updated 5/6/2005 2:24:33 PM ET 2005-05-06T18:24:33

There are more reasons to avoid excess calories than controlling your weight.

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Making permanent, modest cuts in your calorie consumption may help prevent cancer and possibly improve your heart’s health. The challenge in cutting calories, however, is to find the point where you can live both physically and psychologically in optimum health.

Being overweight clearly increases the risk of colon, breast, prostate and uterine cancers. Changes in hormones and hormone-like growth factors seem to be partly responsible.

To reduce overweight, experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research recommend limiting the calories you consume and keeping physically active.

Besides influencing your weight, some studies suggest that avoiding excess calories may directly affect your cancer risk. Laboratory studies show that calorie restriction can lead to fewer and smaller breast cancers. It also appears to inhibit all cancers by slowing down the development of cancer cells, increasing their self-destruction and reducing DNA damage.

Walking a fine line
Furthermore, one study shows that long-term calorie restriction by people with a healthy weight may also lower their blood cholesterol and blood pressure and significantly reduce heart-threatening build-up in blood vessels.

If this small study is confirmed by others, people with a weight at the lower end of a healthy range – a Body Mass Index (BMI) reading of 18 to 22 – may be better off than people at the upper end of a healthy range (BMI of 23 to 25).

However, some health professionals think that calorie restriction for people with a healthy weight does not improve their health and can risk malnutrition. It seems possible to defuse this criticism by cutting your calorie consumption about ten percent, while still meeting all of your nutrient needs.

But a variety of studies show that it is extremely difficult to meet nutrient needs with less than 1,500 calories, so you must walk a fine line.

Fully meeting your nutritional needs with a limited number of calories is not the only reason for caution. Studies of the after-effects of food restriction and famine in The Netherlands during World War II show that a sudden or severe restriction of food for a limited time may actually worsen a person’s health and increase the risk of cancer.

The immune system can be impaired. And excessive restriction may make it difficult or impossible to exercise vigorously, which is recommended for a variety of health benefits. Experts agree that severe calorie restriction is inappropriate for people under age 21, who are still developing physically and mentally.

Cut 50-200 calories a day
It’s also critical that limiting calories for better health does not hide an eating disorder, like anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa restricts calories without regard for nutritional needs, aims for physical perfection at lower and lower weights, and is based on low self-esteem. A rational desire to restrict calories, on the other hand, will meet all nutritional needs, avoid perfectionistic rules and always show self-respect.

There is a danger in our weight-obsessed culture that some vulnerable people who begin calorie restriction for valid reasons could develop an eating disorder as they strive for harmfully low weights.

For the majority of our overweight and sedentary population, cutting back on excess calories and exercising daily are obvious steps to better health.

Adults with a healthy weight can also prevent the usual, small yearly weight gain with a slight reduction in calories and an increase in activity. For adults with a healthy weight who want to do more for their long-term well-being, sensible calorie restriction can be accomplished without rigid diets.

Simply see if you can comfortably eliminate 50 to 200 calories a day of nutrient-poor foods, like pastries or sodas, from what you eat. If you feel you need more calories, try adding some of them back in your diet as plant-based foods that are nutritionally rich.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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