The Folly of Dietary Overengineering

Diets are like cars; we all deal with them, and up to a certain point the more you know the more you'll get out of them. That certain point is actually a pretty low threshold of knowledge in either case - but you wouldn't know it from the vast literature and ongoing conversations on tinkering with cars or tinkering with diet. A few recent and lengthy posts at Chronosphere serve as an example of the tip of the iceberg:

There's enough reading material beyond those links to keep you occupied for a while, and it's the merest drop in the ocean of basically sensible discussion on optimizing diet, which in turn is the merest drop in the ocean of published nonsense and idiocy when it comes to what we eat. At this point in my years of looking into life extension, and despite a general lack of interest in the finer points of nutrition, I could probably run up a lengthy essay or two of my own - but the final paragraph would be "and ignore all of what came before: just practice calorie restriction as laid out in any of the Calorie Restriction Society-recommended books on the subject, exercise as recommended by your physician, and take a good multivitamin."

Optimizing your diet is like optimizing the engine in your car for long-term use. How much time and money do you want to spend on this as a project? However large your answer, you can easily find ways to spend those resources - it's a deep rabbit hole, with many side-passages, and one that lacks firm measures of success. Unless you make it your hobby and are happy tinkering for the sake of tinkering, I'd suggest that it's largely not worth it. You'd be better off doing something with your time that is more likely to prove constructive in the end.

Look at it this way: the research community has established that no dietary practice is better for health and longevity in a range of species than calorie restriction - coupled with any of the standard, sane, recommended balanced diets of the sort that have been well known and well publicized for decades. The results in humans are eye-opening when it comes to measures of health - if calorie restriction was a drug, pharmaceutical companies would be advertising it on every billboard and it would be a household name. Do you think you can do better than the decades of work put in by the entire scientific community? You can't. If you're investigating odds and ends of interesting publications and theories on diet around the edges of the field, then by all means have fun if that's the way you like to spend your spare time. But don't think that you're getting ahead of the game - that's not the way the world works.

The bottom line is that if you want to optimize your diet, just sensibly practice calorie restriction. End of story.


Until the human studies finish with actual mortality data, CR will always be more uncertain in its benefits than things like Cretan or 7th Day Adventist data with their cut-and-dried mortality data. Demonstrated human longevity is the ultimate vindication.

Posted by: gwern at August 22nd, 2011 9:51 PM

Not arguing against caloric restriction as such, but I have a bone to pick with the worship of the current widely accepted dietary recommendations (in specific, grains and possibly dairy). The bottom line is that the FDA possibly has vested interest in advertising grains as healthy and necessary foods, whereas these are on the whole nutrient-poor, calorie-dense, and quite possibly cause autoimmune reactions in many more people than has been thought previously. Gut permeability is also an issue with dairy in some people. For more information on the Paleo spectrum of diets that try to mimic a dietary milieu more similar to that of the paleolithic (the period during which most of homo sapiens evolution took place), see:

Basic research:

Quick intro:

Community advice:

Posted by: anonymous coward at August 23rd, 2011 12:21 AM

I really like the attitude of your post! LOL! I have little interest in automobiles beyond driving them around (when I have to) and no interest in that dirty, smelly, sharp-edged thing under the hood. My articles on diet on Chronosphere are not aimed at the ‘man on the street’ and they aren't designed to stand alone. Their purpose is to summarize the available scientific evidence about what LIFESTYLE will give you the largest extension in mean lifespan AND the greatest reduction in sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). The latter is critically important to cryonicists, but probably not so much so to non-cryonicists.

At the end of the day what I want to be able to say to people is: “Here are two diets/ lifestyles that are practical, affordable and bearable to follow. You can eat pretty much as much as you want, you won't be hungry. You will still be able to eat satisfying food that doesn't weird out everyone you are with, and you can dine out without difficulty. And if you want to cheat now and then - have at it - you'll still get the benefit. And if you cheat a lot, well then, the benefit will very likely be proportional. It's not gonna be ‘all or none.’ And the benefit will be something on the order of 2 to 10 years of added healthy life and a large reduction in age-associated degenerative diseases. Not bad, eh?

However, I can't say those things without FIRST saying all the other stuff and providing hard data and references. I don't ask (nor do I think) that the end-users are going to read the stuff on Chronosphere. That's not the point. The point is that they should BELIEVE they are being told the truth and being given good advice. I ask the same thing of my mechanic. I’m not interested in engines or automobiles, but that doesn’t mean I’m a sucker or a moron. When I want the technical dish I will either be able to understand it, or communicate it to someone whom I trust to both make sense of it and advise me appropriately.

Finally, you say, “…just practice calorie restriction as laid out in any of the Calorie Restriction Society-recommended books.” That’s where we differ, because in my experience, the vast majority of people cannot or will not do that. For some of those who do, the process becomes pathological, with eating disorders like those seen in young women emerging, as well as bone disease and serious micronutrient deficiencies. For people who are miserable on CR, won’t even consider it in the first place, or who have become obsessed with food in unhealthy ways, the Cretan (Mediterranean) or Adventist Vegetarian diets offer the proven prospect of significant mean lifespan extension, a large reduction in morbidity, and a very large reduction in sudden death. These are Evidence Based Medicine Level-1/Level-2 (or A/ B, if you prefer) backed claims.

Personally, I think well done CR will do considerably better than either of the options I’ve just laid out (and the best is often the enemy of the good). However, that’s only what I think. Until the clinical trials are done, we simply won’t know for sure. As I wrote in my last article, the data from these kinds of studies reaches us like the light from a distant star. The people in the AHS and Cretan studies are mostly dead – they have to be or we wouldn’t be able to plot mortality curves for them. If we’re smart, we’ll use that data to the maximum extent possible, because the next human cohort that will be providing this kind of data about life extension interventions is gonna be us; and that means we won’t exactly be in a position to use it.

Posted by: Mike Darwin at August 23rd, 2011 1:06 AM

Anonymous writes: "I have a bone to pick with the worship of the current widely accepted dietary recommendations (in specific, grains and possibly dairy). The bottom line is that the FDA possibly has vested interest in advertising grains as healthy and necessary foods, whereas these are on the whole nutrient-poor, calorie-dense, and quite possibly cause autoimmune reactions in many more people than has been thought previously. Gut permeability is also an issue with dairy in some people."

Let me let in you in on a little secret. God did not make food for humans or any other animals. Evolution did - and it mostly didn't optimize the food for human consumption. ALL foods have bad, bad things in them. If the FDA could regulate oranges they'd be in a well secured steel chemical locker labeled "carcinogenic." An orange has easily 250 mg of pretty nasty carcinogens in it. Celery contains a truly obnoxious photosensitizing and cancer causing class of molecules called psoralens. The toxic agents that are present in biologically active concentrations in MOST of the vegetation we eat would send the average consumer into a swoon (and phytates are the kleast of them!).

Plants and animals did not evolve so that we could eat them and live long and prosper. In fact, mostly the reverse is the case: these organisms evoolved nasty molecules in their tissues to stop animals from eating them!

Magicians and con artists have one thing in common (aside from wishing to separate you from your money) and that is the art of misdirection (and demonization). So now it's: "Grains are horrible and it is a government (FDA) conspiracy!" Well, grains probably are horrible as are most of the foods we eat, be it organic, growing in the wild,freshly slaughtered, or coming out of the fanny of chicken. That's because it WASN'T MEANT TO BE EATEN!Meat is loaded with toxic species including iron. So please, get a clue the Paleo guys are mostly just folks who want you to pay to see them pull a rabbit out of a hat. The trouble is, entertainment value aside, it may well cost you years of life and good health.

As a scientist, what makes a great deal more sense to me is to try to figure out how to create food(s) that, for the first time since life began, are designed to be eaten and to be eaten by us. That means designed to provide optimum nutrition with minimal harm. That is the real future of food research and dietary intervention. But it won't be easy and it isn't going to happen anytime soon. So, until People Chow is on the market: pick your poison. And I'd add that that is best done by well designed human trials, and not by armchair theorizing.

Posted by: Mike Darwin at August 23rd, 2011 9:51 AM

In reply to Mike Darwin's post:

Rational thinking involves becoming less wrong through repeated theorizing and pertinent experimentation. Your equating slightly harmful foods with considerably harmful foods is wrong, self-deceptive, irrational thinking.

Compare an orange's REAL, not theorized, effects on your long-term health to the REAL effects of gluten-containing grains that destroy the lining of the small intestine in many people, letting all kinds of large proteins into the bloodstream that have no business being there, in turn increasing not only the risk of acquiring autoimmune disease but also SIGNIFICANTLY increasing the risk of destroying a person's insulin response (for reasons known and probably some also as yet unknown). Not only that, but gluten-containing grains and dairy products are addictive due to Gliadinomorphine (from gluten) and Casomorphine (from bovine casein). They give us a food high that makes us keep eating even after we are full, and give us cravings if we try to quit eating these products.

I know the truth can suck sometimes, and I do empathize with your position. But read the real science in the link I posted in my previous comment. Better yet, try giving up grains and dairy for a couple of months (but make sure you take a complete supplement too). From my own experience, it's hard as hell to do because of their addictive qualities, but the benefits to my energy levels, weight loss and overall mental wellbeing have been great.

Posted by: anonymous coward at August 23rd, 2011 5:00 PM

@anonymous coward
I didn't try to find sources for what you're saying, but implying it is true and that I should stop eating grains, how could I? There is a so big quantity of nutrients provided by grains, and it would be very difficult to get all this intake without eating grains, especially considering that I am vegan. I would never have the time to think about it while going on my day to day life.

Posted by: Danquebec at August 24th, 2011 5:02 PM


What the grains mostly provide is a lot of calories for relatively little nutrition. The alternative for you is a TON of veggies and fruits (not a great option), wild plant infusions for nutrients alone (I do nettle, raspberry leaf, hibiscus flower, see Susun Weed infusions), or also cheap nuts like almonds and cashews bought in bulk. The bitter walnuts I stay away from because they have a lot of phytic acid, just like grains, which binds up nutrients instead of letting you absorb them. I wish I could afford macadamias. Also, properly soaked beans that are then pressure cooked can be OK, but my stomach still doesn't like those lectins in them even after that. Least damaging legumes to your intestines are lentils I think.
If you MUST have grains, try to decrease those with gluten, and look at for recipes on preparing grains traditionally in order to diminish their bad effects (like soaking, fermentation and such).

Posted by: Anonymous Coward at August 24th, 2011 6:19 PM

Comment on "...and take a good multivitamin": The Federal gov't and Consumer Reports consistently say supplements have never been shown in scientific experiments to either improve health, or extend longevity. For Calorie Restrictors: Your subconscious will make your nutrition decisions for you. You will do what your subconscious says to do, when it tells you to do it. You have almost no choice. Simple CR will extend your lives, on average, with no actions by your conscious minds, except to do Calorie Restriction. (I wish I had the focus and fortitude to do CR!)

Posted by: PeteMrtno at August 28th, 2011 7:26 PM
Comment Submission

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.