Remembering Kevin Moore

Geneticist Cynthia Kenyon: Eat A Low-Carb Diet To Live Longer And Healthier

There’s a curious dichotomy at work between what is being said about low-carb diets and what the reality is. On the one hand we keep hearing from much of the media and the so-called health “experts” about how low-carb nutrition is just a passing fad, decidedly unhealthy for you, clogs your arteries with all that fat, ruins your kidneys from consuming too much protein, removes whole categories of foods, excludes fruits and vegetables from your diet, will give you cancer because of the red meat consumed, so forth and so on. Meanwhile, studies continue to pour in from the scientific community demonstrating the incredible health BENEFITS of livin’ la vida low-carb, including stunning blood sugar and insulin control, improvements in key heart health markers like HDL and triglycerides, reduced blood pressure, incredible energy and vitality, clear skin and so much more! It’s incredibly odd that there would be two so diametrically opposite viewpoints regarding a discussion of the same way of eating, but it is the reality that befalls the low-carb diet. Thankfully there is real science behind the concept of carbohydrate-restriction that trumps any propaganda and innuendo about it that may come from groups with a vested interest in seeing its demise (cough…vegetarians…cough…vegans…cough!).

That’s why I was delighted to see a column published in the UK-based Daily Mail this week entitled “Can cutting carbohydrates from your diet make you live longer?” highlighting the incredible groundbreaking work of biochemistry and biophysics professor at the University of California San Francisco Cynthia Kenyon, PhD. I first learned about Dr. Kenyon’s fabulous work about a year ago when I blogged about her research feeding worms glucose resulting in a 20 percent reduced lifespan. I’ve attempted to book Dr. Kenyon on my podcast for an interview, but I haven’t had any luck in this regard so far. I’ll keep trying because she is doing a great service to the world openly promoting a reduction in carbohydrates for the sake of longevity and vibrant health. Perhaps she could convince her colleague at UCSF Dr. Robert Lustig that it’s more than just the fructose that is the culprit in weight and health issues.

While many have been seeking the mythical concept of the “fountain of youth” for as long as I can remember, Dr. Kenyon says it is as simple as making some simple changes in your diet that will keep you feel young, being healthy, and living that way as long as you possibly can. This is shocking to people who think there’s some magic pill or potion that will make that happen, especially in the 21st Century when technological advances have progressed so much that people actually believe something like that is possible. Maybe…maybe not. What we do know is chronic disease is running rampant like never before in the history of the world and there’s one culprit that Dr. Kenyon believes is to blame–CARBOHYDRATES!

By limiting your intake of carbohydrates of all kinds–even the supposedly healthy ones like bananas, whole grain breads and pastas, potatoes along with the usual suspects of simple carbs found in cakes, cookies, candy and the like–you can be assured to be healthy and stay healthy for a very long time in your life. She discovered this by observing the genetic reactions happening in C.elegans roundworms which can be translated into what happens in humans as well. She discovered that controlling the gene activity dramatically slows down the aging process of the worms whose lifespan is usually about 20 days long. The mutations she performed in the worms allowed them to live to be 40 days–the equivalent of seeing someone who you thought was 30 and they’re actually 60 years old! More importantly, they “behaved like youngsters” which means they not only looked younger but felt younger too. Some of the worms have lived as long as 144 days–equal to a human being living to be 450 years old. While that is not even remotely likely, it shows you the power of altering your genes to maximize every chance you can to get healthier and stay healthier for a long and prosperous life.

Interestingly, many scientists have long believed the secret to longevity is a calorie-restricted diet, but compliance with a way of eating that leaves you constantly hungry and craving nutrition is not very high. Dr. Kenyon notes that a low-calorie diet is effective because it’s actually a low-carbohydrate diet that helps to control insulin production (which turns on the “Grim Reaper” gene) and is the primary hormonal culprit in the aging process. Meanwhile the “Sweet Sixteen” gene called DAF 16 is a sort of “elixir” that turns back the clock allowing for youthfulness to prevail again when the genes are both repaired and renovated due in large part to an increase in antioxidants which lessen the impact of free radicals which lead to many of the most common diseases associated with aging today like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and more.

Not surprisingly, with all her work looking at the heavy hand of the “Grim Reaper” gene turned on by insulin, Dr. Kenyon began cutting back significantly on her carbohydrate intake to control the insulin production and lower blood sugar. The makeup of her diet is enough to bring a smile to the face of most people who follow a healthy low-carb lifestyle: no starchy foods like potatoes, noodles, rice, bread and pasta, salads without sugary dressings, olive oil, nuts, cheese, chicken, eggs, bunless hamburgers, baked fish, very little fruit, no processed foods, and some 80 percent chocolate. She believes eating this way will help her stay healthy and fit for a much longer period of time than she would have had she continued eating the way she used to.

As for the “Sweet Sixteen” gene getting turned on by a reduction in insulin, Dr. Kenyon tested this theory by adding some glucose to the diet of some of her worms who were living longer and healthier. Almost immediately the worms showed signs of aging and health decline. This work in Dr. Kenyon’s lab piqued the interest of other researchers who began looking for this “Grim Reaper”/”Sweet Sixteen” concept in other animals as well as humans–and they found it! A remote village in northern Ecuador has no incidences of cancer, obesity or heart disease because the “Grim Reaper” gene that produces insulin is missing. Of course, they only grow to be four-feet tall because insulin is a growth hormone, too.

This column was amazing because it stated very clearly that raised insulin levels are “triggered by high carbohydrate consumption.” Shazam! Somebody stop the presses because this is huge news that deserves to be on the front page of health news publications and web sites around the world. Don’t count on that happening anytime soon, though. They also accurately report that consuming more carbs which raises insulin also leads to an increase in cholesterol, raises blood pressure levels, and releases triglycerides into the blood stream to significantly boost the chances of getting heart disease. But, as happens with virtually every positive article about science supporting low-carb diets, the pharmaceutical companies salivate at the opportunity to create a pill that simulates the diet changes. Thankfully, none are even close to hitting the market. Hey, how about this? Just go on a low-carb diet! Gee, what a novel concept!

The column also suggests exercise as a way to reduce insulin by increasing your sensitivity to it which in turns lowers the amount of it your body needs. Additionally, physical activity helps your body produce more antioxidants which fight the free radicals that lead to aging. It would seem obvious from Dr. Kenyon’s work that most anyone who is seeking to reduce insulin levels to live healthier and long would cut back on their carbohydrates, but conventional wisdom has long told us that a low-fat, high complex carbohydrate diet is necessary for proper energy and health. This is a debate that will not subside as there are powerful forces at work to keep the status quo regarding diet and health intact. And yet the impact of the work of Dr. Kenyon and others will eventually create this tsunami of public backlash about being lied to about how unhealthy dietary fat supposedly is and how innocuous carbohydrates are on the hormones like insulin that determine your health and how long you live.

The article alludes to awarding the Nobel Prize to Dr. Cynthia Kenyon and she’s certainly worthy of such an honorable distinction along with other researchers and practioners like Dr. Jeff Volek from the University of Connecticut, Dr. Eric Westman at Duke University, Dr. Stephen Phinney at the University of California-Davis, Dr. Mary C. Vernon from the University of Kansas, and many others who are promoting the concept of low-carb nutrition for health. It’s interesting how the mainstream medical establishment will acknowledge that this work is indeed important but then they refuse to state that people should be eating low-carb because “I’m not sure the evidence for the benefit of cutting carbohydrates and keeping insulin levels down is strong enough yet.” HOW MUCH MORE EVIDENCE DO YOU NEED?! Sheez! It just amazes me how supposedly intellectual people could come to such ignorant conclusions when the evidence is staring them in the face!

You can e-mail Dr. Cynthia Kenyon to thank her for the amazing work she is doing on behalf of low-carb diets on aging by sending her an e-mail at cynthia.kenyon@ucsf.edu. As I stated, I’ve again asked for an interview with her for my podcast and I hope to make that happen in 2011 sometime. It’s good to see such prominent media coverage of the work of someone like her and I expect to hear much more from her in the years to come.

  • I am interested in how “low carb” Cynthia Kenyon’s own diet is. Does she follow a strict budget of carbs per day, or does she just keep it below, say 100? And what does she think should determine how many carbs someone should eat if they are trying to keep their insulin in check. There are lots of opinions out there, and I’m curious to know what she would think is the optimal carb limit.

    • I dunno, but I’d sure like to ask her sometime in an interview. I would suspect it’s a ketogenic low-carb diet based on the way she describes how she eats now.

  • Peter Silverman

    How can we tell if the worms are healthier because they ate low carb or because they avoided processed foods? This is not a criticism, it’s a real question. There are many diets that advocate eating whole, unprocessed foods as well as some particular balance between carbs and fats, and I can’t figure out whether the benefits are because the food wasn’t undustrially processed or because the balanc of fats and carbs was right.

    • I can ask her if she’ll come on my podcast.

  • Cathy

    Peter asked, “How can we tell if the worms are healthier because they ate low carb or because they avoided processed foods?”

    Well, when she added glucose back to the diet of worms that were thriving and living long without it, they immediately started “aging.” That kinda confirms the glucose to me, or at least supports the hypothesis that it’s the glucose. Of course, we don’t know the actual content of the diet, but if all she changed was the glucose …

  • Sylvie O.

    Hey Jimmy, if ever you talk to her, can you ask her about the effects of metformin reducing risk of cancer by 40%? Would appear the similar mechanisms are at work (I sure hope not, as that would be manna for the drug companies («pop a pill and live longer!»).

  • sss

    Gary Taubes discusses Kenyon and her work in “Good Calories, Bad Calories.”

  • Bev

    Also if you get the chance , to ask her for a sample daily menu of what she eats. Thanks, Jimmy

  • Holly J.

    I read that she eats a low-carb diet, as she recommends. She changed once she realized her scientific results were pointing in that direction. She said in that article that she weighed the same as she did in college and that she felt great! The interviewer remarked that at 50 she looked 35 and was very energetic. I remember specifically that she drinks green tea (and I’m assuming water) throughout the day and 1 glass of red wine at night with her low-carb dinner. I did not see an emphasis on fats though, and I am interested in her take on that. (Obviously she eats them since she doesn’t eat high carbs…)

    I hope you are able to interview her, Jimmy! I’m really interested in her work pertaining to aging and diseases (and maybe some of the modern diseases that we are seeing in children). I think it’s great that a scientist is able to prove that low-carb diets are the “fountain of youth.”

    • I just heard back from her and she declined stating she wanted to spend more time in her lab. I can respect that, but I hope she reconsiders someday.

  • Fascinating post. The longevity and Alzheimer’s issues remind me of a an interesting recent experience. My mother has Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. I recently took her for a geriatric evaluation and her new doctor wants to put her on a “medical food,” Axona, that produces ketone bodies, and which is therefore supposed to help cognition. My thought, of course, was that we could do that for free by putting her on a low-carb diet, but trying to accomplish that would be next to impossible. What is fascinating is that here we finally have drug company money promoting the idea that ketone bodies are better for the brain than glucose! But not via carbohydrate restriction.

    I do hope Dr. Kenyon will reconsider. And thanks again for all your work.

  • Salim Morgan

    I have no disagreement about staying away from refined carbs and highly processed foods, but I don’t think that has anything to do with the subject at hand. She found a connection between some harmful effects and INSULIN PRODUCTION. Insulin production is based pure and simple on ingestion of carbohydrates – ANY carbohydrates. The refined ones may have many other evils such as the speed with which they become glucose, contamination with alien and dangerous substances, etc. However, as far as triggering insulin production they are gram for gram exactly the same.

    Avoiding processed carbs is a start but for the full benefit (especially if you’re diabetic), you need to reduce ALL of them, not just the “refined” ones.

  • JDN

    What seems to be a bit of a contradiction to me is the fact that one of the longest-lived and healthiest human populations on earth eat a fairly high carbohydrate diet (the Kitavans). I don’t even think the traditional Inuit, who ate a diet nearly devoid of carbs, lived longer than them. It’s a shame Dr. Kenyon isn’t coming on your podcast because it would be nice to hear her thoughts on this apparent contradiction to her work. I’m with Peter Silverman; we have ample evidence from human studies to state that the problem is most likely with processed, nutritionally-barren diets and not carbohydrates per se.

    • Still gonna try to have her come on because these are important questions to explore. I sent her a link to this post so she could see the legitimacy of the work here.

    • joshua

      Good point about the Kitava study done by the Swedish chap. They consume large quantities of carbs through starchy tubers and they are the regarded as being on a paleo diet, and are very didease free and long lived.

  • Peter Silverman

    Salim, Why do you think there are so many cultures that eat high carb natural foods diets and don’t get diabetes or heart disease if it’s as simple as insulin makes us sick? Another reason to wonder if it’s that simple is that Gary Taubes said on Jimmy’s show that he thinks the reason vegetarians on average tend to be skinny despite a high carb diet is that they tend to avoid processed foods. And everybody who follows this blog knows that Gary Taubes is always right.

    • Ahhhhh, adding sarcasm to the mix now, eh Peter? :)

  • Jennifer

    Jimmy, I’d love to hear her, too, because in my book the people you interview who are active in research are always the most interesting, but if she wants to stay in her lab, please don’t bother her! She’s EXACTLY the kind of person I want publishing research! :)

    Dr. Kenyon, if you read this, thanks for what you are doing!

    • Oh, I totally agree, Jennifer, and respect her wishes to be in her lab. She’s doing more good there than on some penny-ante podcast like mine.

  • econ

    Here is an extensive rundown in PLOS Biology of her dietary habits:


    With “cheese, meat and eggs” part of the diet, getting the fat content up high enough shouldn´t be too hard.

    “Cynthia Kenyon’s eating habits are defined by her ageing research on worms. “There’s a lot of these diets … and what they all have in common is low carb—actually, low glycaemic index carbs,” she says. “That’s not eating the kind of carbohydrates where the sugar gets into your bloodstream very quickly [and stimulates production of insulin].”

    No desserts. No sweets. No potatoes. No rice. No bread. No pasta. “When I say ‘no,’ I mean ‘no, or not much,’” she notes. “Instead, eat green vegetables. Eat the fruits that aren’t the sweet fruits, like melon.” Bananas? “Bananas are a little sweet.” Meat? “Meat, yes, of course. Avocados. All vegetables. Nuts. Fish. Chicken. That’s what I eat. Cheese. Eggs. And one glass of red wine a day.”

    Kenyon, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at San Francisco, has been on her diet for two-and-a-half years. “I did it because we fed our worms glucose and it shortened their lifespan.”

    But the diet is unproven, she cautions, and she’s not recommending it for all. Nevertheless, she’s pleased with its performance for her. “I have a fabulous blood profile. My triglyceride level is only 30, and anything below 200 is good.”

    Kenyon is angered by the general lack of nutritional knowledge: “It’s a little bit embarrassing to say that scientists actually don’t know what you should eat…. We can target particular oncogenes, but we don’t know what you should eat. Crazy,” she says.

    Does her dieting represent a return to scientists experimenting on themselves? “I don’t think so—you have to eat something, and you just have to make your best judgement. And that’s my best judgement. Plus, I feel better. Plus, I’m thin—I weigh what I weighed when I was in college. I feel great —you feel like you’re a kid again. It’s amazing.”

    • Good stuff! I’d love to expand on this a little more.

  • I just watched her fabulous YouTube presentations. She would be a great guest because her style is very accessible – not too “sciency” (but just enough so you don’t think she’s talking down to you).

    I would like to know what she thinks about MTor and protein consumption. I really like what Ron Rosedale has to say about eating high fat moderate protein. He is pretty concerned about the insulin, AGE and oxidative damage of protein. He has also referred to Kenyon’s work in his presentations on http://www.meandmydiabetes.com.

    I am personally trying to marry my Robb Wolf paleo way of eating with a Rosedale twist and I think Ms. Kenyon would bring a lot to the table.

    Thanks Jimmy, you’re the best!

  • Eugene B

    Here is an interview with Dr Kenyon which appeared in New Scientist: http://www.xent.com/pipermail/fork/Week-of-Mon-20031020/026347.html

  • Thank you for this coverage. I read the Daily Mail’s story also and found it incredible. I also read her publication about the study. We have on our website a great nutritionist who lives this diet and has been healthy for many years and doesn’t look his age (64). He looks like he is 40!! Take a look at his video about good food vs. bad food for suggestions on how to eat this way at http://www.goodhealthnews.tv/reallyhealthyfoods/articles/god-food-vs-healthy-food
    Thanks again!!

  • Hi, Im frm Sweden. Im also very interested in this, and got these news in october 2010 – HUGE NEWS he :). But my problem is now: How – Much! carbs can i eat in a meal, before Grim Reaper gets out from his cave and kills me, that’s! the intresting/important thing now. Jimmy! can you ask her that when you meet her. Ive always been thin, so now im too thin almost anorectic body. Its so sad that i dont know how much carbs to eat, i need help, im desperately waiting for an answer on that.

    But i have one more thing to tell, she doesent seem to be familiar with what foods that are acid or alkaline for the body, the acid food that causes diseases. And sugar is very acid for your body too, so not just in one way – aka Grim Reape-way. But acid foods are for example like she eats: all kinds of meat, wine, nuts exept frm almonds, melon, eggs, chees, ew :/. I think she has to do some more changing in her diet, so its not only! G.R that kills you. Jimmy can you please inform her on that too. And for an expert on the subject – acid/alkaline fodd, check; dr Robert O Young’s page, or eaven better read his book: The pH Miracle. But then ofcourse you also have other things as well that contributes disease; like wrong breathing, negative thoughts/depression. Its much at stake, not just only one thing :) (not only G.R). And one last thing; there are ppl who are 110 yrs old at the moment who eats to much carbs and acid food, dont exercise and dont have any diseases and are halthy, how come is that?. So it must be something with the genes that some develope diseases and some dont? But she said to me last night the woman who is 110 yrs old, that she’d had an very active fun life, that she wants to re-live she said. So i dont know, having a fun live, with no negatives contributes much for a good long healt? :). I dont know ofcourse.

  • dr robert peers

    carbs do not raise insulin levels—dietary fat does, by creating polyunsaturate-deficient cell membranes, that impair the response of the insulin receptor to insulin
    a low-fat, slightly oily diet, with poly/sat ratio about 1.00 (oils from fish, soft margarine, olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocado) means you avoid the large group of high-fat diseases [diabetes, arterial disease, tumours, autoimmunity, arthritis, muscle wasting, deafness, vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease]

    adding grains, nuts, legumes and citrus provides inositol, which activates the same anti-ageing genes as caloric restriction

    teresa fung, at harvard, has shown that long-term followers of atkins-style diets, with low carb and more meat, have more diabetes and cancer deaths

    see my video on youtube, under PEERS ANTI-AGEING–and see my other videos there, on alzheimer’s, anxiety etc

    high protein diets provide methionine, which shortens lifespan, maybe because it increases the pro-ageing hormone igf-1–which suppresses sweet sixteen

    cheers, rob 

    • Anonymous

      Respectfully disagree. Are you saying carbs NEVER raise insulin levels? Why do diabetics need to limit their carbohydrate intake then?