Is Fasting Good For You?

What if you could lose weight and reduce the risk of problems like heart disease and diabetes by going without food a few days per week?  That’s what a lot of current diet trends promise.

As I wrote in a previous post, intermittent fasting can be a safe and effect method of weight loss.  But is fasting good for you?  Does it improve your health beyond helping you lose weight?  I found a wonderful review article published in 2014 that goes over many of the benefits of fasting.  You can find this article at this link.

There is a fair amount of evidence that fasting improves glucose tolerance and insulin resistance in normal and diabetic subjects.  Both women and men showed improvement in these metabolic markers.  Insulin resistance is central to diabetes and thought to play a role in numerous other illnesses such as heart disease, high cholesterol and fatty liver disease.

It appears that fasting is helpful in inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and also in patients with high blood pressure.

Fasting also seems to be beneficial to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment for their cancer.  It’s thought that fasting puts healthy cells into a protected state because they have lots of ways to cope with calorie restriction but cancer cells don’t.  They get stressed and are more sensitive to chemo.

One of the most exciting lines of research seems to indicate that fasting slows the aging process.  It appears to slow the production of markers inside cells that cause the cells to age faster.  These markers are called AGE products (Advanced Glycation End Products) and sort of gum up the cells’ metabolic machinery.  Eventually the cells are damaged to the point of dying and are replaced by the body.  Fasting changes the environment both inside and outside the cells which helps clear AGE products faster.

This may also explain in part why fasting helps preserve neurocognitive function.  The vast majority of these studies have been done in animals.  However, there are small studies in humans that suggest both calorie restriction and the use of a low-glycemic diet are helpful in older adults with memory and cognitive problems.  More research is on the way!

However, fasting isn’t safe for everyone.  Children, pregnant women and frail elderly people as a rule should not undertake fasts.  Diabetics who use insulin or certain oral medications and those who are prone to hypoglycemia should definitely NOT try intermittent fasting without supervision from a doctor familiar both with their unique medical condition and with fasting as a medical intervention.

There is also one other pitfall to fasting.  As published in the Journal of Nutrition, people who fasted were hungrier after fasting and more apt to eat too much if told to eat whatever they want.  This makes sense, right?  It’s not an insurmountable problem, though.  If you’ve been fasting, make sure to eat nutritious, low-calorie-density, bulky foods like fresh fruits and nonstarchy vegetables, brown rice and whole grains as your foods of choice immediately after finishing your fast.  This will make you less likely to overeat in the day or two after your fast is complete.

There are a lot of ways to do intermittent fasting.  The first one that I recommend to people is to simply not eat for 12 hours per day (such as from 7 PM to 7 AM).  This also tends to get around people’s weakness for snacking in front of the TV late at night.

There are other intermittent fasting programs where the person avoids calories altogether or takes a very small amount of calories on some days, but eats normally on other days.  There are many popular programs which I won’t go into.

If you want to try intermittent fasting for weight loss and health benefits, first check with your doctor to see if it would be safe to do so.  Then please let me know how it works for you!

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