Could a Low-Carb Diet Lengthen Our Lives?

older woman jumping into lake
Ira T. Nicolai/Stone/Getty Images

We now know that there are many benefits to our health if we don't eat too much carbohydrate.  As time goes on, we are now getting hints that cutting back on carbs could even help to lengthen our lives.  How could this be possible?

1. Fewer chronic illnesses - To get the obvious out of the way, chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes shorten lives.  A healthy low-carb diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and help diabetics and prediabetics control blood sugar.

  Since over half of the adult population in the US now is on the diabetes spectrum, this is certainly the most direct way that regulating carbohydrate consumption can lengthen our lives.

But now there are some hints of more intriguing ways that cutting carbs could have an effect on longevity.

2. Telomeres! - Never heard of telomeres?  This isn't surprising because the research is fairly new, but also very intriguing!  Telomeres are basically endcaps on our chromosomes that protect them from damage.  As we age, the telomeres get shorter and shorter, until that protection is gone.  Now we are finding that many things in the way we live affect the length of our telomeres - eating vegetables and fruit, exercise, and other healthful behaviors.  One of those behaviors may be to stay away from sugar, as I discussed in Could Soda Shorten Our Lives?.  That study was about sugar-sweetened soda, but it seems quite possible that this could extend to other sources of sugar, and, by extension, too much carbohydrate in general that have not been studied yet.

  More About Telomeres from's Longevity Expert

 3. Our Genes - Ha, I hear you say, of course our genes affect how long we live!  But I'm not just talking about our genes in the state when were born - genes get switched on and off throughout our lives by things things we do and other conditions our lives.

  (This is a field called epigenetics.)

One scientist who has done a lot in the area of how genes affect aging is Dr. Cynthia Kenyon (she spent most of her professional life at her lab at UCSF, but now has been spirited away to Google where what she's doing is super-secret).

Dr. Cynthia Kenyon has now been following a low-carb diet for quite a few years, based entirely on her research.  She believes it could influence her genes to help her live longer.  Here's more, for those who, like me, enjoy a good science geek-out.

Dr. Kenyon has spent many years studying the genes that affect aging in a worm that is only a millimeter long.  Since this worm naturally completes its life cycle in 2 - 3 weeks, it can serve as a lens to look at the genes which influence aging and death.  In fact, scientists in Dr. Kenyon's lab have discovered over 50 genes that affect lifespan.  Perhaps most interesting to those of use interested in diet and health, Kenyon and her associates have discovered two genes (dubbed "Grim Reaper" and "Sweet Sixteen" for their opposite effects) that seem to govern the mechanism by which low-calorie diets prolong life in many species.

  Unfortunately, as most of all know all too well, cutting calories permanently does not lead to a very enjoyable life, unless you enjoy being hungry and tired all the time.  But the news gets better: a low-carb diet may affect the very same genes!   Why? Because glucose and insulin can cause the Sweet Sixteen "youth" gene to turn off and the "Grim Reaper" gene to turn on.  This is why Dr. Kenyon has stopped eating more sources of glucose (carbs).

But is this just in worms?  No!  This work has now been extended to many other species, including some mammals, and there is evidence that it is true for humans as well.  You can hear more in Dr. Kenyon's TED Talk.

So what is Dr. Kenyon eating? She says in this interview, "I've cut out all starch such as potatoes, noodles, rice, bread and pasta. Instead I have salads, but no sweet dressing, lots of olive oil and nuts, tons of green vegetables along with cheese, chicken and eggs. I'll have a hamburger without a bun and fish without batter or chips. I eat some fruit every day, but not too much and almost no processed food. I stay away from sweets, except 80 per cent chocolate." Hmm..sounds a little like my Low-Carb Food Pyramid!

Continue Reading