Cutting calories is typically seen as a painstaking weight-loss strategy, but a team of researchers from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, discovered a molecule that may be able to trick us into thinking we’ve eaten enough. Their findings, published in the journal Aging Cell, reveal that by altering food perception, we may also be able to extend lifespan.

"This small molecule blocks the detection of food in the worm’s mouth,” said the study’s senior author Gordon Lithgow, a lead research at Buck Institute for Research on Aging, in a statement. “The worm senses that its mouth is empty even when it is full of food, tricking the animal into shifting its physiology into a caloric restricted-state even when it's eating normally,"

For the study, researchers screened 30,000 drugs in nematodes to see which ones affects calorie intake. They found a small drug-like molecule called NP1 was able to alter the way they perceived food by triggering the metabolism. They found the molecule was able to trick the worm into a state of caloric restriction, opening up doors to new avenues of drug development. Not only did they need fewer calories to maintain a healthy level of energy, it also extended the nematodes lifespan by 50 percent.

"Targeting sensory pathways may lead to a more rapid response to changing diet,” Lithgow said. “Altering these higher level, specific response mechanisms may also have fewer effects on other systems in the body."

Researchers hope that they can design a drug that mimics the positive effects of a Spartan diet, which has demonstrated how the human body can live off of a diet that forces the body to efficiently consume and break down food for energy. So while researchers are working on developing a new drug to trick the body into eating fewer calories, you can still cut calories on your own and increase lifespan through the Spartan diet.

Cut Calories, Live Longer

The legend of the 300 Spartans - who lived around 480 B.C. in Ancient Greece and fought in one of the most famous battles in history - inspired the film 300. In order for the actors to look lean but muscular to reflect real life events, filmmakers sent them to a Salt Lake City gym, where mountain climber Mark Twight designed a diet to make them look like they were living off the land.

“We took the opposite route of calorie restriction to make them look like they lived off the land, in the wild, all sinewy and ripped,” Twight said. “The diet was adequate to fuel effort and recovery, barely.”

The diet is a spinoff from the traditional Mediterranean cuisine, which primarily include foods like fish, olive oil, figs, avocado, grapes, green and leafy vegetables, turkey, whole grain breads, and wild rice. But the difference is, Spartan dieters should never eat until they feel full but also stave off hunger in between meals with protein-packed snacks every three hours. As a rule of thumb, dieters should consume 1.2 grams of protein for every pound of your body weight and limit carbohydrate consumption for the morning to provide enough energy to train, just like the Spartans.

There are no calorie restrictions or recommendations because the dieter should simply eat the minimum amount of nutrient-dense food to sustain enough energy for exercise. Calorie restriction has been looked at as a viable way to improve the health and lifespan of humans, and now there may be a way to trick the body into doing it on its own. But now, researchers are one step closer to making that a reality.

"We have at least 100 of those compounds in our freezer and that any one of them could hold the key to extending human healthspan," Lithgow said. "We want to look at all of them, but we can only do what our resources will allow."

Source: Lucanic M and Lithgow G, et al. Chemical Activation of a Food Deprivation Signal Extends Lifespan. Aging Cell. 2016.