Fasting, or IF- Intermittent Fasting- seems to be the dieting buzzword du jour.
5/2, 8/16, 24/7/365 (ok, the last one isn’t real) the numbers roll off the tongues of every worthy, and not so worthy, fitness guru like Sunday nights lottery draw.
Many have argued that the idea of simply starving yourself for most of the day amounts to little more than an eating disorder, and may even cause weight gain due to ‘window of opportunity’ gorging.
However, the science backing up faddish sounding number-spouting speaks less to ‘weight’ per say, and more to living a longer and healthier life.
Fasting is not new. It has been part of almost every religious doctrine since religious doctrines became a thing. In the past, abstinence and prayer often went hand in hand- and still do. Ramadan, Lent, Yogic practice, Forbidden Days and 100 other practices around food and drink restriction still exist.
But there is an even more remarkable history surrounding our understanding of the human body. Fasting has been used as a way to heal what ails you for millennia.
In 5 BCE, Hippocrates suggested it as a way to prevent disease and cure illness.
To quote the man himself, “Our food should be our medicine. Our medicine should be our food. But to eat when you are sick is to feed your sickness.”
Of course, back then they WHY was not understood, only that a ‘fasted’ body seemed better at bouncing back from certain problems.
We know from science that evolutionary adaptation has made our bodies very efficient at storing energy reserves and drawing upon them when food supplies are scarce, but the actual benefits of fasting were still unclear until a Japanese cell biologist, Yoshinori Ohsumi, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016 for his research on how cells recycle and renew their content through a process called ‘autophagy’.
Autophagy helps slow down the aging process and has a positive impact on cell renewal.
And the process which stimulates autophagy is…fasting.
This scientific confirmation may have started the ball rolling on this popular and fast growing-sorry- trend.
So what is autophagy actually, and how does it work?
Broken into it’s bits, the term ‘autophagy’ literally means ‘self-eating’.
Autophagy is a natural cellular mechanism by which the cells clean out damaged cellular components, damaged protein and other waste products within the cell. The cell also recycles parts of itself into new components which can be used for cellular repair.
This process actually helps clean up harmful materials inside the cells and rejuvenates them.
Evidence from animal studies suggests that the health benefits of autophagy may include protection against diseases such as cancer, neuro-degenerative disorders, infections, inflammatory diseases, ageing and insulin resistance.
It all sounds amazing, self-cleaning cells that make you live longer, however, there are some caveats.
While fasting for 12 plus hours will trigger autophagy in healthy individuals, pregnant or breastfeeding women should obviously not try this, nor those with severe medical conditions, anyone suffering with an eating disorder, the very elderly, and children
The good news is you don’t need to go nil-by-mouth to persuade your cells to clean house.
Clinical research indicates that long-term calorie restriction (3-15 years) of 10-40% leads to an increased expression of autophagy genes and higher levels of the molecules involved in removing dysfunctional proteins and organelles.
Movement also induces autophagy in muscle tissue. Autophagy markers immediately increase after short periods of intense exercise and also over the course of longer moderate-intensity training sessions.
Examples of exercise for inducing autophagy are high-intensity interval training (HIIT), weightlifting and resistance training exercises. Interval walking, alternating going fast and then slow, also works.
If you’d rather manage it through diet, recent studies demonstrate that polyphenols, beneficial compounds found in plants, may play a role in inducing autophagy. Some examples of polyphenol rich consumables are green tea, grape skins, red wine, apples, berries, nuts, soybeans, onions, turmeric and milk thistle.
Like anything related to your wellbeing, you should always do your research and speak to a medical professional before trying something new.
But if you are quite healthy, you can experiment with fasting at home and incorporating light activity to distract you from hunger pangs. Keep drinking plain herbal tea or black coffee, especially if you start suffering cravings, and pay attention to how you feel. Importantly, listen to your body. Even the ancients had cheat days.