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April 21, 2019

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Fasting over feasting: Taking an eating break might be better for your body than you thought


We’ve all heard the age-old adage, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” But what if new comprehensive studies argue breakfast is actually not that important?

Intermittent fasters everywhere would nod in agreement. What seemed to begin as a new diet fad has quickly become a way for people to lose weight and gain dozens of health benefits.

Maybe you’re interested in the nutrition craze or perhaps you think it sounds ridiculous. Either way, here’s the story behind fasting and why people are axing their breakfast cereals and embracing their stomach grumbles.

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting has been around for ages but became ultra-popular in 2012 after multiple books and documentaries, such as Eat, Fast and Live Longer, The 5:2 Diet, and The Obesity Code, showed the short and long-term benefits of restrictive eating.

The argument presented in each is simple — snacking around the clock and eating three meals a day was a modern invention that did not actually represent how human beings began eating or were meant to eat.

For food to be properly used, our bodies need time to digest and distribute, two things that happen when you fast.

Celebrities on the fast train

When Queen Bey swears by it, you know it’s real.

■ Miranda Kerr

■ Ben Affleck

■ Hugh Jackman (for his role as Wolverine)

■ Terry Crews

■ Beyoncé

How does it work?

The food we consume is broken down by enzymes in our gut and turns into molecules in a bloodstream. A great deal of the food most people consume (carbs, refined grains, sugar) is broken down into glycogen, which is the stored form of glucose (sugar) that our body uses for future use. If we don’t use it or need it, our body stores it in fat cells and in our liver.

Between meals—if we don’t snack—our insulin levels go down and fat cells can release stored glycogen to be used. When we give our bodies about 12 hours to digest food before adding more to our system, our body taps into the sugar and fats that are stored. The idea behind fasting is that if insulin levels go down far enough and for long enough, fat will burn off.

Different approaches

The 16:8 approach—Fasting for 16 hours, eating for eight. The windows are typically 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and while eating healthy during the eight hours is encouraged, you don’t have to restrict your calories. Fasting for 16 hours brings your body into a state of ketosis, meaning it burns fat for energy.

The 5:2 approach—Five days a week are normal eating days, while the other two are restricted to 500-600 calories per day. This may be easier for people with work and social schedules that demand longer days.

With fasting

■ Insulin levels go down

■ Fat cells release stored glycogen

■ Burns stored sugar and fats

■ Lose weight

Can I work out in a fasted state?

Yes. Researchers have discovered that our bodies will use stored sugar and fat as energy during fasted workouts. Eating something protein-rich after is crucial though.

What are the benefits?

Researchers and doctors have found multiple benefits to fasting beyond just dropping weight.

Without fasting

■ Glucose is stored in fat cells and in the liver

■ Fat does not get used for energy

■ Gain weight

• Cell regeneration and decreased risk for disease: Dr. Valter Longo of the University of Southern California recently did a study involving a small group of people who fasted for five consecutive days a month, for three months in a row. Patients had increased cell regeneration and a decrease in risk factors for diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. He attributed this to a natural cleaning, “autophagy,” of the body, where cells begin to eat dysfunctional proteins and organelles when the metabolic pattern changes.

• Longer life:In an animal study similar to the one above, lifespans were increased by a third in animals that had reduced calorie consumption by 30 to 40 percent. The main argument behind this research is that our bodies were not designed to eat every hour, and the body learns to adapt to fasting and learns how to properly utilize food.

• Weight loss: That’s why a lot of people do it, right? In a study with women who fasted two days a week for six months, researchers found they dropped an average of 13 pounds. Naturally, people eat less calories because there is a window of time they are not eating.

How can I start?

Start by integrating healthy foods into your diet, and try to stick to eating meals rather than snacks. Record how often you are eating. Do you have breakfast at 8 a.m., then reach for the snack drawer by 10 a.m.? Do you eat dinner and then crave a snack just before bed? Noticing how often you eat and how many hours you go with and without food is the best way to start.

Adjust a form of intermittent fasting that works for you. Limit the hours of the day when you eat—the earlier the better. Some doctors say 7 a.m.-3 p.m. is best but try 10 a.m.-6 p.m. if that’s better for your lifestyle. Start easy. If 8 a.m.-6 p.m. feels best for you, begin there.

Make your meals full of foods that sustain your body. Vegetables, beans, lentils, lean proteins and healthy fats will keep you satisfied.

Be warned: When your body is used to getting food every three to four hours, you may experience “hangry.” Symptoms include irritability and headaches, but most people get used to the new eating pattern in anywhere from two weeks to a month.