Forget all you have ever heard about eating sensibly and exercising. The way to lose excess weight and stay fit is to fast one day and feast the next - the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors did.
The remarkable finding, which could revolutionise conventional wisdom about nutrition and dieting, is the result of research by Dr. Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Ageing here.
For several years Mattson has been fiddling with the feeding schedules of rats in his laboratory.
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 - also known as dieting.
In fact, not only were the animals as healthy, but they also lost weight, because over time they ate 30 to 40 percent less food than a control group that was allowed to eat whenever it wanted to.
"Intermittent fasting therefore has beneficial effects on glucose regulation and neuronal resistance to injury in these mice that are independent of caloric intake," Mattson wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Trials on humans revealed that going without food one day and making up for it the next is not nearly as difficult to cope with as being permanently hungry, as is the case with dieting.
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," Mattson told The Times of London.
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, 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.
He also disputed the popular notion that it is good for you to engage in "grazing" - eating several small meals during the course of a day.
"Our basic metabolism was set up when we were hunter-gatherers," he told The Times.
"The pattern would have been a mixture of feast and famine. Maybe we would go several days without food, and then splurge when a supply was found. We not only get much less exercise than our distant ancestors, but having a regular food supply as opposed to an intermittent one may prove to be almost as damaging."
However, Mattson was careful to emphasise caution: "Until clear results are obtained in well-controlled studies," he wrote in The Lancet, "specific recommendations concerning meal frequency and health are inappropriate to make."
Indo-Asian News Service