If there is a group of humans who whose fate tracks with that of lab mice, it is that of the Caloric Restriction Society, whose members make a lifestyle out of the long-noted fact that lab mice live nearly twice as long as regular mice--if they are dramatically underfed. I wondered what this group of steel-willed individuals, whose members eat anywhere from 25-40 percent less than us on a daily basis, was up to lately. So this past weekend I travelled to Tarrytown, NY to see them in action. Here is my report:


Paul McGlothin, the predictably lanky chief scientific officer of the Calorie Restriction Society, has had a lot on his mind lately. He and his wife Meredith Averill have just completed a book, “The CR Way,” due out sometime next year. A number of pivotal studies on CR are about to be published. And public demand for information about the Society is, he says, “growing phenomenally”—right along with the national waistline.

So it was hardly surprising that McGlothin, a former professional clarinet player turned ad man, was, as he puts it, “a little giddy,” at this past weekend’s Glucose Control Workshop held at the brand-new Tarrytown Sheraton. “I call what we’re here for caloric liberation!” he told a gathering of some two dozen attendees, who’d ponied up $1000 each to learn about McGlothin’s new CR Way. “It’s not just about calorie restriction, it’s about a way of life. A happy, optimistic way of life, where food doesn’t control you.” 

McGlothin, whose elastic features and Mr. Rogers voice conjure a low-key Don Knotts, has been thinking that CR needed a rebranding for some time. After practicing the very low-cal regimen for 14 years, he’d grown weary of “the old image, you know, the guy in the dark corner office with his wheat germ who’ll live 100 years and hate every minute of it. That’s not us! That’s not me! I mean, I run a super-edgy ad agency, super edgy, and a lot of my employees practice CR too. I am positive that a 59-year-old guy like me could never be performing so well without it. And that’s the way with most people in CR. The image is out of whack, big time!” 

If the profile—both literal and metaphorical—of the Workshop attendees was any gauge, McGlothin, himself from Westchester, could take heart.

Although about half of them were classic, pencil-thin restrictors, the rest were Joe and Jane Averages, several with the requisite doughy American physiognomy, and two with outright paunches. There was a tall fellow named Eddy from Brooklyn, who was there because he had “just finished chemo, and I’m gonna rebuild myself from the ground up, and this seems like a way to do it.” There was a gauzily-clad woman named Julia from Seattle who had suffered a “total digestive collapse” after picking up a parasite in India. And there was an ex-pate Sony executive named Dave from Tokyo who explained, as he ate his dinner, gram by gram from a portable scale, that “I just had a close relative die of cancer, and if there’s anything I can do to prevent it happening to me, then so be it. I’ve been doing this for a year now and thought I’d come to get a full indoctrination of state-of-the-art CR.” 

As McGlothin sees it, the “state of the art” can be summed up in two words: Cell signaling. Well, four words: “Cell signaling, the future!” By that he refers to a growing body of research, some funded by the Society itself, some by the NIH, that shows that CR may slow aging because of the way it triggers something called hormesis, a kind of selective metabolic stress that “tells” cells to conserve energy.

Although there are dozens of theories about why this happens, McGlothin is convinced he knows one pathway to such cell signaling, and how to control it. “You’ve got to control your blood sugar and insulin,” he said, encouraging everyone at the conference table to pick up their new glucose meters, which came in their conference goody-bags. “You’ve got to keep your blood sugar from slamming up…” He tapped the desk and pointed to a chart projected on a screen. “And down! You’ve got to keep it in a narrow range, because if you don’t, you start sending a message to your body to make too much of a lot of bad actors, things like IGF-1 and TNF, things that are markers of aging and chronic disease.” 

It was morning, and breakfast (boiled sweet potatoes and green bean mash and fruit) awaited, but before eating, McGlothin insisted that everyone first take a blood sugar reading to get a “baseline.” This resulted in lots of fumbling with the finger-pricking equipment (“Oww! Three hits and still none. I must be anemic!” “Fuck! Baseline this!”)

After having everyone record the number that appeared on their meters, McGlothin instructed the group to eat a “tease meal”—a few chunks of potato only—to provoke an insulin response; the idea is to have your insulin up and ready to “smooth out” your blood sugar when you finally eat your “real” breakfast a while later.  

Then, just as several attendees looked as if they were about to sprinkle salt and pepper on their chair cushions and dig in, McGlothin and Averill popped up out of their seats. “Time for a walk,” he chirped, doffing a floppy canvas hat. “It’s a way to make sure you’re setting yourself up for good cell signaling. Sometimes Merrill just jumps rope with weights on her back for a few minutes, but we can just walk.”

Everyone walked, then ate, kind of. Blood sugar, exercise—what else had McGlothin included in his rebranded regimen? After the Sunday morning breakfast “tease,” we found out. “I call in the CR daily fast,” McGlothin proudly told a few slightly puzzled newbies, one of whom muttered, sotto veggie, “I thought we were already fasting!” 

The essence of it, McGlothin went on, was simple: people should consider going for a one-hour walk instead of dinner everyday. That, he said as he displayed another round of slides, would result in all kinds of positive cell signaling benefits, ranging from memory improvements to, of course, better glucose control.

“Merrill and I got the idea a few years ago, when we went for a long walk after our main meal at lunch time and then just didn’t eat the last meal of the day. It felt great. And we sort of looked at each other and said, gee, you mean for 40 years we ate dinner instead of doing this? Why did we do that?” 

It was nearing agenda end-time when McGlothin brought the room to a hush and asked everyone to take off their shoes to “feel rooted in now.” He explained how meditation was the fourth new component of his CR Way, and then led everyone, eyes shut, in a guided visualization of their internal body.

“And now, let’s just thank our pancreas,” he intoned solemnly, “because with the tease, the walk and the meditation, it has been producing insulin and getting it to the right level.” He went on to the other organs.

Meantime, outside the conference room, the non-CR world had roused itself.  Food platters banged and juice glasses tinkled. At the Sheraton Tarrytown, Sunday brunch had commenced. “Morty?” drifted in one distinctive Brooklyn voice. “Do you want the French toast or what?” 


- Greg Critser