Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The blowout diet: fast all day, feast at night - Health - Times Online

The blowout diet: fast all day, feast at night - Health - Times Online

The blowout diet: fast all day, feast at night
Jerome Burne
For years we’ve been advised to eat little and often, and never to skip breakfast. But now some scientists argue that stop-start eating, as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, is better for us than ‘grazing’
COWS, SHEEP, goats — when it comes to diet, we have a lot to learn from the cloven-footed beast, it seems. “Grazing”, or eating little and often, has become something of a mantra among nutritional experts.

The theory is that several small meals a day helps to balance blood-sugar levels, reducing our desire to snack and to overeat. The reality is that once you start grazing, it’s often difficult to stop.

The other great dietary wisdom is that breakfast is the most important meal of the day — it will boost your brainpower and might even help you to stay trim. People who skip breakfast regularly are more likely to be overweight. If you must forgo a meal, it should be dinner.

Of course, few of us live as the experts recommend. We regularly skip breakfast or eat a large meal at the end of the day. Sometimes it’s easy to go for a whole day eating almost nothing, only to make up for it the next with a blowout.

All heresy in the current dietary lexicon. But could the experts have got it wrong? Recent research on rats suggests that such “bad” feeding patterns could actually be good for your heart and your brain — and might even help you to lose weight. The secret is to eat like a hunter-gatherer.

For several years Dr Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Ageing in Baltimore, has been fiddling with the feeding schedules of the rats in his laboratory; his findings suggest that the difference between being fat and at risk of heart disease, and slim with clear arteries, may lie less in what you eat than when.

Experts have long known that a sure way to increase the age-span of almost any animal is to put it on a semi-starvation diet. Rats and monkeys forced to subsist on 30 to 40 per cent of their normal intake have clearer arteries, lower levels of inflammation, better blood-sugar control and are less susceptible to damage of cells in the brain. But however healthy it may be, this brutal diet will never catch on — it’s just too unpleasant.

But Dr Mattson has discovered that restricting calories is not the only way to achieve these health benefits. Putting animals on an “intermittent feeding schedule” produces similar results. He found that when the animals were made to fast for a day and allowed to eat as much as they wanted the next, this warded off diabetes just as well as either exercise or constant semi-starvation.

In fact, not only were the animals as healthy, but they also lost weight, because over time they ate 30 to 40 per cent less food than a control group that was allowed to eat whenever it wanted to. The obvious question, then, is whether this approach would also work for people. Going without food one day and making up for it the next is not nearly as difficult to cope with as being permanently hungry.

“We have just finished a study with people who ate all their food in a two to four-hour period in the evening,” says Dr Mattson. The results have not been analysed fully but he is optimistic: “After the original study was published (in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) I was contacted by a number of people who had tried the day-on, day-off regimen and found that it allowed them to lose weight fairly easily.” One correspondent had even checked his blood and found some of the benefits reported in the rat study.

In an article in The Lancet last month, Dr Mattson raised doubts about some of our cherished notions about mealtimes. The evidence that breakfast is good for you is, he suggests, mixed; one study found that skipping breakfast was associated with smoking, drinking and being overweight, while another found that it actually improved insulin and glucose levels.

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