fastingIntermittent fasting is a form of calorie restriction that has been recently popularized by a number of diets:  5:2 Diet,  The Fast Diet, Leangains,  Eat Stop Eat, The Warrior Diet, Alternate-Day Diet, among many.   All of these diets share a common method of cycling between a period of fasting and non-fasting.  Researchers aren’t sure why, but it appears that regularly fasting can potentially improve your health in a number of ways. A recent published study has added support to the notion that people who follow a fasting diet may have better heart health than people who don’t.  But it’s too early to really know, as the study may have demonstrated that people who routinely fast show self-control over how many calories they eat and drink generally make better eating choices when they aren’t fasting.  It is important to appreciate the difference between fasting and detoxing — the latter is often associated with a marketing scam.

Here’s what we definitely know:  fasting has been around for a long, long time.  It was a way of life for early humans and, until the 20th century, a reliable and steady supply of nutritious food was largely unimaginable for most people.   So, over the millenia, our bodies adapted to “involuntary” fasting.  The question is whether our hard-wiring adaptations to intermittent eating (or non-eating) make us healthier in the long-term.   There is no definitive answer.   In fact,  there simply aren’t enough studies to come to any conclusion — other than that a well-designed short fasting program probably can’t hurt too much.

There are some indications that fasting is helpful.  Periodic fasting and better heart health may also be linked to the way your body metabolizes cholesterol and sugar. Regular fasting can decrease your low-density lipoprotein, or “bad,” cholesterol. It’s also thought that fasting may improve the way your body metabolizes sugar. This can reduce your risk of gaining weight and developing diabetes, which are both risk factors for heart disease.

The recent published study was overseen by Valter Longo, a profession of gerontology at USC.  He is a highly regarded academic but with a very clear point of view:  fasting is beneficial to longevity.  In a recent interview, he expressed hope that intermittent fasting works and that 10-20% of the population are using these on a regular basis so that they in some ways, “stay away from medicine and drugs and doctors”.  For the purposes of his study, he created a a plant-based diet program designed to attain fasting-like effects while providing micronutrient nourishment (vitamins, minerals, etc.) and minimize the burden of fasting. It consisted of vegetable-based soups, energy bars, energy drinks,chip snacks, chamomile flower tea, and a vegetable supplement formula tablet over a five-day period every month.  For the first day, the study participants ate 1,090 calories: 10 percent protein, 56 percent fat and 34 percent carbohydrates. For days two through five, 725 calories: 9 percent protein, 44 percent fat, 47 percent carbohydrates. In this small 19-person study, participants who intermittently fasted for three months had reduced risk factors for aging, cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.  They also lost weight.

The Longo study is promising, but more studies must occur before we can rely upon intermittent fasting as a panacea……although it’d be awfully nice.   For those interested in fasting, the five-day monthly fast may provide some short-term weight loss and well-being benefits.   However, the following tips, culled from a number of different articles about fasting from authoritative sources, may be helpful>

  • Drink lots of water: Staying well hydrated will make the fasting periods much easier to get through and probably assist in “detoxifying”.
  • Fasting is a mental exercise: Think of fasting as taking a break from eating, not as a period of deprivation. It can be a way to break up the monotony of worrying about what you need to eat next and when. This is the mindset that will allow you do follow a fasting plan long-term.
  • Think Long-Term:  combine intermittent fasting with a healthy diet of real, whole foods and consistent weightlifting. Intermittent fasting is just another tool in your toolbox. Just as eating a healthy diet of real, whole foods, regular exercise, good sleep habits and stress reduction are other important tools.
  • Listen to Your Body:  Everyone’s bodies are different so it is important that you stay very in-tune with your body’s reaction to a fast.  For those who suffer from blood glucose level or other dietary issues, low-protein fasting could create unintended reactions.   If you don’t find yourself feeling better within two-days of the diet,  you may need to redesign it.  And if you are under the care of a physician, it is worth checking with him/her before beginning an intermittent fasting regimen.