TOPICS > Science

Extended Interview: Eri Gentry

February 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: When did you get interested in calorie restriction?

ERI GENTRY, student: I think all my life I’ve been interested in extending my lifespan and trying to be as healthy as possible. I was just, picked up books on the topic and just read right through them. It seemed fascinating to me that you could actually intervene in the course of your life, how you could life healthier, longer and that it wasn’t pre-determined, so it was really interesting information to me, so once I had the Internet available to me, I just started searching out there, how can you be the healthiest person possible? How can you increase your lifespan?

I started finding out about changes within your genes which you could change yourself and how that could lead to longer lifespan. Through that I was led to links through calorie restriction, mostly through the (inaudible) studies of the longest lived people in the world and it may have been attributed to their calorie restrictive diets.

And once I found out about that I did some more searches for calorie restriction and I found that indeed it was the healthiest diet that it was the only type of diet consistently proven to increase your health biomarkers and to stimulate increase the lifespan in humans as based on studies with numerous features such as dogs, mice, yeast, fruit flies, and most recently monkeys. And it seems given all that, that there’s a strong case that humans can live longer, too, through calorie restriction and that seems amazing.

So after all that, I sort of like dedicated my time to finding out more about this. It seems like a very simple thing that I could do myself and I ended up finding a group of 1,700 people who are doing that simple thing themselves, it’s the Calorie Restriction Society and I found their Web site, online.

I joined up about 2-and-a-half years ago and have been reading through their comments, their posts which include a lot of scientific studies, a lot over my head, but ones that I try to get through and I feel like more of a scientist every time I read one and I feel a little bit (inaudible) every time I read one and a little bit healthier once I implement those practices in my life.

And just meeting that group of people has made a huge change in my life. It’s a lot of motivation. They’re all out there wanting you to live just as long as you can and for you to be as healthy as you can. There’s no cutthroat sense of I can cut calories more than you can or anything like that.

TOM BEARDEN: No competition.

ERI GENTRY: Right, it’s just the friendliest group of people and I recently met some of them and I was a little bit intimidated being a young, younger member of the group, but they all just gave me such a chance that it was amazing. I went into this group, most recently at the calorie restriction society conference in South Carolina, and I hesitantly went into the room, but as soon as I did, I saw everyone smiling and it was just so pleasant. I couldn’t believe it because normally you would go into a room and people don’t look at each other.

They don’t say hello and everyone stood up and greeted me. People knew who I was from past interactions through the list without ever having met me. They gave all my ideas full credibility or they listened to them and they just proved to be the most open-minded and intelligent group of people that I’ve ever come across.

TOM BEARDEN: How many calories a day do you try to eat?

ERI GENTRY: I don’t try to eat a specific amount of calories. It’s most important that I am satisfied but I have to educate myself about what’s satisfying and what’s nutritious first. But let’s say I get about a range of 1,200 to 1,500 calories on a given day. And I think it’s important to be aware of the changes within your body which might make you require a few more calories this day or a few less this day and you have to adjust to those.

Some people eat a standardized diet and it can make it a lot simpler just to plan out your diet ahead of time, but I enjoy more and feel comfortable more just being aware of my body and trying to figure out what it’s asking me for. Sometimes I may want something fatty or I definitely crave an orange or something like that and so I’ll try to listen to that and respect that and give it what it needs.

So when I do that, I can’t exactly get the calories down to a T but I do monitor them and I won’t go over let’s say — I don’t know, on the high end I wouldn’t want to go over maybe 1,800, but that’s just really arbitrary and maybe I would and what I do and I think a lot of other CR practitioners do is be aware of how much they’ve been taking one day and then they might cut back a little bit the next day but in general they’re aware of their average intake of nutrients, of calories which is probably a better indicator of calorie restriction than just what one might get in one day.

TOM BEARDEN: Have you lost weight?

ERI GENTRY: I have lost weight. I lost weight before I started calorie restriction with optimal nutrition. But I didn’t set about to lose weight through calorie restriction. As I mentioned I’ve been interested in increasing my health and my lifestyle, so I started doing things like cutting back on processed foods and weight just started coming off.

I cut out sugar and that’s a really simple way to lose weight and it came off easily at first, gradually I kept losing weight. I’ve been pretty stable at my weight for about five months now. I don’t know if that might change a little bit. It actually fluctuates up where it seems to in cold times, but I feel OK with that, too.

TOM BEARDEN: How do you feel on this regimen?

ERI GENTRY: People tell me in general that I seem like a very happy person. I wasn’t so happy before I started calorie restriction. And naturally people assume that I would be cranky all the time, and I can understand that. When people diet, and I’ve dieted before calorie restriction, I’m cranky. I want food and I don’t want to be cutting back.

But the amazing thing about calorie restriction is that once you educate yourself about what is the most optimal thing to put into your body then you don’t feel deprived. Optimal is not just the food that’s the lowest in calories. I could go around eating celery all day long and stuff myself and it would be delicious. I really enjoy celery but you’re not going to be healthy. You’re going to lose a lot of weight and you’re going to starve to death.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you feel hungry?

ERI GENTRY: I do get hungry and I know how to respond to those cravings or those urges to eat. But they’re not really cravings anymore which I used to have. I used to have cravings for processed foods. My favorite food I thought one I’d never be able to lose an addition to were French fries, but I decided okay, no more white potatoes. I said I’m never going to make it. It’s going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I said no toma–, no potatoes.

And after two weeks, I really didn’t want it anymore and I thought, oh, that’s a fluke. There must be something wrong with me, so I did just try potatoes again and it was bland, tasteless. And now I can respond to hunger with nutritious foods that I really developed a taste to.

That’s an amazing thing about CR is that I’ve honed my taste towards natural foods and I can appreciate the beauty of raw broccoli, just the flavor of it, the texture of it and I find that such a more enjoyable experience than, let’s say downing those French fries with ketchup and I prepare my foods now and I take care with what I’m doing and I educate myself about the food, so it’s like I’m getting to know them and realizing what good things it does for me and it feels good to eat and these foods are more satisfying.

I, at first, might have been afraid to eat high calorie foods, calorie dense foods. Let’s say like nuts or dairy products, eggs, you know because these are things that dieters, those who are out to lose weight come to be terrified of, but I found that I can eat those, that they’re high nutrient foods and also highly satisfying foods and you don’t have to remove certain things from your diet. You just have to eat in moderation. That’s mom’s advice. Moderation in all and that works for calorie restriction.

TOM BEARDEN: You’ve obviously done quite a bit of research and you’ve read some of the scientific articles. You know that there are no human studies that indicate calorie restriction, demonstrably lengthens human life. So you’re going a long way down a road that isn’t verifiable. Does that ever bother you?

ERI GENTRY: I am curious about whether calorie restriction really will work in humans. I think that there’s enough evidence to believe that it will, but I’m willing to take the risk that calorie restriction doesn’t work because I think I’d be losing out on a whole lot more if I didn’t do it and it really did work.

TOM BEARDEN: Even so you feel healthier.

ERI GENTRY: I feel healthier now than I ever have in my life. It’s pretty incredible. I never could have anticipated the effects that I have after starting calorie restriction. I’ve had lifelong problems with stomach pains and digestive problems. I felt that I couldn’t eat anything without having pain and that all changed when I started CR and became aware of what I was doing to my body. I realized that a lot of decisions that I’d made beforehand had just been unconscious and not just in my diet. Living the CR lifestyle has made me aware of so many things in my life and I’m very grateful for it.

I can’t even say that if a CR mimic were to be found — something that mimics the positive effects of calorie restriction such as lower cholesterol, decreased blood pressure, and so on, those that curb heart disease or any other diseases. Gosh, it’s been linked to decreases in cancer, Alzheimer’s so many things and so consistently that I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t want to do it.

TOM BEARDEN: The goal of the researchers we’ve been talking to is to come up with what amounts to a pharmaceutical that would effect the genes in anyone’s body to mimic the effects of calorie restriction without necessarily restricting calories at all. In essence to turn on some genes and turn off some others that would cause this defense mechanism that is fairly well understood in animals to actually take place without having to restrict the calories. What do you think of that approach?

ERI GENTRY: I think that that would be an incredible development in science and that would help a number of people who choose not to live the CR lifestyle. I think I would live the CR lifestyle anyway because I feel so good right now. I’ve come to appreciate eating less and feeling just as good but actually better than I ever have and it feels like I’m running a more efficient machine and I don’t want to slow that down.

If I could benefit myself more by taking one of these pharmaceutically development CR mimics and doing CR, then I would do that sure, but I don’t think that I would change this lifestyle unless I found something better. I don’t know what that would be, but I’m happy now.

TOM BEARDEN: Most people your age think they’re immortal. Why are you interested in extending life when most people in your generation aren’t even thinking about anything remotely close to that?

ERI GENTRY: You know, all my life I’ve not wanted to grow up. Like I would watch the Toys R Us commercials, say I’m a Toys R Us kid, I don’t want to grow up. I wanted to play with toys but the underlying concept was that I wanted to do that which I enjoyed. I always enjoyed learning. That was my big thing and I used to become sort of sad actually thinking of the number of things I’d never get to explore and having more time to do that just seems natural.

Like, or it seems, like the search for more life seems natural for somebody who enjoys what they’re doing in life. If you like your life, you’re going to want some more and you should spend every moment you have trying to get more, well actually if that’s enjoyable for you. And the pursuit is very much something that I like to do.

TOM BEARDEN: How much time, how many years do you think this regimen might add to your life?

ERI GENTRY: Oh, that would be pure speculation on my part. I can say as it hasn’t been proven in humans, some say there’s a linear effect, some say that you probably will live a few years longer if anything, but as it is right now, I am healthier than I’ve ever been, doing CR.

TOM BEARDEN: How do you know that? Have you had any, any clinical examinations to show that you’re healthier, or is this just your own perception of your body?

ERI GENTRY: First it was my own perception. I used to have allergies, I used to get colds. I mentioned that I had a lot of stomach problems. I was even tested for ulcers when I was only 13 years old. I have none of that now. I don’t get sick anymore, or if I feel like I’m sick, it’ll be gone within a half a day. Everyone around me is getting week-long illnesses and I’m walking around fine.

But I have had blood tests done because it’s pretty critical that when you’re doing something extreme to your body that you keep a careful eye on what you’re doing. You can’t rely on what you see in the mirror or what you’re feeling. So I’ve gotten my blood checked before and after CR and I can say that verifiably by my blood chemistry I’m a much healthier person than I used to be. And I’m a much healthier person than everyone in my family and I wish that they would do CR, too. I want the best for them and I really hope that people get the message and are willing to do it themselves.

TOM BEARDEN: As you know, the brain is the most powerful organ in the body. How do you know you just haven’t convinced yourself that this is working?

ERI GENTRY: I know I haven’t convinced myself because I take a look at my blood test and I compare them to how they used to be and I compare them to the general population of non-CR practitioners.

And I can see that something’s working for me. And when these things are positive for an entire group of people, there have been studies in CR pract–, or there have been CR studies on humans. Of course not to the extent where they see how long their life spans are. But to see how their biomarkers change with CR and then that compared to the general population and lifestyles aside, because CR is not one standardized lifestyle. And there’s no just one way to do CR.

Just given that they calorie restrict and are careful about getting proper nutrients you see standard decreases in certain things that would lead up to diseases. You see how biomarkers improve across the board and it’s hard to say that that’s just because they all think, this large group just thinks that CR is working for them.

And surely it’s not fruit flies thinking that they’re going to live longer, or that they’re healthier like you can just monitor that scientifically and I think the great thing about the brain thing, the strongest organism in the body is that we are able to learn about how to influence our own health and life spans and to make changes, which other features can’t claim to do. Sorry, they can’t claim what other features can’t do.

So we as humans are given this amazing ability to change our lives for the better and we should take that strength and we should do everything we can to live healthier, happier, and potentially longer lives. And I feel that way for me is calorie restriction.

TOM BEARDEN: Let me ask you the question that I’m sure there’s some cynic who’s going to be watching this tape out here whenever this gets on television, is going to be asking themselves, let me ask you. It’s impertinent and it’s not fair, but I’m going to ask it anyway. To some people calorie restriction would sound a whole lot like anorexia. How would you answer that?

ERI GENTRY: It definitely does and it’s an issue that I’ve been confronted with. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of knowledge on behalf of the person who’s calorie restricting to in a way defend themselves. Because they have to present the information for calorie restriction. They have to be knowledgeable about how it works, why they’re doing it and how it is unlike anorexia.

TOM BEARDEN: Would you recommend calorie restriction to other people?

ERI GENTRY: I would and I try and once most people just listen to what I have to say, they become pretty amazed by what calorie restriction has to offer. Unfortunately most go away thinking, it’s a little bit much for me to do. Oh I still go out there with recommendations and one of the reasons I’m doing this is definitely to get the message about calorie restriction out.

I want everybody to join the society and to read the messages and to just see how these people are enjoying their lives and are feeling healthier and have this strong support group, just to answer their questions, to share their experiences with.

But people say I don’t have the willpower or oh, I just enjoy food too much. I’d rather just enjoy my life than try to restrict. The funny thing is that I am doing calorie restriction because I enjoy my life so much, so much that I want to have as much as possible. It’s greedy of me, but I am living a life that I enjoy because certainly no one wants to extend some life of torture, of deprivation.

And that’s certainly not what I or any other calorie restriction practitioner is doing. I like what I’m doing. I’m learning. I’m having a fun interesting time, meeting great people, very intelligent people who are focused on their bodies and on bettering themselves. And there’s no loss of enjoyment. There’s no restricting.

TOM BEARDEN: What about deprivation?

ERI GENTRY: No deprivation, just the potential for doing that which you enjoy longer.

TOM BEARDEN: Why did you buy what you bought at the grocery store?

ERI GENTRY: Primarily I bought what I bought because I think it’s good for me in that it’s healthy. I got some leafy greens and some cruciferous vegetables, those being collard and broccoli. I got some squash. I got some fruits; apples and oranges. I have some specific reasons for why I get some things. Some other things I get because I really like them. And I think they’re pretty healthy. Yogurt for instance, not everyone eats dairy.

I got some eggs. Some natural non-, or what do you call them, free range, from free range chickens. No antibiotics or hormones which I think is very important and a lot of people don’t eat eggs and I actually haven’t for awhile, but I’m starting to include them in my diet and see how I feel. So a lot of CR is about experimentation and seeing how you feel on certain foods.

TOM BEARDEN: Is CR also basically vegetarian?

ERI GENTRY: No, it’s definitely not basically vegetarian. You can do calorie restriction basically on any diet which is natural. I would say most CR practitioners cut out highly processed foods because after you understand what they are, there’s really no rationale for including them in your diet. But we have a mix of all kinds of people who eat all kinds of foods.

TOM BEARDEN: Whatever works basically.

ERI GENTRY: Yeah, in fact I used to be vegetarian and I’ve now included some (inaudible) meats, seafood, eggs into my diet because I’m finding that I feel better with them. Sometimes I find that I don’t want them at all. So, you really have to tailor it to you and make sure that you’re enjoying what you’re doing.