SALT LAKE CITY — While a large majority of Utahns and Mormons around the world perform a periodic fast for religious purposes, doctors are now saying it might be a health-conscious — and heart-conscious — thing to do as well.

"We've shown it is not a chance finding. Fasting is not just an indicator for other healthy lifestyles. It is actually the fasting that is working to reduce the risk of disease," Dr. Benjamin D. Horne said Thursday.

Horne is among more than a dozen doctors with Intermountain Medical Center's Heart Institute who discovered the most recent round of physiological benefits from fasting and are presenting their findings at the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans.

"Fasting causes hunger or stress. In response, the body releases more cholesterol, allowing it to utilize fat as a source of fuel, instead of glucose. This decreases the number of fat cells in the body," Horne said.

The fewer fat cells a person has, the less likely they are to have elevated cholesterol, insulin resistance or diabetes, he said.

Doctors found that skipping at least two meals on a regular basis led to a dramatic  increase of human growth hormone (HGH), which plays a metabolic role in adults, regulating glucose and insulin within the body, "so you are burning fat cells when you fast," Horne said.

During 24-hour fasting periods, he said HGH increased to an average of 1,300 percent in women and nearly 2,000 percent in men, as part of the study.

The newest research expands on a 2007 study that revealed an association between fasting and reduced risk of coronary artery disease — the leading cause of death among men and women in America, according to Intermountain Healthcare. It shows that fasting, or abstaining from food or drink for a designated period of time, was also found to reduce other cardiac risk factors, such as triglycerides, weight and blood sugar levels.

The population and the overtly religious culture in Utah provided the perfect variables for testing the effects of fasting. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are asked to fast at least once a month.

"Utahns and LDS people have a lower risk of cardiac mortality," Horne said. "Even today, despite the fact that smoking rates have declined in most states, and quite considerably in some states, the Utah rate of cardiac death is much lower than in most states."

It was also easy to find people who are accustomed to it, rather than having to ask people to start doing something he said "isn't all that easy to do" to those unfamiliar with the practice.

"Most of the world's population doesn't fast on a regular basis," Horne said, even though fasting is a recognized practice in many of the world's religions. It just isn't routinely done in other faiths.

To arrive at the findings, researchers conducted two fasting studies, including more than 200 individuals — patients admitted to the Intermountain Medical Center, as well as healthy volunteers who were recruited at the hospital. Some were asked to eliminate both food and beverage for 24 hours, while another group performed a water-only fast during the same period. Both groups were monitored while eating a normal diet during an additional 24-hour period to provide the necessary comparables.

Blood tests and physical measurements were taken from all of the study's participants throughout the study to evaluate cardiac risk factors, markers of metabolic risk and other general health parameters.

And while Horne said he wouldn't necessarily prescribe a fasting intervention for diabetic patients, he did say the practice could prevent the onset of diabetes for those who might be mildly at risk, or perhaps reduce the effects of the disease.

But fasting as a treatment mechanism remains largely unexplored, and that is what doctors involved in the study hope future research leads to. They have recently received a grant from the Deseret Foundation to continue their research, to determine the extent of the effects that fasting can have in both cardiac and diabetic patients, even involving high-risk cardiac and diabetic patients.

"People have to be careful," Horne said. "If there is some interest, they ought to talk to their physician first." He said some people are physiologically unable to fast and therefore need to seek a doctor's advice.