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But Skipping Meals Not Advised for Humans

April 28, 2003 -- Skipping meals once in a while might help you duck diabetes, brain disorders, even heart disease -- at least, that's what it does for rodents.

Two new studies from the Institute on Aging shed more light on the effects of a calorie-restricted diet, an issue that has received increasing attention.

A handful of studies have shown that eating fewer calories can -- over the long haul -- lower your risk of cancer and kidney disease and protect brain cells from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases as well as stroke, says Mark P. Mattson, PhD, chief of the neurosciences lab at the National Institute on Aging.

His study appears in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In it, he explores this concept more deeply: Is eating fewer calories the important factor, or is intermittent fasting -- skipping meals -- the key? The study shows that -- in mice, at least -- skipping meals improves glucose metabolism and insulin levels, and it also seems to protect brain cells.

"We think that intermittent fasting puts a mild stress on the body, so cells respond by enhancing their ability to cope with more severe stress and resist disease," Mattson tells WebMD.

In his study, one group of mice fasted every other day but was allowed to eat unlimited food on the intervening days, thereby making up for missed calories. A control group of mice fed freely. A third group was fed 30% fewer calories every day than the control group received.

At the study's end, the meal-skipping mice as well as the calorie-restricted mice had lower blood sugar and insulin levels than the free-feeding mice.

To test the diets' effects on brain cells, mice were given a neurotoxin called kainite, which damages nerve cells in a brain region called the hippocampus -- an area critical for learning and memory. In humans, nerve cells in the hippocampus are destroyed by Alzheimer's disease.

The meal-skipping mice had nerve cells that were more resistant to neurotoxin injury or death -- more so than the other mice.

In fact, rats that skip meals also have better blood pressure and heart rate, Mattson says.

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