Ebracing Starvation in Order to Live Forever

Posted on October 30, 2006

Julian Dibbell joined a cult nice group of people which practices the hot new Calorie Restriction Diet. The CR diet is a diet where you eat only enough so that you don't starve -- the theory behind it is to extend one's life. After two months of deprivation, Julian starts to get euphoric and finds his new friends to be thrilling, interesting companions. Until he decides to bring a non-dieting friend along to meet the group and have dinner. Suddenly, the group started looking less and less like they are ahead of their time and more and more like they are out of their minds. As one guest weighs each piece of food, another meticulously logs every precious calorie into a computer.
The hardest part, I find, is the math: not just the labor of tracking everything I put in my body but the way in which calorie counting makes the no-free-lunch adage so viscerally clear. Bacon cheeseburgers, chocolate, a martini-all are pleasures now completely ruined by the knowledge that the massive caloric debts that they create must be paid for with days or even weeks of caloric cutbacks. Other abnegations-the dinner invitations regretfully declined, the awkward orders of soda water on the rocks at "drinks" with friends and colleagues, the freakishly ascetic feeling of sitting gaunt and empty-plated before a calorie-packed family dinner-are met with the compensatory feeling one gets when walking a righteous, if lonely, path.

*****

The 1,800 daily calories I've been consuming fall well short of the minimum 2,500 recommended for adult males, and two months on this caloric budget has shrunk my 43-year-old, five-eleven frame from an almost officially overweight 178 pounds to a high-school-era 157. Friends and loved ones, I've noticed, have started sounding more concerned than impressed when they see how much weight I've lost, but here within the charmed circle of tonight's dinner party, I don't feel so much scrawny as trim-dashing, even. Standing around the kitchen's broad butcher-block prep table with these five world-class calorie restricters, I recognize our thinness as sophisticated and sane, the height of a slender, Nick and Nora Charles sort of elegance.

*****

A sixth guest arrives: my friend Adam, whom I've invited along for a variety of reasons, including both his outside perspective and his promise to bring a bottle of wine. It's a Pinot Noir, per April's request-the grape of choice for the calorie-restricted set, rich in anti-aging resveratrol-and she has Adam fill our glasses with exactly 74 calories' worth of it. Well, some of our glasses. Paul and Meredith practice a one-meal-a-day variety of CR, and it so happens they already ate. "Cheers, anyway," says Paul, quite cheerfully, as he and his wife raise their glasses of water with us.

We move to the table, which April has set with the salad course: the aforementioned 24 grams of arugula per plate, dressed with lemon juice and cushioning a couple of scallops sautéed in garlic, white wine, and cilantro. We begin to eat, and I experience a minor culinary epiphany: Mildly sickened by the taste of scallops for most of my adulthood and afflicted, for as long as I can remember, by an aversion to cilantro that borders on the emetic, I find myself now tucking into April Smith's cilantro-infused scallops-and-arugula salad as if it were the best salad I have ever tasted. And I'll be goddamned if it isn't.

*****

For dessert, we get a CR-perfect parfait: organic strawberries, nonfat ricotta, flaxseed oil, and hazelnuts. It's very good, and it's gone too fast, and as long as we're rewriting the book on table manners here, I can't see the harm in scooping out the last bits of ricotta with my fingers.
After the dinner is finished Julian turns to his friend Adam to see if he has also enjoyed the dinner of quorn, flaxseed, scallops and arugula. Adam say, "Dude. It was bad." But we won't spoil the ending of this hilarious story -- read for yourself whether Julian stayed the course with CR or immediately cut and ran.