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TLDR: I’m here for a good time, not a long time. 


For the first time, we have managed to put our lives into human hands on both the individual and grand scale. We invented and tinkered away our problems only to be limited by the biological systems keeping us alive. We have the food to last us til old age, the medicine to prevent and treat disease, the financial resources to afford these commodities, and the peace to avoid premature, unnecessary death from violence. Since the 60s, the average Chinese lived for 33 years during the great famine. Now, people live on to their 80s and beyond. Grandparents watch their grandchildren grow up—the new norm. For most of us lucky enough to live within these conditions, it is now up to the genes in our DNA and the lifestyle choices we adopt that dictate life expectancy. We leave ageing and increased senescence to naturally end us after a relatively long, peaceful and healthy life. Yet, in theory, if our death is predicated on an inherited expiration date encoded in our genetic blueprint, a hard cap on human lifespan should not exist. One day, one of us will be born with specific gene mutations that deactivate the pathways programming for death (Milholland & Vijg, 2022). And if so, we would, on another day, possess the technology to identify this mutation and then replicate it. It would be the discovery of the millennia: immortality. 


It is, after all, only natural—for living is good, there is no reason why we wouldn’t seek more of it. For now, our efforts pursuing eternality take us away from our deterministic biology and onto a more manageable and viable path. Current science tells us that calorie and protein restriction may be a way to extend our lives. The exact physiological mechanisms are plenty, but generally either help to slow down functional degeneration or reduce risks of age-related disease, namely cancer, diabetes, hypertension and Alzheimer’s (Rizza et al., 2014; Bordone & Guarente, 2005; Merry, 2002).


In 2004, a New York Times-bestselling author and two leading longevity researchers uncovered five places around the globe home to more centenarians than anywhere else; they dubbed them the ‘Blue Zones’. Ikaria of Greece, Okinawa of Japan, Sardinia of Italy, Loma Linda of California and Nicoya of Costa Rica all earned this title. And when researchers arrived at these communities to understand the keys to unlocking longevity, they concluded with nine characteristics the people had in common. One of these traits references 腹八分目 or hara hachi bun me, a Confucian teaching of calorie restriction practised by Okinawans to eat only until 80% full (The Blue Zones Story). Another looks to protein restriction. The Blue Zone project leader, Dan Buettner, identified that 46-56 grams of protein per day is optimal for a long life (Buettner, 2020). To put this into perspective, the average Hong Konger in the late 80s ate 86 - 112 grams of protein daily (Woo et al., 1998). Twice as much as what is recommended. Now, we consume around 664 grams of meat a day and have become the largest epicures of pork (Ebner, 2022; Rao & Wallach, 2023). If we take 100 grams of meat to be roughly 26 grams of protein, the daily protein intake rises to a little over 172 grams—triple what Beuttner advises. 


Something does not quite add up. Hong Kong has consistently remained one of the leaders in longevity in recent years. Even in 1998, Hong Kong’s life expectancy was 80 years old, outliving the vast majority of those in developed regions. Yet our ‘love affair with meat’ should be indicative of poor health and shortened lifespans (Tsang, 2018). After all, meat is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes (Battaglia Richi et al., 2015). Even those in the Blue Zones source most of their protein from beans and plant-based foods. So what is going on? 


In the same study examining meat’s health risks, Battaglia Richi and colleagues (2015) note ‘the inclusion of sufficient protein supply (e.g. in the form of meat) is particularly important in the elderly’ (p. 70). Concurrently with the research recommending calorie restriction, modern science looks to other studies suggesting that we should increase muscle mass and take up resistance training—a lifestyle that demands a good amount of calorie and protein intake (Li et al., 2018; Knowles et al., 2021). It seems that even the scientific community is torn between two methods that ultimately lead to the same result.


Ironically, the ambivalent news is: not exactly. 


Based on the disposable soma theory, lifespan, focused on maximising your life to the ends of your genetic limit (if there is one), holds a different philosophy and attitude to healthspan, which emphasises maximising your body’s functionality and, therefore, the quality of life (Sotola, 2021; Garmany et al., 2021). They are, unfortunately, diverging outcomes. By choosing to focus on one, you forgo the other. Calorie-restrictive diets can give you extra minutes on this Earth but keep you frail and thin, whereas resistance training, stronger muscles and increased protein intake allow you to enjoy the capabilities of your body but for less time. A cruel joke in our design. We outwitted and outcompeted the laws of the jungle. We have evolved past natural selection. Environmental selective pressures pale before our societies and technologies. Our world is a human one, and yet, we can’t have everything it offers. 


Luckily, scientists tell us to look at longevity in another way: mean lifespan, which is the average life expectancy. The beauty of it is that the focus on mean lifespan coincides with healthspan. If your life is sedentary, sleeping at 3 in the morning while still eating processed junk, changing your habits, hitting the gym, eating cleaner foods and getting enough sleep will steer you away from risking premature death. Nonetheless, you still will have increased your lifespan beyond what it would have been if you stuck to your old habits and are now pursuing a much healthier, fulfilling life. By focusing on your health, you naturally live longer up to the mean lifespan. Health and lifespan harmonise up to a certain point upon ageing before separating.


If you ask anyone whether they’d prefer focusing on lifespan or healthspan, I’m confident most of us will answer with the latter, knowing that a fuller life is infinitely more valuable than simply living for living’s sake. Even though you may not live as long as someone who prioritises maximal lifespan, you will have properly lived. There is no need to be extreme with your philosophy to the point of calorie and protein restriction because, ultimately, it is counterintuitive. You have to be able to enjoy life. The container of life itself is not as significant as the contents in it. It is the experiences that bring meaning. There is no point living to a hundred if illnesses are what’s to come (长命百岁、百病缠身) because, at the end of the day, we can still have quite a lot. 



Author’s note:


Confronting the fact of being mortal is not to be consumed by the fear of death, but rather, this unequivocal end should be a stark reminder for us to enjoy the time we have here, and that starts by prioritising health, not longevity.

Jaren K. Y.




Battaglia Richi, E. et al. (2015) ‘Health risks associated with meat consumption: A review of Epidemiological Studies’, International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 85(1–2), pp. 70–78. doi:10.1024/0300-9831/a000224. 

The Blue Zones Story (no date) Blue Zones Project. Available at: 

Bordone, L. and Guarente, L. (2005) ‘Calorie restriction, Sirt1 and metabolism: Understanding longevity’, Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, 6(4), pp. 298–305. doi:10.1038/nrm1616. 

Buettner, D. (2020) Food secrets of the world’s longest-lived people, Blue Zones. Available at: 

Ebner, M. (2022) Are the blue zones really plant-based?, THRIVE NUTRITION. Available at: 

Garmany, A., Yamada, S. and Terzic, A. (2021) ‘Longevity leap: Mind the healthspan gap’, npj Regenerative Medicine, 6(1). doi:10.1038/s41536-021-00169-5. 

Knowles, R. et al. (2021) ‘Associations of skeletal muscle mass and fat mass with incident cardiovascular disease and all‐cause mortality: A prospective cohort study of UK biobank participants’, Journal of the American Heart Association, 10(9). doi:10.1161/jaha.120.019337. 

Li, R. et al. (2018) ‘Associations of Muscle Mass and strength with all-cause mortality among US older adults’, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 50(3), pp. 458–467. doi:10.1249/mss.0000000000001448. 

Merry, B.J. (2002) ‘Molecular mechanisms linking calorie restriction and longevity’, The International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology, 34(11), pp. 1340–1354. doi:10.1016/s1357-2725(02)00038-9. 

Milholland, B. and Vijg, J. (2022) ‘Why gilgamesh failed: The mechanistic basis of the limits to human lifespan’, Nature Aging, 2(10), pp. 878–884. doi:10.1038/s43587-022-00291-z. 

Rao, P. and Wallach, O. (2023) Mapped: Meat consumption by country and type, Visual Capitalist. Available at: 

Rizza, W., Veronese, N. and Fontana, L. (2014) ‘What are the roles of calorie restriction and diet quality in promoting healthy longevity?’, Ageing Research Reviews, 13, pp. 38–45. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2013.11.002. 

Sotola, L.K. (2021) ‘Disposable Soma theory’, Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, pp. 2062–2065. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-19650-3_2367. 

Tsang, E. (2018) Why Hong Kong’s love affair with meat is leaving planet paying price through carbon emissions, South China Morning Post. Available at: 

Woo, J. et al. (1998) ‘Dietary intake and practices in the Hong Kong Chinese population’, Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 52(10), pp. 631–637. doi:10.1136/jech.52.10.631.