Remember the last article about taking a break?
Some people say it also helps to take a break from the modern daily diet, and skip a meal or fast from time to time – but you would have to be careful about the thousand and one things that fasting is supposed to do for you. It is said that temporarily "starving" yourself can be beneficial to your health. So we explore the many health claims, and ask the million dollar question: is fasting good for you?
Let’s focus on the main form of fasting being advertised – or condemned – on the Internet. This is Intermittent Fasting. This involves fasting in the very short term – as short as skipping one meal every two days, and up to 20 hours at a time, no more than 36 hours. There are many "patterns" for intermittent fasting – from skipping random meals to the "Warrior Diet" of feeding within a 4-hour window daily.
This is not the same as religious or “dry” fasting though – this is a nutrition-oriented fasting that involves constant hydration. Participants also take care to forego vigorous exercise or operating heavy machinery.
TAKE NOTE – there are many types of people who should not engage in fasting at all! If you are anorexic, pregnant, diabetic… We certainly do not recommend fasting! Some people with other conditions might also need professional medical supervision in order to fast safely.
Weight Loss and Metabolism
This is a sensitive one. This is not meant to be a fat-shaming or body-shaming exercise. It is meant to promote health, and certainly some people can have better fat tolerances than others. The point is that too much sugar can cause metabolic problems resulting in diabetes and many other related complications. Body fat has a role in this because the way food gets stored as fat also affects the way we burn energy. It seems to make perfect sense – fasting means less food, therefore less fat, right? Not so simple.
One way that fasting is supposed to help is by resetting certain hormone levels or resetting the body's sensitivity to them. This theory is based on the idea that the body is built for alternating cycles of "feast and famine" – we are not biologically designed to eat regularly the way modern culture has imposed. An article argues that fasting helps to normalise your body's sensitivity to leptin and insulin.
What's leptin? It is the hormone that makes you burn fat. If it could be manufactured in laboratories, many people would become extremely rich. But it cannot be manufactured yet, and improving the way the body responds to its own naturally-produced leptin is the next best thing. Fasting is supposed to improve the body’s response to leptin. But you know who else is heavy and wants to cut down fat? The bodybuilder. And bodybuilders manipulate leptin not by increasing their body response to leptin, but by increasing their leptin levels... through eating more. They do this on their “cheat days” because their regular exercise patterns burn a tonne of calories, and result in leptin levels dropping. This makes sense – the body is getting leaner, working harder and burning lots of fat, so why should it be producing more fat-burning hormones?
Another related hormone is ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry – constant unnatural food intake supposedly interferes with the way ghrelin is supposed to work, and fasting supposedly helps re-set that too. Again, bodybuilders are sensitive to manipulating ghrelin levels - and fasting is not a mainstay of bodybuilders.
Improved Brain Function?
There have been claims that fasting boosts the brain by increasing levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and this helps create more stem cells. Also, fasting helps to trigger ketosis once the blood sugar and liver glycogen run out. Ketosis is a process that converts fats into ketones, which can be used to fuel the brain. This sounds good, but ketosis can be dangerous and even fatal depending on your physical condition. So why are some websites promoting ketosis with little to no caution?
The Problem With Half-Information
These issues are the tip of the iceberg. The proposed benefits of intermittent fasting look like a wish list of "live longer", "look better", "feel better" and “no more pimples!” changes. However, many of the conclusions are drawn from animal studies that do not necessarily relate to human effects. More importantly, they do not account for differences in energy flux – that is, how differences in activity level can affect the many factors (e.g., hormone levels) that supposedly lead to the benefits of fasting. Guess who else experiences a lot of energy flux? Athletes and bodybuilders. They consume and burn a lot more calories than normal people do, but whether they appear fat or not, depends on a great many other factors, including the nature of the sport they practice.
Of course, there are other claims (weight loss generates a lot of interest!) that say fasting long enough will make the body burn up fibroids and bacteria and other unimportant stuff hanging around the body, thus improving health – this is the autophagy theory that is very closely related to the “detox” theory. But I am not sure how true this is.
We’re not scientists here, but if you decrease your caloric intake, why would the body metabolism increase to cause weight loss? Wouldn’t the body react to the drop in calories and… store more fat?
This is why some of the more reputable websites, or articles written by actual doctors with something to lose, either flat-out denounce the benefits of fasting, or insist that it be done very carefully as part of a general exercise and diet plan.
So, just how beneficial is intermittent fasting for the body? It may be beneficial, but I would take a lot of what is written on the Internet with a pinch of sodium… and potassium.
Please also be careful before you start fasting – as with any new regimen, whether fasting, diet or exercise, try to be gentle and ease your body into it, and keep your potassium levels up with a banana or two. Shock therapy isn't for everyone. If you want a more detailed look into creating a fasting plan for yourself, this article is pretty useful, and also sheds light on many problems with health claims floating around the Internet.
More importantly, all that is just the biological stuff. There's lots more virtual ink spilled over whether fasting helps you spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically – but that would make this article far too long.
Until then, take care of your eating patterns, don’t forget to exercise, and do enjoy the intermittent breaks!
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