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Eat less — ail more? Million-dollar study seeks the answer

Eat less, lose weight — it's the mantra every dieter chants, the formula every dietician prescribes. While it's a well-known fact that cutting calories slims the waistline, scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC) now say a low-cal diet could increase susceptibility to infection.

"If you are cutting calories to lose weight, you may be lowering your immune system," said Gabriel Fernandes, Ph.D., a professor in the department of medicine. "A person who does not get the right quality of calories may end up in the hospital after accidentally eating food tainted with salmonella, while someone else who eats the same food may not get sick."

The National Institutes of Health just awarded Dr. Fernandes a four-year, $1.25 million grant to study the effects of calorie restriction and infection in mice.

"When you reduce food intake by 30 percent to 40 percent in mice, they live about 40 percent longer," Dr. Fernandes said. "But when you cut calories, the cells responsible for preventing bacterial infection may become weaker."

Dr. Fernandes said immune cells lose the ability to produce antibodies that destroy pathogens if they don't receive the right balance of nutrition and energy. His study will now determine which type of calorie-restricted diet produces the healthiest immune system, while still reducing body weight. The study compares three types of diets: food restriction, energy restriction, and calorie restriction, to a normal diet.

Dr. Fernandes' study will also determine the best age to begin reducing calories to maintain optimal health. He should have the results within the next three to four years.

Contact: Amanda Gallagher or Aileen Salinas