Let me begin by pointing out the obvious: there are those of us who have heard of fasting, those of us who have considered it or perhaps even committed to being our own guinea pig by completing one, and those of us who think fasting is a bunch of nonsensical bull-ogna. (I mean, seriously…a day without an avocado?! Puh-leeease.)
Whether it be a fruit fast, juice fast, rice fast, eat-nothing-but-apples fast, the ‘famed’ Master Cleanse (a.k.a. The Lemonade Diet), or just a good ol’ fashioned H2O fast, there’s truly a fast out there to fancy just about anyone seeking to press the ‘reset button’ on their physical, mental, emotional, and, for some, spiritual health. There’s an overwhelming abundance of literature, research, and testimonials on this ancient tradition regardless of the type of fast. However, I felt the method most interesting (in terms of research & results), realistic and simplistic (for modern day application) was that of Intermittent Fasting (IF), which, as I delved around up to my CFA in the info, also happens to be the most-talked-about approach within the Paleo community. And as such, I thought it ideal to speak specifically to this approach to fasting.
IF is a pattern of eating characterized by short-term periods, typically lasting 24-36 hours (although 16-hour fasts are still quite effective), alternating fasting (consuming only water) with non-fasting. Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint and the blog, Mark’s Daily Apple, has some fantastic posts full of research, insight, and sound advice about IF that I encourage you to read at your leisure. What distinguishes IF is that it’s not a strict, regimented approach to fasting. Each fasting period, the frequency, and the types and quantities of food you consume can and should vary. Sisson states that he never really plans his IF cycles–he simply lets them happen naturally and even prefers to fast when he travels or is under a deadline.
The two key aspects I particularly like about this method are:
1) Its simplicity: There are no magic concoctions you have to whip together 5 times a day, no supplemental or complimentary elements of which to keep track (or which require spending exorbitant amounts of money), and no 2-4 hour blocks of time you’re required to quarantine yourself in a bathroom until business is taken care of.
2) The underlying concept of eating from cause: Sadly, this is an instinct that’s virtually nearing extinction in our modern world . It really boils down to one basic principle: Listen to your body. Tune in and observe the innate fluctuations within your body, whether it’s thirst, changes in your energy levels throughout the day (circadian rhythms), acknowledging true hunger signals, or figuring out what kind of food your body really wants and needs and when, not merely satisfying an impulsive urge to eat your weight in chocolate or fulfill some predetermined amount of servings for a given food group on ‘ye olde FDA Food Pyramid,’ which is due for elected extinction pronto in my opinion. And speaking of extinction, if we as a society continue to adhere to the guidelines of this diagram, it will serve as the “cave art” that explains the dim tragedy toward which we’re headed. But, I digress. That is another blog for another day perhaps. Plus, most of you are already well aware of the matter.
Let’s get to the Paleo ‘meat & sweet potatoes’ of why IF is so effective and highly beneficial. Below I’ve listed the most commonly cited benefits I came across during my blog homework. An additional point of interest I’d like mention is how closely IF mimics the hunter-gatherer way of life known to our ancestors, who undoubtedly experienced times of ‘feast or famine,’ except their version wasn’t exactly voluntary I’d imagine. They ate what they could forage and when they were fortunate to make a kill. Not really the leisurely stroll through the aisle’s of New Seasons or the local farmers’ market, is it? No wonder our relationship to food as a society has morphed so drastically! Anyhow, the common thread here is worth noting.
*(If you’re interested in reading more about humanity’s relationship to food, past and present, I highly recommend the writing of Michael Pollan, who wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and The Botany of Desire. All are excellent and super interesting reads.)
#1 Increased Longevity
In various animal studies, reductions in brain insulin signaling through calorie restriction or fasting have been shown to increase lifespan. Fasting can aide in neurogenesis (development of nerves of nerve tissues) and support and protect the neuronal pathways that drive locomotor performance. Fasting also increases autophagy, our body’s inherent “recycle, repair, renew” program for all umpteen trillion of our cells. This process is required for maintaining muscle mass and inhibiting muscle atrophy(muscle wasting) as well as increasing neuroplasticity, which is defined as “the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences.”
#2 Improved Blood Lipid Profile
Alternate day fasting has proved effective in lowering triglycerides, the storage form of fat in the body in adipose tissue and in the blood, and LDL cholesterol, commonly referred to as “the bad” cholesterol, in both particle size and distribution which both affect its role in plaque formation within the vascular system. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007 on the effect of alternate-day fasting on chronic disease prevention found in both animal and human subjects:
(1) decreases in blood pressure
(2) reduction in oxidative damage to lipids, protein and DNA
(3) improvement in insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake
(4) decreases in fat mass are among the benefits of intermittent fasting
Of significance, if you ask me.
#3 Increased Compliance
That’s right. Compliance. As in adherence to a healthy way of eating, devoid of processed foods, dairy, grains, and sugars. Call it “eating primally,” Paleo, “the caveman/woman diet,” or “clean eating.” They are all based upon the same foundation: Stop eating the crap that is wrecking your body. Mark Sisson describes this approach to nutrition as a “compliance-breeding regimen”because it is “simple, easy, delicious, and satiating.” That’s because it emphasizes the basic staples in their naturally occurring forms upon which our ancestors survived and thrived. This way of eating, no matter how it may vary in macronutrients from person to person, gives the body what it needs through whole foods that are ideally fresh, organic, grass-fed, perhaps even grown in your own backyard, and include active enzymes to aid in digestion and complimentary nutrients needed for proper absorption and assimilation. A hugely significant key to satiety and eliminating food cravings lies in determining the unique balance of protein, carbohydrate, and fat that works for you (i.e., gives you energy, supports internal health, optimal body composition, and your active lifestyle). So, be curious. Experiment with different quantities and types of foods. And it may not be the same from day to day, week to week, or season to season. It’s all about paying attention and being curious. From a personal standpoint, I can tell you that once I adopted this way of eating, my food cravings virtually ceased and I noticed that most of the foods that “tempted” me previously or had been relegated to the “treat/cheat” category didn’t have the same effect. In fact, most of them even gross me out now and I can’t imagine eating them.
#4 Increased Production of Growth Hormone
As we age, we all experience a dropping off in production of GH. Sometimes called the ‘anti-aging’ hormone, its largely responsible for cell regeneration. It also happens to be the most important fat-burning hormone and fasting helps to optimize its production. Fasting also decreases insulin levels, allowing your body to burn fat rather than store it and increases fat-burning enzymes. The two most important of these enzymes are Hormone Sensitive Lipase (HSL), found in adipose (fat) tissue, which allows fat cells to release fat for energy and Lipoprotein Lipase (LPL), found in muscle tissue, which allows muscles to utilize the fat for energy.
#5 Optimal Overall Fitness and Wellness
Sisson quotes in one of his articles that training in a fasted state “can actually result in better metabolic adaptations (which mean better performance down the line), improved muscle protein synthesis, and a higher anabolic response to post-workout feeding (you’ll earn your meal and make more muscle out of it if you train on an empty stomach). Studies on Muslim athletes during Ramadan show no effect on performance while fasting, as well as better lipids in those who exercise and fast rather than just fast. When you train in a fasted state, glycogen breakdown is blunted and more fat is burnt, leaving you more glycolytic energy in the tank for when you really need it and less body fat.” He offers links within this article to the research on these findings if you care to read more in depth. Pretty darn cool and interesting. Check out the link below to Martin Berkhan’s article debunking numerous fasting myths–fascinating, to say the least, and cause for challenging some of our long-held beliefs regarding nutrition and metabolism.
In terms of overall wellness and speaking to the psychological aspects of fasting, experimenting with IF or alternate-day fasting can be a powerful tool in revealing our motivations for eating (what, when, why) and ultimately help us examine our attitudes/relationship to food, helping to create healthier habits.
However, there are some scenarios in which fasting of any kind may not be appropriate. Within these contexts, there are certain preparation strategies and precautionary measures that can be employed in order to complete a fast safely and effectively. The following are instances that fall into the “wrong context” category:
- Eating a diet high in sugar, grains, legumes, and vegetable oils (a.k.a. The SAD-Standard American Diet) all of which conflict with satiety, metabolic function, and insulin signaling
- Being overweight or obese, as individuals in this category are efficient at storing fat but not burning it for energy. Fasting will be more effective if you are already eating a diet that supports proficient use of fat as an energy source. In other words, GET YOUR FOOD DIALED IN and then experiment with IF.
- Not being mentally, physically, and/or emotionally sound. Lack of wellness in any of these aspects is hugely stressful in every sense of the word. IF is also a stressor on the body, albeit a beneficial one when used in an ideal context, but if you don’t have a solid foundation to begin with, it doesn’t make sense to add additional stress and to potentially create more harm then good.
- Having unhealthy, whacked out cortisol regulation. Think: ‘belly fat,’ ‘skinny fat,’ lack of sleep, overtraining, chronic cardio-holicism, and a constant need for stimulants to keep you going. Beginning a fast in this condition will only throw you further off course. Don’t go there people.
- If you’re pregnant or nursing. Need I explain?
- If you are diabetic. This ties into the first and second contexts I mentioned. Ideally, you want to be able to skip meals without putting yourself in a compromising or dangerous situation regarding blood sugar levels. These individuals are encouraged to gradually decrease the amount of carbohydrates in their diets and increase their physical activity. When IF is used with diabetic persons making these changes and under a doctor’s supervision, it can be a powerful tool for them to increase insulin sensitivity, improve glucose tolerance, and lose weight.