Today, nearly all of us are in enforced home confinement due to an invisible foe, the coronavirus. So, how do we amuse ourselves? Some pick up books they’ve always wanted to read. Others get household chores done. But how about some of us losing weight? If typical busy schedules have interfered with your efforts in the past, could the current context support a concentrated effort on fasting to shed pounds? And what are the best ways to fast?
Fasting diets have generated considerable buzz among diet gurus in the media, not only as an approach to weight loss but also as a way to improve overall health. But do facts back it up?
Researchers say that animals and humans share some comment elements in the evolutionary process. One of these is that neither animals nor humans have always had the good fortune of enjoying three meals a day. Over long eras when our ancestors needed to scrounge for food, humans developed physiology capable of enduring periods without food. So the question arises, is it possible that the occasional fast might be good for us?
That seems to be true for animals. Studies show that fasting produces health benefits in laboratory animals. For instance, restrictive diet experiments involving rats and mice have delayed the progression of chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and neurological disorders.
Research suggests humans derive benefits too. For example, many studies look at the health impact of fasting by large numbers of people during Ramadan. Results show a reduction in inflammation biomarkers, and this in turn can help prevent a wide range of illness, including neurodegenerative conditions. Other benefits include reduced coronary artery disease and a lower risk of diabetes. Several studies have demonstrated that fasting can decrease blood sugar levels, improve blood sugar control, and reduce insulin resistance, facilitating efforts by those with diabetes to keep levels steady and prevent spikes and crashes.
If you decide to fast during home confinement, how should you do it? Some diets involve a complete fast, allowing only water for a period of time. But many people prefer intermittent fasting. This involves eating at only certain times of the day and fasting the rest of the day. Still other fasts involve drastically reducing food intake for two or three days of the week. Remember, fasting is about calorie restriction, and this is only advantageous if there is no overeating when breaking the fast.
Dr. Sai Krupa Das of the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging says, “In terms of weight loss and improvement on body composition, intermittent fasting can work, but there is not sufficient evidence to say it is superior to overall calorie restriction. In fact, the two methods appear to be pretty comparable.”
A report in the journal Aging Research Reviews looked at various forms of calorie restriction. Researchers concluded that all forms of calorie restriction in overweight human subjects have shown improvement in multiple health indicators.
But Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, has sound advice. He says, “Avoiding refined starches, grains, avoiding added sugars and other hyper-processed foods, and eating plenty of minimally processed foods such as nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, vegetables, fish, yogurt, healthy fats, and plant oils activates many natural weight controlling pathways.”
The bottom line is to eat and diet in a way that works for you. Many complicated factors, including inherited genetics and socioeconomic context, make it difficult for some of us to maintain a healthy weight. But for too many of us, the problem is not genetic or societal. It is a lack of individual will and poor lifestyle choices that result in overconsumption of too many calories. This, combined with not enough exercise and confinement at home, is a recipe for trouble.
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.