The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

Many in the mainstream hear the word “fast” and immediately think “starvation”. Heck, I used to think that way too until I started to dig deeper and understand more about how the body works (and was designed to survive all this time).

Nowadays we are sold on the idea that we need to eat more often in order to have a faster metabolism, but as disputed in the past articles we know that is not true.  Sadly most mainstream diets sell best when they are complicated, because you have to buy a book (or additional supplements/bars/shakes) in order to make it work. Something simple will never make a ton of money in additional sales, because there will be nothing else to continually buy (except food).

But let’s take a quick overview of what scientists and researchers already know about the connection between eating and living longer/healthier.

Living Longer by Eating Less

Scientists have known since the 1930s there was only one real proven way in which you can extend the lifespan of an animal in laboratory conditions (up to 30-40% longer). That way was through reducing the daily calorie intake dramatically (up to 40%) compared to others fed at the normal calorie level. This is known as calorie restriction (or CR for short).

The CR groups were noted to have decreases in blood pressure, fasting insulin, inflammation, triglycerides, total cholesterol, and body mass. All markers to say that the aging process is slowed down including more protection at the cell level against diseases.

On the left is Matthias (28 years old) who is losing hair, moves slower, less muscle, and a face full of wrinkles. On the right is Rudy, who was fed 30% less (CR) and at a year older (29) with more hair, lean muscle, no wrinkles, move with ease, and full or vitality/energy.

On the left is Canto (27) and on the right is Owen (29). Canto is fed with about 30% less calories than Owen (CR). Which one do you think looks more vibrant and younger?

Unfortunately there is also downsides to the CR approach including loss of lean muscle (and getting really skinny), loss of energy, being hungry, loss of mental focus and well-being, increases in anxiety/depression/irritability, and just nothing that any of us would really want to go through.

So it seems the old sarcastic line is true, “Calorie Restriction is a great way to live a long and miserable life!“. Luckily there does appear to be another option.

Intermittent Fasting and Feeding

Later on it was discovered that another protocol involving fasting/reduced calories every other day could be used to mimic the health benefits seen in a fulltime CR approach. There was also seen an added feature of lean body maintenance while lowered fat mass (vs more bodyweight reduction in CR). These alternating days of fasting is also known as “intermittent fasting” (or IF for short).

Since May 2003 we have experimented with alternate day calorie restriction, one day consuming 20-50% of estimated daily caloric requirement and the next day ad lib eating, and have observed health benefits starting in as little as two weeks, in insulin resistance, asthma, seasonal allergies, infectious diseases of viral, bacterial and fungal origin (viral URI, recurrent bacterial tonsillitis, chronic sinusitis, periodontal disease), autoimmune disorder (rheumatoid arthritis), osteoarthritis, symptoms due to CNS inflammatory lesions (Tourette’s, Meniere’s) cardiac arrhythmias (PVCs, atrial fibrillation), menopause related hot flashes. We hypothesize that other many conditions would be delayed, prevented or improved, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, brain injury due to thrombotic stroke atherosclerosis, NIDDM, congestive heart failure.

Source: The effect on health of alternate day calorie restriction: eating less and more than needed on alternate days prolongs life. Johnson JB, Laub DR, John S. Med Hypotheses. 2006;67(2):209-11.

The vulnerability of the nervous system to advancing age is all too often manifest in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. In this review article we describe evidence suggesting that two dietary interventions, caloric restriction (CR) and intermittent fasting (IF), can prolong the health-span of the nervous system by impinging upon fundamental metabolic and cellular signaling pathways that regulate life-span. CR and IF affect energy and oxygen radical metabolism, and cellular stress response systems, in ways that protect neurons against genetic and environmental factors to which they would otherwise succumb during aging.

Source: Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting: Two potential diets for successful brain aging, Bronwen Martin, Mark P. Mattson, and Stuart Maudsley, Ageing Res Rev. 2006 August; 5(3): 332–353.

The extent of how all the systems in CR and IF work is still a mystery to many researchers. It also appears that while they both seem to share health benefits, the way in which they are done and systems involved can vary (as seen with the big difference in body mass).

Using Intermittent Fasting in Your Lifestyle

In reality, IF can be applied in many different ways (as most of us are not going to want to fast that often). Using intermittent times of no food intake along with reduced calories on those days can give people many of the health/weight loss benefits without needing to give up food for a whole day. It also allows more flexibility into how it can be used depending on the person’s goals, activity levels, food choices and schedule. I mean who wouldn’t want to eat in a way that could potentially give you:

  • Reduced blood glucose and insulin levels (markers of improved health)
  • Increased fatty acid oxidation
  • Maintenance of lean mass (muscle)
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Reduced oxidative damage
  • Increased cellular stress resistance (esp of heart and brain)
  • Decreased risks associated with degenerative diseases of aging (cancers, heart diseases, diabetes, Alzheimers)

Although the best part that myself and many others love about using an IF approach, is that the “freedom” you get from not being a slave to eating all the time. When I want to eat, I eat…and I eat well! I really don’t snack as my lifestyle is now about eating meals or not. I eat plenty of calories/nutrients and am not starving myself. Plus I don’t have to spend extra money on bars/shakes and other processed foods just to try and get something in me every couple of hours.

I enjoy the flavors and tastes of real food now more than ever. I have a better relationship with food/eating, don’t really deprive myself of anything, but also make better choices in the process. All in all, a lasting lifestyle change and not a diet.

Task for This Week: Pick a Day to Skip Breakfast

intermittent-fasting-plateOK, I have held off till now about talking about intermittent fasting during this challenge because I wanted your initial focus to be on eating a better quality of food first. Intermittent fasting is more a “tool” you can use in your healthy lifestyle whenever you see fit to improve your health/weight loss, it is not a set diet plan. It is also not to be used as a pass to just allow you to just eat more crap in the process (as I always say IFOC, intermittent fasting on crap, is not going to work).

So for this week pick a day (weekday or weekend) in which you will see how your body responds to skipping breakfast*. Have some water/tea/coffee (be warned: fasting can increase the sympathetic nervous system response which may amplify emotions such as anxiety, so having caffeine may not be ideal on an IF day for many). See how your energy and mental focus is as you go. If you feel good, try going without lunch. Eat a normal sized meal (not binge) whenever you feel you are ready or start to feel too fatigued/low blood sugar/anxious.

Remember the goal with IF is not about eating nothing (or as people would say “starving yourself” ) to lose weight. It is about just taking a short break in eating in order to elicit natural hormonal and evolutionary genetic responses at the cellular level for better health (and weight loss does happen in the process). You will still eat that day and you are not doing this every day.

*Disclaimer: IF is meant for healthy individuals and may not be suitable for everyone. If you have any concerns you should talk with your physician before attempting. Use at your own risk.

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