“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” J. Krishnamurti
We live in a world where the four biggest killers after the age of 40 are cancer, stroke, neurodegenerative disease, and cardiovascular disease. Although the life-expectancy in almost every country has increased in the past century, there seems to be more incidence of these diseases, as well as inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and autoimmune disorders like coeliac disease. As a result, people (including myself) are always trying to find out how they can reduce risk of disease and increase longevity. New bold claims by scientists to increase lifespan include use of drugs like rapamycin, metformin and low-dose aspirin. Other lifestyle changes such as gluten-free diet, low-carb diet and intermittent fasting are also gaining traction in the media as ways to live a healthier life and prevent disease. Consensus is being achieved by the medical world that Western eating habits may be the root cause of the problem. Over 2000 years ago Hippocrates, a classical Greek physician said that “all disease begins in the gut”, and I think he may have been onto something there.
What is time-restricted eating (intermittent fasting)?
Time-restricted eating is type of intermittent fasting method in which uses alternating windows of feeding with windows of no caloric intake (fasting). It has been made widely popular in the last few years, and has been the subject of documentaries, podcasts and articles in recent times. Many sources cite a wide array of health benefits, which was the reason why I personally decided to give it a go. I have now been intermittent fasting for over a year and I will share my thoughts on the method as a strategy to live a healthier life.
I first came across the concept of intermittent fasting, I was confused. The book I was reading by Tim Ferriss named Tools of Titans described intermittent fasting along with terms I had never heard of such as ‘ketosis’. I had an instant aversion to it. Conventional wisdom told me that eating frequent, small meals was the recipe for good health. I had even made it a rule to eat on average every three hours that I was awake. I had never thought of timing of meals as a serious factor to consider when making diet choices. And besides, wasn’t it supposed to be a terrible thing whenever we skipped breakfast?
Fast forward six months and I thought I would give it a go. I would skip breakfast, and wait until mid-afternoon before I ate my first meal. When the time came that my first meal was due, I rushed to the nearest takeaway joint to stuff my face with high fat, high sugar foods. When dinner arrived, I did the same thing again. By the end of the day, I was telling myself that I would never do it again. The hunger I felt was painful, and the foods I ended up eating were extremely unhealthy. A month later, I thought I would give it another try. Over 12 months later, I am still fasting somewhere between 12-18 hours per day, every day.
I decided to persist with intermittent fasting because of the supposed benefits that it achieves. Here they are:
Fat loss and potentially muscle gain
Evolutionarily, storage of fat was useful for humans since during harsh winters where food was scarce, the body could use its fat stores for energy. Now in the 21st century, excess fat storage in the body is causing a list of chronic diseases such as stroke, heart attack, and Type 2 diabetes and the majority of people are now looking to rid themselves of this excess fat. The reason why people find fat loss so difficult is because our bodies prefer to use energy derived from glucose in the blood and glycogen from the liver. Once the levels of glucose and glycogen are depleted, the body will turn to the fat stores and turn it into ketones in our liver for energy. Fasting is considered the easiest way to access the fat storage in our body for use as energy, inducing fat loss. However, some suggest that by fasting, it is naturally leading to caloric deficit, and that the subsequent lower intake of calories leads to the fat loss. Fasting leads to an increase in the release of noradrenaline, which is associated with fat loss, as well as an increase in metabolic rate, meaning more calories would be being burned off by the body at rest. Interestingly, it has been noted that fasting leads to an increase in natural growth hormone in the body, preserving against muscle loss. I know it’s hard to believe, but actors Hugh Jackman and Terry Crews are known for their intermittent fasting practices, and they are hardly lacking in muscle. Female stars like Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez have also been reported to be advocates of intermittent fasting.
The longest fast on record was 382 days. The patient weighed in at 456 pounds (~207 kg) and weighted out 180 pounds (~82 kg).
Intermittent fasting can slow down the aging process by activating cellular housekeeping processes, increasing insulin sensitivity and lowering inflammation.
When our bodies are in a fasted state, less energy is available for the cells. This activates a process called autophagy, where the weaker cells are chosen to die while the stronger, more robust cells are rejuvenated upon refeeding. It is possible that autophagy can help prevent against formation of cancerous tumours and has been found to be true in animal studies. Fasting lowers insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which is known as a strong driver of cancer. And since IGF-1 is related to insulin, this could be the link between the sugar and carbohydrates leading to the insulin release from the pancreas and driving the aging process. Spending more time in a fasted state also leads to lower insulin secretion from the pancreas, which therefore increases the sensitivity of cells to insulin, further protecting the body from diseases of the pancreas such as metabolic syndrome or Type 2 diabetes. Inflammatory markers that are associated to cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disease also become lowered from intermittent fasting. Mice who were subjected to intermittent fasting experiments lived 40% longer compared to mice that didn’t fast at all.
Intermittent fasting is easier than dieting.
Skipping breakfast or dinner saves time in our increasingly busy lifestyles. There’s no need to wash up, cook and eat that extra meal. I also found personally that skipping breakfast allowed me to be much more productive in the mornings. I no longer had bouts of “brain fog” shortly after breakfast as a result an insulin spike in the blood. Evolutionarily, it makes sense for humans to be more alert when we are hungry – we are in more desperate need to hunt down our next meal and need to be more productive in an unfed state. Personally, I found that intermittent fasting was really easy to be compliant with and after the first couple of days it was very easy to put into action. It wasn’t restrictive in terms of which food I allowed myself to eat either. Traditional diets are designed to take a lot of willpower (which will eventually let you down) and are short-term. Intermittent fasting is something I can envisage doing for life.
Intermittent fasting is not a one-size-fits-all solution to everyone’s health problems. It is important before deciding to partake in intermittent fasting that it is suitable. If meals are being skipped it can lead to nutrient deficiency so it is important to plan meals to get enough micronutrients in the diet. For underweight people looking to gain weight, it is a lot harder to gain weight when intermittent fasting, and fasting could also be a bad idea for people who are prone to eating disorders such as anorexia. In people suffering from diabetes, it may lead to hypoglycemia. In women it could cause disruption of the menstrual cycle. I personally found that high intensity workouts were tougher in a fasted state. And of course fasting for 16 hours at a time can cause a bout of hunger or two, although after the first couple of days it became easy to manage. Intermittent fasting should be used as a method that supplements a healthy and nutritious diet. Eating unhealthy foods while intermittent fasting is not something that I would advise, although I struggle with this myself. Finally, most research into this new field of study is in animal models and clinical data is scarce, so it is important to take the research findings with a pinch of salt.