Science

Fasting: A blessing or a curse?

By Amy Fretwell

Fasting is a well-known practice, often used as a quick fix route to weight loss. Although often frowned upon for promoting unhealthy habits, many scientists are increasingly backing it as a means to treat certain diseases, as well as to maintain a healthy brain and body.

The most overwhelmingly clear disease that has found to be improved by fasting is Type 2 Diabetes. 11 people with Type 2 Diabetes were given 600 calories a day diet for 8 weeks. After this period, all participants were found to be diabetes free and after a further 3 months, 7 of them remained free. The reason for this response is thought to be the way in which the fasting got rid of fat in and around the pancreas and liver, the two organs vital in sugar control. However, it seems clear that this outcome would have been the same, regardless of how the weight loss took place, so is fasting really the key treatment of this disease, or would a well thought out diet plan be more beneficial?

While much research is being done on the benefits of fasting on targeted diseases, many in the field are promoting it as a way of generally improving health, and, not only treating certain diseases but also helping to prevent others.

For example, it is well-known that reducing energy intake has been used as a way of increasing the lifespan of rats and mice by 30-40%. When we fast our body essentially eats itself, allowing only the strongest cells to be produced when we eat again. The idea of fasting has been around for centuries, despite the general lack of knowledge on the subject.

Even Plato supported the practice, as he was quoted saying “I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency”. Moreover, the ancient Romans used it as a way of treating those with epilepsy. They would lock epilepsy sufferers in a room with no food, observing that the disease would be non-apparent afterwards.

While the Romans assumed that they were driving away demons from the epileptics, in fact, it was the fasting that was helping to control their seizures. When we eat, the food is stored in the form of glycogen. It takes 10-12 hours to deplete these glycogen stores. When the body depletes its glycogen stores and metabolises its fat deposits, ketones are produced (acids that are a food source for the brain). Today, ketogenic diets are increasingly being prescribed to epilepsy suffers, to help control their seizures.

Although we do have evidence that points to the benefits of fasting, most of the research, as of yet, has been carried out on mice, so the conclusions drawn are non-definitive and remain questionable.

However, what is clear is that fasting is a possible route for weight loss, and the outcomes of this weight loss are often likely to have a positive effect on the human body. So, while Michael Mosely’s ‘The Fast Diet’ and his promotion of the 2:1 diet may be used widely as a way of losing weight, it may come with a range of other health benefits as well.

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