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Skipping Meals May Help, Not Hurt, Health

New findings in mice suggest that skipping the occasional meal may be good for your health. A report released Monday found that a diet in which mice ate only every other day appeared to protect them more from diabetes and the memory-robbing Alzheimer’s disease than either a low-calorie diet or eating as much food as they wanted every day. “The mice are better off on a diet where they eat fewer meals … than when they have continuous access to food,” even if that food is part of a reduced-calorie diet, study author Dr. Mark P. Mattson of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, Maryland, stated. The findings are published in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Although the research was conducted in another species, Mattson said the findings appear to suggest that, for healthy adult humans, forgoing a meal now and then may not be such a bad idea, “and it may be beneficial.” “It may be okay to skip breakfast, for example,” he said.

However, he cautioned against eating nothing for an entire day. “I would definitely not suggest people do exactly what we did in the mouse study,” Mattson said. The mice were forced to fast for a day and then given free reign to gorge on food the next. Consequently, those who fasted ate as many calories as did mice given as much food as they wanted every day, the researcher explained. A third group of mice ate every day, but consumed 40 percent fewer calories than the other rodents. After the mice followed the diet for five months, the researchers gave them a neurotoxin that selectively damages nerve cells important for learning and memory, a pattern typically seen in Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that the toxin damaged fewer nerve cells in the brains of mice who fasted than in those who either ate freely or followed the low-cal diet.

Furthermore, blood tests revealed that mice who fasted had lower insulin levels than those who followed the other diets, an indication they also had a reduced risk of developing diabetes. Past studies have suggested that substantially cutting calories increases life span and reduces the risk of age-related diseases. The fact that occasional fasting appeared to protect against Alzheimer’s and diabetes slightly better than a low-calorie diet suggests that people can ward off the effects of aging without starving themselves, Mattson noted.

The current findings appear to contradict the adage that humans and other animals should eat regularly throughout the day, he added, and suggests that researchers should take another look at whether that adage is true. “There needs to be more studies done in humans, because it’s very unclear whether it’s important or not to eat three meals a day,” Mattson said.

Looking back over human history, it makes sense that skipping the occasional meal may serve our bodies well, the researcher explained. Early humans did not have the luxury of constant access to food, he said, and many often ate one meal per day or endured several days of fasting before they found more food. The humans that survived long enough to reproduce were the ones who thrived in this environment, he noted, and our modern bodies may not be so different. By the end of the study, fasting mice weighed more than those given the low-calorie diet, and slightly less than mice allowed to eat freely, Mattson said.

Mattson explained that eating fewer meals may protect nerve cells by placing them under mild stress, which helps them become better at responding to more stress, such as the neurotoxin.

Diabetes stems from problems in glucose metabolism, and fasting may help mice avoid diabetes by cutting back on when they receive glucose (in the form of food), causing their cells to become better at metabolizing it when the glucose reappears, Mattson noted. SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2003;10.1073/pnas.1035720100.

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DID YOU KNOW: . It is estimated that there are at least 150 million people in the world with diabetes now. This figure is expected to double over the next 25 years.