Is fasting the new fountain of youth?
As intermittent fasting gains scientific attention for its health benefits, experts weigh in on how to do it right
In the last couple of decades we have seen diet trends go from one extreme to another with schizophrenic frequency. First there was Atkins, where we were told to eat only meat, and now we’re all going vegan, which is diametrically opposed to what we were advised just a decade ago. So the question that arises is, “What on earth should we eat?" Personally I believe that any food trend steeped in tradition is worth following because generations have tested it out with some degree of success. This is why fasting as a concept makes sense and is relevant in the world we are living in today.
Are we eating too much?
“Our body is designed to expertly handle a scarcity of food with systems that spring into action when food is in short supply," explains Sara Gottfried, the three-time New York Times best-selling author of The Hormone Cure, The Hormone Reset Diet, and Younger, in an email interview. She says we are genetically programmed for metabolic rest for 12-18 hours overnight. “Our DNA has not evolved to handle the current cycle of eating that includes breakfast, lunch and dinner with snacks in between." According to Dr Gottfried, this overconsumption of food sets off a constant growth cycle leading to problems with insulin, which can trigger hunger, more fat storage, weight gain, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), prediabetes, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and even cognitive decline.
KEEPING UP with tradition
If we look at our traditional systems, fasting is one of the building blocks of health. “In Ayurveda the easiest way to remove ama or toxic accumulation is langhan, meaning eating less or drinking only hot water during the day," says Jyotsna Makkar, Ayurvedic physician and founder of Tanmatra Ayurveda, Gurugram. According to Makkar, fasting was traditionally adopted in India after the age of 30 because metabolism slows down and toxins cannot be removed by the body easily. “The main rules of eating according to Ayurveda are to only eat when you are hungry and according to the natural circadian rhythms. Our digestive fire (also called jathragini) is strongest in the morning and gets depleted by the evening." It is essential to taper meals down as the day ends.
The science of intermittent fasting
“Science is just catching up with what we were thinking for thousands of years," Amy Shah, a US-based double board certified MD with training from Cornell, Columbia and Harvard Universities, says on email. Dr Shah practises intermittent fasting regularly, and while the rule is to fast 16 hours and eat for 8 hours, she follows a 14-16 hour fast two-three times a week and a 12-13-hour fast on other days. While most people tend to skip breakfast when fasting intermittently, she practises what she calls “reverse fasting", where she eats dinner around 6pm and a light breakfast the next morning. This is in keeping with our traditional system where eating with the natural circadian rhythm is the ticket to great health. “It seems that people do have more indigestion problems in the evening, doesn’t it?" adds Dr Shah.
The other option to 16:8 fasting is 5:2 fasting where you fast for two days (consuming only 500-600 calories) a week and eat normally for the other five. “For women, I prefer the 16:8 fasting protocol over the 5: 2 fast. Many of my patients find that fasting two days per week (restricting calories to less than 500 on those days) triggers survival mode, is hard to do, and can set off disordered eating," says Dr Gottfried. In the course of her lifestyle medicine practice, she found that only about 10% people can do calorie restriction, whereas 90% can do intermittent fasting.
Looking beyond weight loss
Intermittent fasting or fasting in general has seen a recent resurgence because it is an effective weight-loss tool, and believed to cure diseases and increase longevity.
However to look at fasting for weight loss is akin to using a sword to slice a cucumber. “The point of intermittent fasting is to use metabolic rest to trigger autophagy, translated as ‘self eating’, when the body literally eats itself," says Dr Gottfried. She explains that this is an important detoxification function in the body to clean out damaged cells and generate new ones. “It can also help to correct blood sugar issues and reset insulin, improve mental acuity and concentration, reverse type 2 diabetes, lower cholesterol and research is indicating that it can even reverse multiple sclerosis." She also says that from a genetic perspective, intermittent fasting can turn on the SIRT1 gene and turn off the mTOR gene. “When hyperactive, mTOR is associated with Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and early mortality, while sirtuin, called SIRT1, is a gene that protects you from diseases of ageing by revving up the mitochondria, the power plants inside cells that tend to conk out as you get older." And now we have studies that prove that fasting can reduce serious diseases.
“In a recent study they saw a 34% decrease in breast cancer recurrence in those who fasted just 13 hours," says Dr Shah.
Whatever the diet du jour may be, humans are prone to overconsumption. As we move towards the middle of the millennium, fasting isn’t just an option, but an absolute essential. Whether we ease up on food, clothes or social media to improve our personal or environmental health, it’s imperative that we all take a break.
Intermittent fasting 101
“Some people will ramp up to 16-18 hours of overnight fasting almost immediately but many of my patients need more of a gradual transition," says Dr Gottfried. She recommends starting with 12-14 hours at first. “Women with thyroid or adrenal issues may need a slow on-ramp, starting first with the 12-14-hour overnight fast twice per week only, and no hard exercise on those days."
BREAK YOUR FAST RIGHT
“When you are breaking an intermittent fast, try not to break it with food like chips or candy," says Dr Shah. “Instead go for nuts, berries, vegetables, a smoothie, or hummus with raw vegetables." Delhi-based functional medicine expert Anjali Hooda lists these options: multigrain bread with an omelette and lots of vegetables; oats, mung, besan chilla with lots of vegetables and drizzled with ghee, a handful of mixed nuts on the side or go straight for brunch with roti, lentils, vegetables and ghee.
EAT WELL THROUGH THE DAY
“Intermittent fasting is not a hall pass to eat whatever junk you want through the day," says Hooda. She says you need to choose healthy options throughout the day if you really want your body to detoxify and heal. “Snack on foods like sweet potatoes, sprouts, makhana, roasted chana or mixed nuts instead of gorging on fried foods like samosas." Dinner can be complex carbs like millets with vegetables, lentils or chicken—for instance greens with bajra roti and ghee, quinoa with vegetables, chicken and salad. Note: Fasting means drinking only water, herbal or black tea, and black coffee. So no milk, alcohol, fruit, juices or nuts in between.