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While physicians have long cited the correlation between the Mormon religion’s ban on smoking and its practitioners having lower incidence of heart disease, a recent study indicates that another so-called “clean living” tenet may be of considerable heart health help as well.

A study by researchers in Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is based, found that people who fasted for one day each month were significantly less likely — about 40% so — to be diagnosed with clogged arteries than those who did not regularly fast. About 70% of Utah residents are Mormons, whose religion advises abstaining from food on the first Sunday of each month.

As reported by The Associated Press earlier this month, those researchers acknowledge that their study is far from proof that periodic 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, said Benjamin Horne, PhD, a heart disease researcher from Intermountain Medical Center (Murray, Utah) and the University of Utah (Salt Lake City).

Horne, an adjunct assistant professor in the department of biomedical informatics, holds a PhD in medical informatics, specializing in genetic epidemiology. He led the Mormon heart health study and reported results at last month’s American Heart Association (AHA; Dallas) annual scientific sessions in Orlando.

The research was partly funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (Bethesda, Maryland).

The AP report noted that people did not have to “get religion” to benefit. Non-Mormons who regularly observed a fasting regimen also were less likely to have clogged arteries.

Researchers got the idea for the fasting study after analyzing medical records of patients who had X-ray exams to check for blocked heart arteries between 1994 and 2002 in the Intermountain Health Collaborative Study, a health registry. Of these patients, 4,629 could be diagnosed as either clearly having or lacking heart disease — an artery at least 70% clogged.

The AP report said the researchers saw a typical pattern: only 61% of Mormons had heart disease compared to 66% of non-Mormons. While they thought tobacco use “probably accounted” for the difference, after taking smoking into account, they still saw a lower rate of heart disease among Mormons and designed a survey to explore why.

The survey, which was conducted between 2004 and 2006, asked about Mormons’ religious practices, including monthly fasting; avoiding tea, coffee and alcohol; taking a weekly day of rest; going to church; and donating time or money to charity.

Among the 515 people surveyed, only fasting made a significant difference in heart risks: 59% of periodic meal skippers were diagnosed with heart disease compared with 67% of the others.

The researchers said the difference persisted even when they took weight, age and conditions such as diabetes or high cholesterol or blood pressure into account. About 8% of those surveyed were not Mormons, and those who regularly fasted had lower rates of heart disease, too, according to the study.

Horne offered the speculation that when people take a break from food, it forces the body to dip into fat reserves to burn calories. It also keeps the body from being constantly exposed to sugar and having to make insulin to metabolize it. He said that when people develop diabetes, insulin-producing cells become less sensitive to cues from eating, so fasting may provide brief rests that re-sensitize these cells and make them work better.

Medical clinicians do caution that skipping meals is not advised for diabetics. It could cause dangerous swings in blood sugar.

Raymond Gibbons, MD, of the Mayo Clinic (Rochester, Minnesota), a former AHA president, told the AP that for dieters, “the news [on fasting] is not as good as you might think.” Fasting “resets the metabolic rate,” slowing it down to adjust to less food and forcing the body to store calories as soon as people resume eating.

MSNBC, which was among the news organizations to post the Associated Press story on their websites, added a poll question, asking readers if they would be willing to fast one day a month if it meant a possible improvement in their health.

Of nearly 3,400 respondents, an overwhelming majority – 88% — agreed with the “Sure. I can handle just one day of skipping meals if it lowers my risk for heart disease” choice, while 7.5% said, “No. That’s not enough to motivate me to go a whole day without food.” Some 4.7% said they weren’t sure.

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