Dr. Richa Mittal
"Everyone has a doctor in him; we just have to help him in his work. The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well. ...to eat when you are sick, is to feed your sickness." -- Hippocrates
Intermittent fasting is being discussed everywhere
From medical journals, to magazines and in professional and mom groups on social media (at least the ones I belong to!), everyone is talking about fasting.
Is there a role for fasting in this day and age? Could something that has been being done since ancient times have benefits today?
Is it harmful?
Wait, weren't we told that skipping meals can actually slow our metabolisms?
There is a lot of research being done on the practice of fasting. Studies have been small so far, but more are on the horizon.
First, let's look at the history.
Ancient civilizations across the world practiced fasting for many reasons.
Ancient religions that carry on today like Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism have a history of fasting in various forms. Western religions Christianity, Islam and Judaism also observe fasts at different times of the year.
Medical fasts have been recommended by healers and philosophers like Hippocrates, Socrates and Plato for thousands of years.
What are the benefits?
It has been believed that fasting allows the body a chance to heal. The process of converting food to energy has by-products that produce free radicals (that cause inflammation) and fasting allows a chance to "clear" the body of these.
Intermittent fasting is being found to not only have benefits for weight reduction, but also for improving insulin resistance (which protects against diabetes), improving cardiac risk factors, anti-aging, and improved brain function, protecting against Alzheimer's disease and stroke.
Studies are showing it can help with autoimmune diseases and even in cancer prevention.
Of note, the benefits in increased survival (longer life), have been shown in adults and with advanced age, not in childhood. There is decreased survival when fasting studies have been done in young animals.
In modern times, we are inundated with food and eat continuously. We evolved in environments where food was scarce, so our bodies are adapted to work at a highly efficient level on a physical and mental level in a food deprived state. Our survival has depended on it.
With the overabundance of food, our over-eating has led to metabolic problems like insulin resistance and storage of fat from excess food intake.
Fasting is turning out to be an effective tool we can use to combat this process.
Today, individuals like Dr. Jason Fung (author of The Obesity Code and The Complete Guide to Fasting) have brought the research and findings on fasting to the forefront. He has brought up the idea that it not only important to look at what we eat, but also WHEN we eat.
Leading scientists in this field Dr. Valter Longo (fasting and longevity specialist) who studies cellular health and aging at The Longevity Institute at USC and Dr. Michelle Harvie (dietician & specialist in intermittent fasting) who has studied the effects of fasting on weight, breast cancer risk and aging, are among those who have published research on different forms of fasting.
Studies have looked at three kinds of fasting patterns.
1) Time-restricted feeding: Limiting eating to a certain time period. Example: Eat from 10 am to 6 pm.
2) Intermittent calorie restriction: Limiting calorie intake to 800-1000 calories 2 days a week (5:2 diet)
3) Periodic fasting: Limiting calorie intake for 3-5 days at a time
In recent reviews, fasting did not affect a person's ability to exercise. It was also not associated with binge-eating or overeating on non-fasting days.
Overall, intermittent fasting appears to be equal in terms of body fat lost compared to cutting calories every day but short term, metabolism may even improve on fasting days.
For people trying to cut food intake, it may be easier to only think about cutting calories two days a week and then make healthy choices the other days of the week.
I personally have been choosing a daily eating window (ex. 11 AM-7PM) and have found I have less hunger during my fasting times. I am also able to eat healthy but also indulge occasionally, while still maintaining my weight. In a way, there is less thinking involved, which is freeing!
Are you contemplating adding intermittent fasting to your lifestyle? Given the benefits appear to be widespread, I think it is something we should all consider.
Start small and do what works for you! Always consult with your doctor if you have any medical conditions before starting any type of fasting regimen.