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On The Fast Track

delhi Updated: Aug 27, 2011 23:24 IST

Almost as much as corruption, everyone is talking about how Anna Hazare, 74, has gone without food for 12 days while his younger and shriller supporters resorted to theatrics take away attention from the fact that they were wolfing down three meals a day and more as usual.

Hazare has made living without food appear almost easy. The sprightly Gandhian, who does not look physically fit at all, is sitting up with support on day12 and was alert enough to address his supporters for 20 minutes on the tenth day of fasting, a feat that TV yoga celeb and fitness icon Baba Ramdev could not match four months ago, when he collapsed of dehydration and low blood pressure on day six of his "fortified" fast.

For, unlike Hazare who is just drinking water, Ramdev - who is just 36, claims his family - crumpled within days despite having honey (fructose, a basic sugar that the body uses for energy), salt (electrolytes essential for regulating water and central nervous system) and water (prevents dehydration).

The No-frill food plan
Doctors credit Hazare's incredible physical fortitude to his frugal diet, which makes prolonged fast a mere extension of his normal day. According to his aides, Hazare has only one meal a day, eating two chappatis with milk or, sometimes, with lentils and vegetables. Dinner is either milk or juice, if at all. All together, he eats less than 1,000 calories a day.

And the benefits are showing up in his health reports. Apart from mild age-related hypertension (high blood pressure), Hazare is free from lifestyle-related diseases such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes, which is no mean feat in a country like India where one in three adults is overweight, diabetes effects one in five men and one in three women over 60 years, and heart attack kills 3 million a year.

Watchful scrimping
"Apart from age-related hypertension, he's very fit because of the healthy and active lifestyle he leads," said Dr Naresh Trehan, chairman of Medanta, the hospital that had a 10-member team of doctors and paramedics tracking Hazare's health 24x7.

Globally, 44% of diabetes, 23% of heart disease and 7-41% of certain cancers (breast and prostate, to name a few) are linked with overweight and obesity. The fact is that everyone benefits from cutting calories, from yeast to rats and humans. In a 2009 article in Science, nutrition and longevity researchers reported that animals on a frugal diet developed far fewer diseases related to ageing. When they eventually died of old age, they did so without falling ill. In comparison, 94% animals on a normal diet developed and died of one or more chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

More than one study has shown that animals on a calorie-restrictive diet have longer and healthier lives, which has prompted researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, to study whether the same is true for extreme dieters, a category that Anna - with his less than 1,000 daily calorie diet -- falls into.

The ongoing research - called CRONA (Caloric Restriction with Optimal Nutrition and Aging Study) - focuses on the biological processes affected by eating less, including the effect on cellular aging and on telomeres (a pieces of DNA that protect chromosomes). Telomeres have been linked to diabetes, heart disease and premature death. The study will also compare people on starvation diets with normal eaters and overeaters on parameters of mental sharpness, impulse control, stress and personality traits. These findings, they say, can help develop medicines to influence pathways affected by low-calorie diets and help keep people healthy as they get older.

But even as the world waits for the CRONA findings, some people - such as members of the Calorie Restriction Society International - have willingly cut their calorie intake by 25% or more in hope of living longer. They adopt a diet that limits calories mainly in the form of sugar, carbohydrates and excessive fat without scrimping on vitamins and minerals.

The good and the bad
A 2004 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that people who ate less have lower heart risk factors and high levels of heart-protective good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or HDL), and triglyceride levels were comparable to people in 20s, though the study's participants were aged between 35 and 82.

Of course, there are side effects. Calorie restriction causes micro-nutrient deficiencies, muscle wasting if protein is not taken in adequate amount, lower testosterone levels and reduces libido. That apart, a low-cal diet slows metabolism and the reduces the core body temperature, making it difficult to regulate body temperature.

But the side effects are small compared to the gains, so cutting down portion sizes by a third may just be the way ahead to prevent disease and save up on hospital bills.