Skipping meals may not be as detrimental to health as is widely believed; in fact, it may protect us from diabetes and Alzheimer’s, new findings in mice indicate.

In a study led by Dr Mark P. Mattson of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, Maryland, mice that ate only every second day appeared to fare better than those who ate as much as they wanted or were kept on a restricted calorie diet, eating 40% fewer calories less than the other two groups. The mice that were only allowed to eat every other day were able to eat as much as they wanted on the second day, with the result that their overall calorie intake was as high as those who were allowed to eat as much as they chose to every day.

After five months on this diet, the mice were given a neurotoxin that selectively damages nerve cells vital to learning and memory. The toxins were discovered to harm fewer nerve cells in the brains of mice that fasted than in those in either of the other two groups. Blood tests also showed that the mice that had fasted had lower insulin levels than mice in the other two groups, which should make them less vulnerable to developing diabetes.

The findings are published in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and reported by Reuters Health. They come with a word of warning that they should not be interpreted as a licence to starve and then binge, or to fast for a day at a time, but are said to indicate that skipping the odd meal may not harm us.