HTLS 2021 — Reversing ageing, controlling weight key for saving lives: Dr Valter Longo

Dr Valter Longo has developed a fasting-mimicking diet — a low-calorie meal programme that mimics the effects of periodic fasting or water fasting over the course of five days, while still providing the body with nutrition
Dr Valter Longo, director of the Longevity Institute at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, Los Angeles. (Getty images)
Dr Valter Longo, director of the Longevity Institute at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, Los Angeles. (Getty images)
Published on Dec 03, 2021 12:00 AM IST
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ByHT Correspondent

New Delhi: Nutrition is the most powerful way to alter how fast we age, and may be the key factor that determines whether or not we develop age-related diseases, said one of the world’s foremost biogerontologist and cell biologist, as he offered links that connect our food to living a long and healthy life.

The insight was shared by Dr Valter Longo, professor, gerontology and biological sciences, and director of the Longevity Institute at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, Los Angeles, during a session on the third day of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Thursday.

“We can argue, based on over 100 years of research, that nutrition is by far the most powerful way to alter how fast we age, and also alter whether we will develop age-related disease like diabetes, cancer, cardiological and neurodegenerative diseases,” he said, adding that reversing ageing and controlling weight is crucial for saving lives not only from dozens of disease, but also from Covid-19.

“The risk of dying from Covid increases hundredfold based on whether you are 20 years old or over 80 years old. There is also a big difference in mortality risk from Covid based on whether people have age-related diseases like cardiovascular, diabetes, respiratory disease, hypertension or cancer,” he said, highlighting the importance of regulating the impacts of ageing and the minimising the risks associated with it.

Longo, who has pioneered the research on the role of nutrition on cellular protection from ageing and diseases, was in conversation with health communications specialist Sanchita Sharma.

He has developed a fasting-mimicking diet (FMD) — a low-calorie meal programme that mimics the effects of periodic fasting or water fasting over the course of five days, while still providing the body with nutrition. FMD is a plant-based diet designed to attain fasting-like effects on the body while still providing both macro and micro nutrients to minimise the burden and adverse effects generally associated with fasting. Under FMD, people typically undergo a low-calorie diet for five days a month two or three times a year, while largely retaining their regular eating habits in the remaining time.

His team’s research on mice, published in the journal Nature Metabolism, was conducted among two groups of mice with very high fat diets, one of which was on FMD for five days a month. In the study, the mice on high-fat/calorie diet quickly put on weight, but only five days diet was enough to prevent obesity in the second set of mine.

“Both men and women can follow this diet... For most people, such a diet needs to only be followed two to three times a year, while this number might be three to four times a year for obese people,” he said. “The idea of this diet is that you do it when you need to do it.” He added that it is best for people to consult a doctor or a nutritionist for the ideal execution of the diet, particularly if they are diabetic, pregnant, anorexic, or are on insulin-related drugs.

Most importantly, he pointed out, that studies have shown FMD achieves weight loss while not reducing crucial parameters like muscle or bone mass – normally a by-product of traditional fasting diets.

Longo added that his team has finished yet-to-be-published research where the effects of the diet on diabetic people were found promising.

On the crucial topic of sugar consumption, the professor said, “Don’t worry about the sugar in your tea or coffee if you only put a small spoonful.”

He said during his research in Italy when his team looked at the widespread belief that high-sugar junk food may be behind obesity, they found that people were eating high volumes of pasta, bread, rice, and potatoes, which was the main problem. The obesity, he said, was “not coming from the candy or sugary drinks, but from a tonne of refined carbohydrates that were a part of the Mediterranean diet”.

He said that his clinical trials clearly showed that using a proper diet, people can reverse the damage of ageing and lifestyle disease. “It can definitely reverse it (the effects of ageing)... We saw that people that were pre-diabetic were clearly returning to normal states. And while more research is needed...we can certainly say that we’ve seen reversal of diseases like diabetes is some patients,” Longo said.

Periodic FMD, Longo said, is even more effective in at-risk patients. His research showed a significant drop in parameters like blood glucose in pre-diabetic patients after three cycles of FMD. Similar reductions were found in IGF-1 (a marker associated with ageing and cancer), and markers of cardiovascular diseases, and drop in blood cholesterol. “[FMD] is not hitting just one risk-factor for disease, but is going after multiple risk-factors,” he said. By reducing these factors, it is effectively reducing the biological age of the participants.

Longo is also the director of the Longevity and Cancer Program at the IFOM Institute of Molecular Oncology in Milan, and is the author of multiple books including the best-seller The Longevity Diet.

The longevity diet he advocates involves occasional long periods of FMD, along with a mostly plant-based diet with fish, low protein intake and high levels of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and Omega 3s, vitamins, among others.

For people who are overweight, obese or those that tend to put on weight, he said, “They should have breakfast as usual — as skipping breakfast is not recommended — but should pick a single meal between the option of lunch and dinner. The other should be substituted with a snack that is less than 100 calories – it could be fruits, or nuts, or a small salad.”

He added: “I think it is very important to have this be clinically tested and to have a diet that is starting to look like medicine for people rather than have them improvise.”

Longo stressed that eating the food our ancestors consumed forms a key part in keeping health problems at bay because ethnicity and race can play a role on how food can affect our body. “So eventually, we are going to have thousands and thousands of precise diets for thousands of people,” he said.

If a family, for instance, has a history of celiac disease then their diets may not be conducive to bread or forms of gluten. “For instance, if you’re Norwegian then milk may not be a problem for you, but if you’re Japanese or southern Italian then you are more likely to be lactose intolerant, so your diet will need to be modified accordingly,” he said.

“It is important to look at what your grandparents and their parents were eating and it never bothered them... Then you look at the longevity diet and find an equivalent in what your grandparents ate.”

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