The Longevity Diet (Book Review)

Dr Valter Longo summarises his life long journey of researching longevity through diet. In The Longevity Diet, he argues for a nutritious diet in combination with regular fasting mimicking diets (FMD). The diet is plant-based (with some fish sprinkled in). The FMD should activate innate programs your body has for restoring youth (juvenescence).

The book offers a compelling argument for the influence of diet on our health. It also makes common sense (which from The AI Delusion I gather we need some more of). Yet it also relies heavily on epidemiological data and studies of centenarians. What I find most compelling is the clinical studies, for which the other two can be a basis/hypothesis.

Two questions remain after reading the book. The first concerns longevity and fitness. In bodybuilding/weightlifting/etc world IGF-1 is touted as a great way to build muscle. Yet it’s also one of the things mentioned in the longevity diet as something to avoid (e.g. red meat) and lower (e.g. FMD). I want to put on some pounds (of muscle) in the coming years, yet also want to live long. So there is a bit of a dilemma.

The second is about the expected effect size of the longevity diet (+FMD). Will it add 5 years? 10 years? And/or how many healthy years (healthspan) will it add? This is something that is quite difficult to study (us being humans and all), and I hope we will be able to make progress in this area in the coming years. At the same time I also think that fixing things at a molecular level (see Ending Aging) should be pursued.

The best thing could be to eat healthy, with some FMD/fasts sprinkled throughout the year, and then also start fixing some things which we can’t keep intact with a good diet, or that need to be partly supplemented with other interventions.

One thing to never lose sight of is the enjoyment of life. Some of the mice in the calorie restriction programs were depressed, for twice the lifetime. I really like the idea of having short (5 days) fasts/FMD 4 times per year. And although I already follow most of the guidelines of the longevity diet (and I want to do that even better), I still love to have a beer or two (or 8) every now and then. So if you want to have a long and healthy life, read on for the rest of my notes on The Longevity Diet.

In the introduction we are introduced to the goal of the book “Contrary to the notion that if we live longer we will extend the ‘sickness’ period, our data indicate that by understanding how the human body is maintained while young, we can stay fully functional into our nineties, hundreds, and beyond. One of your primary ways to achieve this is to exploit our body’s innate ability to regenerate itself at the cellular and organ levels.”

The Five Pillars of Longevity is what Longo builds his research upon:

  1. Basic/juventology research
  2. Epidemiology
  3. Clinical studies
  4. Studies of centenarians
  5. The understanding of complex systems

A lot of the book is dedicated to describing the habits and diets of centenarians. One of the statements in this context is that supplementation doesn’t work (e.g. with antioxidants). The argument is that you can’t improve on an almost perfect system. I understand the concept in relation to what is being tried. Yet at the same time, our system is almost perfect to keep us alive some time after childbirth. In time I do believe we will be able to copy/supplement this system to live even longer.

Another thing he argues for is that we should do things in tune with evolution. Although that phrase itself is quite pointless, the example of fasting is illustrating. Longo argues that in times of low food a species (humans, but also earlier on the evolutionary tree) were right in saving themselves over reproducing (otherwise they wouldn’t be here anymore). So if we trick our body into giving that response, maybe we can set off the same protection and damage repair (on a protein level) process.

What Longo tries to do is to keep a human young, not treating individual diseases or conditions. The process of repair that he argues for, he calls programmed longevity: “a biological strategy to influence longevity and health through cellular protection and regeneration to stay younger longer.”

You are what you eat and food can have a large impact on your health. Yet at the same time Longo argues that your happiness is not determined by the food you eat. Yes a cake (read: sugars) bring you immediate joy, but eating healthy is not something that will make you unhappy. He even argues that it will make you happier, although indirectly, because of better health.

Constant caloric deprivation/deficit is not what you would want. It can expand the life of a mouse, and possibly humans too. But experiments in both show that it’s the opposite of a mood booster. This is one of the main reasons for doing a FMD/fast only at certain intervals.

The Longevity Diet is what you want to be doing for most of the time, it consists of the following parts:

  • Pescetarian diet: Almost 100% plant-based and fish 2 or 3 times a week (for the omega’s – this could be vital, but I wonder how critical/necessary it is)
    • One note is that in old age, Longo argues for more protein in the diet (but it’s based on studies of centenarians and one fallacy of this could be that they didn’t have much protein back in the day and now just have it available (thus eating it more))
  • Consume low but sufficient proteins
    • From plants and nuts
  • Minimize bad (trans) fats and sugars, and maximize good fats and complex carbs
  • Be nourished (Longo argues for taking a vitamin and mineral supplement, I can’t find good evidence that backs it up, and I wonder if it really is beneficial)
  • Eat a variety of foods from your ancestry (again, not 100% convinced, I do get it from a ‘processed’ vs more whole-food approach)
  • Eat twice a day plus a snack (now doing this, and the main benefit is more control/easier measuring of meals)
  • Observe time-restricted eating (eat within 11-12 hours per day or less)
    • The source linked for this is quite a good one, with an intervention (only to eat within the time frame) that lead to weight loss.
  • Practice period prolonged fasting (fasting/FMD for 2 periods of 5 days or more)
  • Follow the above points to reach/maintain a healthy weight and abdominal circumference

I really like the last part, it’s about finding a new diet, not ‘dieting’.

It also triggered me to make some measurements to better assess my progress in body composition (the two scales I have at home are very erratic and give different measures).

Here are some more notes:

  • The age differences between the best and the worst groups are quite small: Okinawa 81,2 vs USA 76,8 (5%)
  • And although some cancer levels are much higher in percentages, up to 8 times as many, the number of prostate cancers in the US is still only 28 per 100.000
  • “If you take 100 centenarians, you get 100 different elixirs of longevity”
  • Longo argues that the drugs we’re developing are still far away and that diet is, now, the best thing you can do yourself (I can concur)
  • Stay active, this is the second factor after diet that has a huge influence on longevity
    • Walk fast for an hour every day
    • Ride, run, swim 30-40 minutes every other day plus two hours on the weekend
    • Use your muscles
  • The FMD could also have positive effects on many diseases. Although things become a bit more speculative here, there is still quite promising evidence and if you (again) compare it to the average diet, I can very much understand how it could help
  • Chapters that follow deal with cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease (the biggest killer that gets the least attention), Alzheimer’s, and autoimmune diseases

The book ends with an observation about our minds. A positive mindset, a will to live, and more could be very significant factors in longevity. The trouble is that it’s not very well studied and the implementation of results can be quite hard. But keeping close friends and enjoying life should not be underestimated.

As a final note, I wholeheartedly believe in what Longo says and I am confident that more research will confirm many of the things not yet proven. Yet I also think we should pursue medical/drug interventions with all the haste we can. Eventually things will break down, our genes weren’t ‘made’ to have us live forever. So we will have to come up with ways to do this ourselves. The Longevity Diet is a great basis, a well-oiled car, now we need some mechanics to do some repairs (and upgrades) every now and then.

Note: As mentioned above, centenarian research really isn’t that good. New research shows that record-keeping in these areas is bad and the long ages probably based on lies (or statistical flukes).

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