Food & Drink

The myth behind fasting – Is it really good for you?

By Ellis Garamszegi

In a world where everyone wants a quick fix, fad diets have become increasingly alluring. A quick google search of ‘diets’ yields 11.2 million results and one of the issues is cutting through what will work, is healthy and sustainable.

Dieting is a huge business; the marketisation of health and wellness has left us with overly complicated methods and products, with many businesses tapping into genuine concerns all claiming to have the miracle cure. Whilst a healthy, balanced diet (whatever that means) coupled with regular exercise is still in the mainstream advised, people will still look to lose the weight they want to.

Step forward intermittent fasting – perhaps one of the most simple methods of all, but what is it and crucially, does it work?

Firstly, there is a conceptual misunderstanding around what the human body is actually capable of in terms of limits. The case study of Scottish man Angus Barbieri who fasted for over a year, drinking nothing but water, black tea and coffee (and supplements) is notable. Weighing in at 32 and a half stone before the fast, he lost just under 20 stone when he broke the fast after a reported 382 days. With this in mind our modern ‘trends’ of consuming more, whether that be smaller meals, shakes, detox teas and whatever else, are clearly fueled by the commercialization of weight loss.

Intermittent fasting is where one only eats within an allotted window, so that could be 12hrs or perhaps 8hrs e.g 12pm-8pm, after which the remaining 16hrs are in a fasted state, consuming no calories. How this practically works is a couple of different ways; since there is a smaller window to eat, you will likely be consuming fewer calories, but even more powerfully (as opposed to eating for say, 16hrs of the day) where the body never reaches the stage of ketosis you will spend more time using fat as the primary energy source. By eating spikes insulin, you won’t be losing any weight. Indeed, insulin is an anabolic hormone which causes nutrients to be transferred into cells, as opposed to cells reducing in size which would be catabolic, resulting in weight loss.

If we compare calorie restriction to fasting, there are some clear benefits to fasting over severe caloric deficit. Firstly, as anyone who has dieted before will hold testament, oftentimes the only thing you think about is food. This makes the whole experience hard and not enjoyable, which often, in turn, makes it unsustainable. Calorie restriction leads to losing strength and a body temperature decrease.

I recently followed the well-known YouTuber Tim Sheiff as he embarked upon a water fast. He ended up lasting 35 days to promote internal healing, leading me to read the excellent book by Herbert Shelton, The Science and Fine Art of Fasting. There is also a really interesting documentary on Youtube, The Science of Fasting, following a Russian clinic which prescribes courses of extended fasts with astonishing results. All of this led me to try a short fast myself – a mere 24hrs – just to see what it was like and made also easier the transition to try the latest monthly food movement (after Veganuary): Rawgust. Basically, I just ate raw food (fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds) for the entirety of August, which felt great although I must admit I only lasted 9 days.

Upon doing some research into extended fasts, one thing became unanimous: all the trouble was in the first 2-3 days, where the body is adjusting. Indeed, participants reported being hungry, especially around meal times, meaning annoying waves of hunger. This is likely due to Ghrelin levels – the hunger hormone, which rises at certain times of the day, think Pavlov’s dogs.

It’s important to realise that the 3 meals a day paradigm isn’t based on our biological needs, rather it has been invented due to culture – you need only look at historical anthropology to see that.

Beyond health and weight loss, there are other reasons fasting might appeal. Factions within all of the following religions groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Jainism, and Hinduism practice fasting. For instance, the well-known Ramadan, in which one doesn’t eat or drink within daylight hours (so basically reverse intermittent fasting) will come to mind for most people. There are various benefits to this, a break of habits, promoting an inner stillness, enhancing spiritual connection, freeing up more time and energy to do other things – deep periods of focus, meditation, etc. It is for the same reason that Steve Jobs wore basically the same clothes daily, striving for simplicity, aiming to take fewer decisions about things that aren’t important, thus saving time and energy. On this basis, he was also a fruitarian and often fasted due to the feeling of euphoria it brought.

Fasting isn’t new, its benefits have long been revered. Plato said “I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency”. It may be the case that in 20-year periods of fasting or at least intermittent fasting will be doctor recommended; equally when we look at the fact that it has been well known for many years, admittedly maybe not in the mainstream, it may not take off as it could.

That said the science seems pretty obvious – if you’re not consuming calories for extended periods of time you’re dipping into a ketogenic state.