A simple lifestyle change can help you flatten your belly, improve your heart health and might even add years to your life, a new study suggests. The researchers found that people who cut 300 calories a day from their diet — the equivalent of two chocolate chip cookies or a slice of pizza — not only lost an average of 16 pounds over a two-year period but also had significant improvements in their cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and other markers of heart and metabolic health.

What’s more, study participants who practiced calorie restriction also lowered their levels of an inflammatory marker that has been linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), cognitive decline and cancer. How can skipping a snack or two a day do all that? Here is a closer look at the study and key BaleDoneen Method takeaways on protecting your arterial wellness.

How was the study conducted?

Published in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, the CALERIE (calorie restriction and cardiometabolic risk) study included 218 healthy adults ages 21 to 50 who were randomly divided into two groups. One group of 143 people was instructed to practice calorie restriction for two years, while the other group of 75 participants ate their usual diet.

For the first month, the calorie-restriction group had their meals prepared at one of the U.S. clinical centers conducting the study to show them what calorie reduction looks like. They also received training on how to cook low-cal meals, attended group counseling sessions for six months and had regular check-ins with nutritionists. However, participants could eat the foods they wanted, as long as they cut back on the total amount, with the goal of slashing calories by 25%. Both groups received tests at the start and end of the study to assess their cardiovascular and metabolic health.

Funded by National Institutes of Health, the study is the first randomized clinical trial to evaluate the effects of calorie restriction on young and middle-aged adults who were either of normal weight or a little overweight. The goal was to determine if calorie restriction, which has previously been shown to increase longevity in animals, could influence healthy aging and risk for cardiometabolic diseases.

What were the key findings of the study?

Reducing calories by 25% is challenging! Relatively few participants were able to achieve that goal for the full two years. On average, participants in the calorie-cutting group slashed their intake by 11.9%, or 297 calories. Overall, they cut down from consuming an average of 2,467 calories a day at the start of the study to 2,170 calories at its conclusion.

Even this modest reduction in caloric intake had a surprisingly powerful effect, including the following outcomes in the calorie-cutting group, compared to people in the control group:

  • A 24% reduction in triglycerides, a type of blood fat. People with high triglycerides have triple the heart attack risk of those with normal levels.
  • Decreases in blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and risk for developing metabolic syndrome (a cluster of heart attack, stroke and diabetes risk factors).
  • Reductions in inflammation, the fire in the arteries that can ignite heart attacks and strokes in people with arterial plaque.
  • Decreased insulin resistance, the root cause of 70% of heart attacks and almost all cases of type 2 diabetes.
  • Improved mood, sleep and energy levels.

What does 300 calories look like?

Foods that contain about 300 calories include the following:

  • One large bagel or six Oreo cookies
  • One small bag of potato chips
  • 3 slices of Swiss cheese
  • 4 ounces of steak or 6 strips of bacon
  • Three tablespoons of peanut butter
  • A small Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino
  • 24 ounces of Coke, Mountain Dew or other soft drinks
  • A medium avocado

Is weight loss the reason why calorie restriction improves heart health?

Although people in the calorie-cutting group lost an average of 16.5 pounds (most of which was body fat), the study’s lead author, Dr. William E. Kraus, a cardiologist and professor at Duke University School of Medicine, told The New York Times that the improvements in metabolic and cardiovascular health were much greater than would be expected from weight loss alone.

“We weren’t surprised that there were changes,” he said. “But the magnitude was rather astounding. In a disease population, there aren’t five drugs in combination that would cause this aggregate of an improvement.”

In an accompanying commentary, Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, suggests that combining calorie restriction with other healthy eating strategies could help people achieve a lean body over the long term, which he describes as “the optimal way to promote longevity.”

What are the best ways to eliminate 300 calories a day and improve arterial health?

The BaleDoneen Method advises eating a diet based on your DNA. To cut down on calories, start by keeping a food diary. In a recent study of nearly 1,700 people, those who wrote down what they ate lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t keep a food diary. The simple act of recording what you consume motivates you to cut down on calories and hold yourself accountable.

We call it a “BLT journal” — write down every bite, lick and taste. Many people are surprised at how many calories they consume, even while preparing meals. There are several free apps that make it easy to keep a food diary, even when you are on the go, and some even provide calorie counts for many brands of food and even menu items at popular restaurants.

Watch out for liquid calories. Many beverages — including soft drinks, coffees, alcoholic beverages, energy drinks and smoothies — are calorie dense and high in concentrated carb/sugar content. As we reported recently, consuming even one or two sugar-sweetened drinks daily boosts risk for a heart attack or dying from CVD by 35%, diabetes risk by 26% and stroke risk by 16%. Instead, quench your thirst with our refreshing fruit and herb-infused water recipes. A large study recently found that people who drink five or more glasses of water daily have half the risk of developing fatal CVD as those who drink two or fewer glasses daily.

In the calorie-restriction study, most participants cut calories by eating less meat and more fresh fruits and vegetables, which are nutrient dense and filling but relatively low in calories. A diet high in produce has been linked to a significantly lower risk for CVD and some forms of cancer, and has even been linked in some studies to a longer life. Fill at least half your plate with fresh fruits and vegetables at each meal and your heart — as well as your arteries and waistline — will rejoice