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Published on: May 23, 2012
By Dean Olsen for The State Jornal-Register:
The scientific evidence is compelling, Mark Mattson says. Reducing your caloric intake and fasting regularly can prolong life, lead to a healthier life, and particularly help preserve brain function.
“Our genes, our genetics, are geared to us having food intermittently,” Mattson, an internationally recognized authority on calorie restriction, told an audience of about 120 people Tuesday during a medical-education conference at St. John’s Hospital on “healthy brain aging.”
Mattson, 55, a biologist, is laboratory chief of neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore. He said he knows it’s heresy for some people to consider anything other than the American standard of three meals a day. But three meals a day isn’t what the research indicates is best for promoting a long, healthy life or for delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, he said.
“I’m comfortable with saying that it’s healthy, it’s fine, to skip meals,” he said after his presentation. “The animal studies are very clear.”
Other speakers at the conference said the same lifestyle factors that put many Americans at risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high blood pressure — such as obesity and diets high in sugar, salt and red meat — also increase a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Those connections don’t bode well amid the current epidemic of obesity and the aging of the baby boom generation, said Ron Zec, a neuropsychologist at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders. The center sponsored the conference.
“The baby boom generation is going to turn into the Alzheimer’s boom generation,” Zec said.
Both fasting and periods during which a person severely limits caloric intake are referred to by scientists as “intermittent energy restriction.” This practice has been shown in animal models to put nerve cells through a sort of beneficial stress, Mattson said.
Scientists believe caloric restriction may promote more DNA repair and other beneficial activities at the cellular level, he said. When combined with regular exercise, the benefits multiply, he said.
Mattson is not a fan of grazing, or eating multiple meals and snacks each day. “I think it’s better to eat one meal a day than six small meals,” he said. “You need to challenge your system.”
The conventional wisdom says people who skip a meal will overeat during the next meal and consumer just as much or more calories overall. But that’s not what the studies have shown, Mattson said. Most people end up consuming fewer calories, he said. Even people with chronic diseases such as cancer can benefit from caloric restrictions, depending on the stage of their disease, he said.
“Animals and people can get used to intermittent fasts,” he said. “You only have to be uncomfortable for a couple weeks. Then you get adapted to it, and it’s not a big deal. If you’re overweight, you should have some motivation to do it.”
The federal government doesn’t formally recommend what Mattson encourages, however, because he said not enough research in humans has been conducted. “I think it will be a while before there are any big changes in the diet recommendations,” he said.
Gap in education
In a few years, Mattson said, he would like to help develop curriculum materials for medical schools so doctors know more about the research and can recommended options for overweight individuals. Many doctors are skeptical about caloric restriction, he said.
“Any negative reaction is based on a deep-seated, internal desire to be able to eat three meals a day,” Mattson said. More research is needed on the optimal amount of caloric restriction, and educational materials need to be developed for the public, he said.
“That’s the big problem. It’s a huge gap,” he said.
Mattson said families need to be educated not to encourage children to eat everything on their plate. “And have them try to avoid the school lunch meals,” he said.
“It’s OK not to eat three meals a day,” Mattson said. “It’s OK a couple days a week to eat just one meal. It’s actually not only OK, it’s healthy.”
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