Have you heard of intermittent fasting?
Also known as ‘The Fast Diet’ or ‘The 5:2’. You may have a work colleague who has decided to skip lunch because they are on a ‘fast day’, or a friend who has opted for a light meal. Are they crazy, or are there actual benefits to fasting?
The concept of fasting is not new – in fact, it was something I was taught as part of my naturopathic training. Taking a break from the work of digesting and absorbing food allows the body to free up vital energy to direct to other areas (such as healing). A classic example of the body naturally fasting is the drop in appetite we experience when unwell – this is a way the body can help to direct valuable energy to fighting an infection. Children, in particular, tend to listen very well to this signal from their body, and often refuse food when they are unwell. And we all know how well they bounce back after an illness!
Fasting has been an inevitable part of our human history, as well as an important feature of many religions. Our ancestors were not exposed to a continuous stream of food like we are now, they had times of food abundance and scarcity. So, in a way, you could say that we are biologically hardwired to fast.
With intermittent fasting, the idea is that for 2 days of the week you reduce your food intake down to around one-quarter of the calories you normally consume, and for the other 5 days you eat normally. This is called ‘calorie restriction’ and scientific research has shown that an interesting thing happens when we don’t eat quite so much – it actually makes our body more effective at healing, by ‘switching on’ various cellular repair mechanisms, and research suggests that reducing our intake of calories may lead to a longer lifespan. The concept of Intermittent Fasting has recently been revived, predominantly as a weight loss/maintenance method. The idea is that by reducing your calorie intake 2 days per week, you are reducing your overall weekly intake of food enough to encourage the body to burn fat for energy. By only fasting for 2 days per week, it is not long enough for the body to go into ‘starvation mode’ where negative effects may occur, but it seems to be enough to reap the positive benefits. Fasters report losing weight at a steady rate, whilst still enjoying their regular diet on non-fasting days, and many fasters also report an increase in energy, concentration and mental well-being, as well as improved results on blood tests.
Interestingly, research has shown that not only may regular fasting help weight loss, it has shown to potentially be an effective strategy for treating chronic pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia. Known as ‘medically modified fasting’, participants in scientific studies have reported an alleviation of symptoms and improved moods while fasting under supervision.
It is important to remember that there is a vast difference between consciously reducing your calorie intake for a few days per week, and ‘starving yourself’. The 5:2 is all about improving health and well-being, not excessively restricting and obsessing over food.
Yes, if you fast, you will feel hungry, however, hunger pangs subside, and do not ‘build’ to a point where they become unmanageable. I believe that listening to, and accepting, our hunger signals is a good thing. In our day and age of constant exposure to food, many people have simply ‘lost touch’ with true hunger signals, which leads to overeating.
Who do I recommend take a closer look at Intermittent fasting?
- Those who have tried other methods of weight loss, and have had trouble with ‘willpower’.
- Those who want to improve their general health and wellbeing.
- Those wishing to reduce their risk of lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, cancer and stroke
- Those with chronic pain syndromes, such as fibromyalgia
Those who shouldn’t consider Intermittent Fasting include:
- Pregnant or breastfeeding women
- The elderly or infirm
This is just a brief overview of what Intermittent Fasting involves, and certainly does not cover every aspect or potential benefit. As always, not every dietary approach suits everyone, however if this topic has interested you, I recommend you get hold of a copy of the original book on intermittent fasting – ‘The Fast Diet’ by Dr Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer. This book covers the science behind the 5:2 concept, the authors’ personal experience of fasting, as well as some helpful tips and recipes.