Is fasting good for you?

For hundreds of years, fasting has been practiced by many religions for spiritual reasons — but is this self-denial also good for your heart?

According to a recent study from the University of Utah, the answer may be yes. People who skipped meals one day each month were about 40 per cent less likely to have clogged arteries than those who did not regularly fast, scientists found.

Fasting, or foregoing food, on the first Sunday of every month among a group of Latter Day Saints (LDS) — or Mormons — has been linked to lower rates of heart disease, researchers reported at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2007.

And non-Mormons who regularly took breaks from food were also less likely to have clogged arteries.

“People who fast seem to receive a heart-protective benefit, and this appeared to also hold true in non-LDS people who fast as part of a health-conscious lifestyle,” said Benjamin D. Horne, study author and director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at Intermountain Medical Center and assistant professor of biomedical informatics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Researchers examined the medical records of patients who had X-ray exams (coronary angiography) to check for blocked heart arteries between 1994 and 2002 in the Intermountain Health Collaborative Study, a health registry.

The analysis found that coronary artery disease (CAD) was less prevalent in patients who identified their religious preference as LDS than those who stated another or no religious preference.

The finding was not particularly surprising in that since the 1970s, scientists realized that Mormons living in Utah were less likely to die of heart disease than other Utah residents and Americans overall. It was generally assumed that the religious ban on tobacco use led to the health benefit, but researchers wondered whether other religious teachings also may be important.

“When we adjusted for smoking, or looked just at the nonsmokers, we still found a lower rate of CAD in people having an LDS religious preference,” Horne said. “We thought this was very interesting, so we devised a survey about other behaviors associated with LDS that might bring a health benefit.”

So for the second part of the study, 515 patients (average age 64) who underwent coronary angiography between 2004 and 2006, completed a survey that included religious preference as well as several specific practices encouraged by the LDS church: not smoking; fasting (abstaining from food and drink for two consecutive meals); not drinking tea, coffee or alcohol; observing a weekly day of rest; attending worship services; and donating time, goods or money to charity. Among these other factors, fasting was most strongly associated with lower odds of being diagnosed with CAD.

“Fasting was the strongest predictor of lower heart disease risk in the people we surveyed. About 8 per cent of the people who fasted did not express an LDS religious preference, and they also had less coronary disease,” Horne said.

Horne said this association between fasting and healthy arteries could be due to timing.

“When you abstain from food for 24 hours or so, it reduces the constant exposure of the body to foods and glucose,” he said. “One of the major problems in the development of the metabolic syndrome and the pathway to diabetes is that the insulin-producing beta cells become desensitized. Routine fasting may allow them to resensitize — to reset to a baseline level so they work better.”

Skipping meals not advised for diabetics

The researchers cautioned that skipping meals is not advised for people with diabetes because it could lead to dangerous swings in blood sugar.

They also conceded that their study was far from proof that regular fasting is good for anyone, but said the benefit they observed poses a theory that deserves further testing.

“It might suggest these are people who just control eating habits better,” and that this discipline extends to other areas of their lives that improves their health, Horne told the Associated Press.

Health experts have also warned that the news may not entirely good for dieters since fasting can reset the metabolic rate, slowing it down to adjust to less food. As soon as people resume eating, the body then stores calories.

Read the study news release.

Sources: American Heart Association, CNN, Associated Press

Photo © Brundin

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