved general health and better sleep quality.

So, the words “caloric restriction” may not sound like a lot of fun. But the benefits seem to yield a real improvement in quality of life, even if it doesn’t end up leading to a longer life. The tagline for CR might actually be:

Eat Less, Live Better, and (Maybe) Live Longer