What we eat, when we eat and the amount we eat are key factors that directly affect weight and lifespan, as well as age-related disease risk. Fasting, whether intermittent or prolonged, involves abstinence from all foods, but not water, for a set period of time. While most studies on fasting involve animals, not humans, a growing body of research suggests that intermittent fasting (IF) is an effective and sustainable approach for weight loss, improved markers of health and disease prevention. While some may find it difficult to fast, approaches range from relatively easy to challenging. Research shows IF is a safe and healthy dietary approach, as long as one consumes a largely plant-based whole food diet, skips ultraprocessed foods and forgoes snacking during the eating window.
An animal study published in the journal Cell Metabolism suggests that periodic fasting (PF) lasting two days or more, but separated by at least a week of normal eating, is emerging as a highly effective strategy to protect normal cells and organs from aging, as well as from a variety of toxins, while increasing the demise of many types of cancer cells. The study showed that PF resulted in a decrease in blood glucose, insulin and insulin-like growth factor. As well, pathological analysis showed reduced tissue and organ inflammation, which is key to the prevention of many age-related diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s.
Intermittent fasting has no standard duration and exists for the period of time one chooses to voluntarily forgo food for spiritual or health reasons. In actuality, we all fast for some part of each day when we don’t eat between meals and while sleeping each night. Learning to fast properly can result in weight loss, including a reduction in hard to eliminate visceral fat, as well as improved insulin sensitivity and lowered blood sugar and insulin levels. IF should not be considered for those who are underweight, pregnant or breastfeeding, or may have an eating disorder. IF may be most helpful for those who are overweight or obese.
Periodic fasting has been utilized traditionally for centuries. Often called cleanses or detoxes, a period of food abstinence is expected to rejuvenate the body, give internal organs a well-deserved rest and eliminate harmful toxic substances. In addition, IF in combination with an active healthy lifestyle may prevent and possibly reverse type 2 diabetes; improve blood cholesterol profile; enhance mental clarity and concentration; increase energy; reduce inflammation and risk the of certain diseases; and encourage a longer, heathier lifespan.
When we eat constantly throughout the day, the liver must convert surplus calories to glycogen, which is stored in the muscles, and to fat, most of which is stored in the liver and around our midsection. While there is limited storage space for glycogen, there is no limit to the amount of fat that can be created and stored. While our bodies are in the fed state, insulin levels are high and we are storing food energy. In the fasting state, insulin levels are lower and we are decreasing energy stores. Reduced caloric consumption simply allows the body to burn stored energy, as well as excess body fat. Ideally, when eating and fasting is balanced we should be burning the calories we consume and there should be no weight loss or gain.
There are several ways to take advantage of IF for improved health and weight maintenance.
- Some prefer to consume two to three meals within an eight hour window and fast for the remaining 16 hours. This type of short fast appears to be the easiest for most people to follow and can generally be utilized on a daily basis if one is so inclined.
- Longer fasts of 20 to 24 hours may be harder to adhere to but can be done several times weekly. One major advantage of the 24-hour fast is that it is particularly easy during a workday. One can fast after dinner on day one, have coffee or tea in the morning, skip breakfast, and then fast until dinnertime on day two.
- The 5:2 fast, in which one limits caloric intake to 500 calories twice weekly and eats normally the other five days, appears to have the most scientific support.
- Similar to the 5:2 but perhaps more difficult to follow, caloric intake is limited to 500 calories every other day. Although more intense, this fasting diet is also backed by scientific research.
- While most beneficial for weight loss, a 36-hour fast involves beginning a fast after dinner on day one, fasting throughout day two and ending the fast with breakfast on day three. Longer fasts are not recommended unless under the guidance of a healthcare practitioner.
- Studies done on IF have found that even as body weight steadily decreases, lean body mass or muscle loss does not. Even so, daily exercise along with IF is highly recommended.
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A Periodic Diet That Mimics Fasting Promotes Multi-System Regeneration, Enhanced Cognitive Performance, and Healthspan. https://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/fulltext/S1550-4131(15)00224-7
Intermittent fasting: Surprising update. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/intermittent-fasting-surprising-update-2018062914156
What are the benefits of intermittent fasting? https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323605.php
Systemic inflammation and disease progression in Alzheimer disease. https://n.neurology.org/content/73/10/768.short