When I was a kid, my parents would panic when they see me not putting on weight. To many Chinese parents in those days, chubbiness is equivalent to health. Times have change. Even Chinese women go for liposuction to look healthy. It doesn’t just stop there. Many people, both in the East and the West, are practising Kerouac – controlled starvation for the sake of health.
Since the renaissance, it was known that cutting down on feasts could improve one’s health. Luigi Cornaro (1484-1566) was a Venetian nobleman who led a life of gluttony until he received a wake up call from his doctors. If he went on that way, he would not see his little girl grow up. That’s when Cornaro decided to go on a daily ration of bread and 12 ounces of soup with meat and egg.
Conaro’s health improved tremendously. He was so proud of his achievement that wrote a book, Discorsi della vita sobria in 1558. He revised it 2 years later at age 81 and again at age 83 and 90. His final revision of the book was done at age 95. Cornaro died at 98. From a morbidly obese individual on the brink of death at age 40, he became the oldest living person in his city. His book can be summed up thus “eat no more than is necessary to support life, remembering that all excess causes disease and leads to death.”
Cornaro’s book has been translated into English, German and French. At the beginning of the 20th century, certain groups misinterpreted Cornaro’s sobriety and thought he meant cutting out alcohol. That cannot be further from the truth as Cornaro often washed down his food with several glasses of wine. Some of Cornaro’s biggest fans were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. The title of the English edition has been changed a couple of times. It has been known as The Art of Living Long, The Art of Long Living and How to Live to 100. New and plagiarised editions of Cornaro’s book remained popular right up to the 1980s.
In 1917, Professor Clive McCay decided to put his lab rats on a calorie restricted diet. He discovered that though the rats were small and scrawny, they lived nearly twice as long as the normally fed rats. McCay’s paper published in the Journal of Nutrition in 1935 was the first scientific paper with evidence showing that caloric restriction leads to longer life. McCay would later boast that his undefed rats lived for as long as 120 human years. His claims caused quite a stir. Members of the public were excited by the possibility of starving oneself to achieve longevity. McCay’s research was interrupted by WW2. McCay never gave up. He did studies on dogs and came to the same conclusion. He was keen on performing experiments on humans, but the time frame is too long and McCay never lived to see the day.
Hippy scientist Roy Lee Walford would pick up from where McCay left behind. Walford was fascinated with aging and keen on testing Kerouac and see if he could live forever and enjoy multiple careers and sex partners. The exact mechanism of how starving changes one’s physiology and slows aging is still not well understood, but Walford was determined to try. He cut down his caloric intake to a protein shake for breakfast, a salad for lunch and a bit of fish for dinner. It’s still considerably more than what Cornaro would have consumed, but he preached his philosophy to his numerous Californian fans. A guru was born and Walford went on to write his bestseller, The 120 Year Diet.
But can starvation really do for humans what it did for rats and dogs? Walford’s moment came when he signed on for Biosphere 2, an experimental earth-bound “space” station. In this experiment, Walford and 7 other participants would be sealed inside a dome in the desert north of Tuscon. It would be a self-contained, self-sufficient world with extensive organic gardens and a fish farm. Even the air and water would be recycled in this enclosed ecosystem.
The crew entered the Biosphere on 26 September 1991. With overflowing enthusiasm and perhaps some sense of humour as well, Walford appeared in a Star Trek uniform that matched his Spock-like ears. It’s not know whether Walford expected this, but the Biosphere was unable to provide enough food for the crew. They began to ration food. Everyone was forced to go on a calorie restriction diet and there was no way to cheat. The amount of energy required to maintain their food supply was not considered at first. The crew lost weight and felt miserable. Walford, however, was excited. He wanted to see the results. Every 8 weeks, Walford would sample the crew’s blood. The blood picture was most encouraging. Their insulin, blood sugar and cholesterol fell through the floor. They also had very healthy blood pressure. From the numbers alone, they were some of the healthiest people on earth.
When they were finally released to great fanfare in September 1993, the crew spilled the beans on one another. They became bitter enemies. Walford was looking young, vibrant and fit at 67 when he entered the Biosphere. When he emerged from it, he was emaciated. The damage was not readily visible. He became an alcoholic and suffered from depression. He often froze in his steps and kept losing his balance. Still, Walford stood by his caloric restriction diet, telling the media that he wanted to live till 110. He would die in 2004 at age 79. He failed in his quest, but on a personal level, he had lived a much richer, more fulfilling life than many people ever will.