I love my food. And I hate being hungry. In fact, I don’t get hungry, I get hangry (any one of my friends will tell you). The benefits of fasting have to be pretty darn spectacular for me to even consider giving it a go. After some research, I was pretty impressed with what I found and I’m shocked to say, that even I, a hunger hater, would consider going hungry for health.
In the 1930’s the American Great Depression saw severe drought and food restriction. During this time, the average life expectancy (unexpectedly) increased by 6 years! Nowadays, westerners can go a lifetime without experiencing true hunger and life expectancy (for the first time in history) is going down. This pushes the question; are these two phenomena related? While we can’t say definitely no or definitely just yet, more and more research is pointing to hunger augmenting a long, healthy (maybe not so ‘full’) life. In fact, calorie restriction/fasting is associated with an 40% increase in life span (in animals), as well as decreased diabetes, body fat, cardiovascular disease and cancer. These chronic diseases are amongst the biggest causes of mortality in the Western population.
IGF1 is a hormone that drives our body to continually proliferate cells and grow. The problem with this is, the body is so busy dividing and multiplying, that is doesn’t have time to take care of housekeeping activities. Repairing DNA damage isn’t a priority. These damaged cells can build-up and manifest as chronic disease. IGF1 is stimulated by protein and calorie intake. If we can limit this through fasting, it is possible to switch the body from ‘grow, grow, grow’ mode and to ‘fix the cells we already have’ mode. You can think of it like quality over quantity. By promoting healthy cells, we can achieve a long, healthy (if a bit hungry) life.
You can read further about systemic inflammation here. In summary, food causes inflammation and inflammation is bad. It is, therefore, intuitive that decreased food means decreased inflammation and a longer healthier life.
With ageing, we see a natural decline in immune function. This is why the harmless common cold can land the elderly in hospital. There is some evidence that fasting can mitigate this decline. During a fasting period, white blood cells (immune cells) drop by up to 40%, which means the immune system takes a pretty big hit. What is important, is that it bounces back in a pretty big way. After fasting kills off the weak cells, the resumption of a normal diet stimulates the production of even more healthy immune cells. In this respect, intermittent fasting can act as an immune renewal system, achieving better health.
How do I sign up?
There are 3 common fasting/caloric restriction practices that you can have a go if, like me, you’ve been convinced that this diet is worth a try.
Caloric restriction is one method to elicit the health benefits, aforementioned. It involves consuming about 30% less calories, every day, indefinitely. Cutting down a third of your food every day is pretty difficult and many report failure to adhere. This approach may not be for everyone, and only suited to the extremely disciplined few amongst us.
Intermittent fasting is far more popular than calorie restriction. You might have already been exposed to it, as the 5:2 diet. It involves alternating normal feeding days with 2-3 days of fasting per week. Fasting days involve consuming no more than 500 calories in that day (preferably none at all). This usually achieved with vegetable broths, herbal teas, lemon water and the like. It is very important that normal eating days are not mistaken for over-eating days. Having next to no food the day before doesn’t mean you can binge today. This would defeat the purpose. Instead, fasting days should be broken up with normal caloric consumption of nutrient dense foods.
The Fasting Mimicking Diet
The fasting mimicking diet is an emerging, novel fasting protocol. It aims to elicit the same benefits as traditional fasting, without the burden of extreme hunger. It involves repeating a 5day regime, every couple of months, broken up by periods of normal, healthy eating. On the first day, intake is to be restricted to 1090cal/day. On days 2-5, intake is further restricted to 725cal/day. While this more generous than an intermittent fating day, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s easy. Just because it is easier, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Not to mention, the restriction period is longer (1 vs 3 consecutive days). Unlike traditional fasting protocols, the fasting mimicking diet involves macronutrient distribution manipulation, where protein is kept low (for the purpose of driving down IGF1). If you want more information about details of this diet, follow this link .
In conclusion, trying any one of these diet is going to be difficult, but if you’re willing to give it a go, I encourage you. Only undertake extreme fasting protocols with the supervision of a dietitian or doctor. Make sure that the food you do eat is nutrient dense, to avoid the very real risk of deficiency. While the research is only in its early days, it’s looking very promising. I know I’ll be giving it a go sometime soon (as soon as I gather the courage)!