Fasting and the festive season may well not be the most obvious companions, but I wanted to open your eyes to the possibilities of how it may be helpful over the festive period. Many will fall victim to the well-known cycle of overindulging, late nights, too much alcohol, only to wake up to repeat it all again. Maybe somewhat of a groundhog day/week.
Whilst I have no intention of being a kill joy, I have every intention of using fasting as a way to manage my calorie intake over the festive period and as a result hopefully limit some of the damage coupled with overindulging.
So why has fasting become so popular?
Fasting is something that we have been doing since the beginning of time. Whether as a result of insufficient food or for religious purposes. It is only through recent domestication that humans have access to a constant supply of food. What used to be one or two meals every three days, has gradually over time become food at any point of the day. Many people don’t even stick to three meals a day, but instead graze all day long.
In 2012 Michael Mosley published the 5:2 diet after presenting the documentary ‘Eat, Fast & Live Longer’. The focus of the 5:2 diet is to restrict calories down to 500 calories for two days out of seven. Realising the positive effect that caloric restriction could have on diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation and ageing, Michael went on to publish the 8-week blood sugar diet. Instead of two days on 500 calories, you limit your intake to 800 calories a day for 8 weeks.
There has been many variations on the theme, and a great deal of research into the benefits of fasting for cancer.
Does calorie restriction offer benefits?
We know that overeating and obesity is associated with a malady of diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, mental health disorders, autoimmunity and more. The metabolic stress associated with excessive glucose intake and excess fat, especially around your belly, is a major trigger for inflammation. Overnutrition therefore directly leads to cellular injury and as a result you are left with inflammation and the potential for disease.
There is no magic effect of calorie restriction, it is really more about creating time and space without too much food for the body to heal and repair. The process of rebooting becomes so much easier when we provide some time and space for the body to do its thing. This is the essence of fasting.
There are many different ‘forms’ of fasting, but I will just briefly touch on the following:
- Intermittent Fasting (IF) also known as Time Restricted Feeding (TRF). This is all about narrowing your feeding window in the day. For optimal results, you want to fast for 16 hours and feed during an 8 hour window.
- Water fasting involves drinking only water and herbal teas for 24-72 hours. You should not go beyond 72 hours without seeking medical advice and support.
- Fasting Mimicking. The fasting mimicking diet (FMD) was designed by Professor Valter Longo. The focus of this diet is to mimic water fasting for 5 days, yet you still get to enjoy carefully formulated plant based soups, bars and drinks. This is then followed by a normal diet for the remaining 25 days of the month. You can either chose to do this 3 times a year to optimise health and longevity. Alternatively, you can do it monthly, especially in instances of autoimmunity or other chronic health conditions. I really like the FMD and use this in my practice with my clients.
Before we look at Intermittent Fasting (IF) in a little more detail, it is important to understand the connection between fasting and your circadian rhythm.
Fasting and your circadian rhythm
Circadian rhythms are found in most living things, including animals, plants, and many tiny microbes. These rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioural changes that follow a daily cycle. They respond primarily to light and darkness in their environment. Everyone has a master clock contained in a small region of the brain called the superchiasmatic nucleus. It basically tells you when you need to be awake or asleep.
To be healthy, we need to be metabolically flexible. Meaning that our cells and tissues need to know when to change from burning sugars to fats for energy. This transition usually occurs during the night. It is the circadian clock that will dictate when your mitochondria (the energy powerhouse of the cell) is most active and efficient and how energy is generated.
The clock is not perfect and can be influenced by food, temperature, light, emotions and more. Things like late night snacking, too much time in front of the computer or phone, too much alcohol late at night, stress, changes in hormones, nightshifts can all lead to confusion about which metabolic state we should be in.
This disruption is associated with insulin resistance, prediabetes, diabetes, weight gain, increased blood pressure and inflammation.
Once you set off the inflammatory cascade, you are not only speeding up the ageing process, but you are opening the floodgates to all sorts of diseases.
One way to avoid this circadian clock confusion is through IF. Overnight fasting or fasting during sleeping hours is associated with improved growth hormone, increased gluconeogenesis (where the body makes glucose from protein and fat instead of carbohydrates). Limiting the feeding window to 8-12 hours can help to establish a better circadian rhythm and thereby delivery a whole host of key health benefits.
Why I love Intermittent Fasting (IF)
Fasting is a very personal thing and for many it can hold very strong spiritual connections. For me it is the ease and flexibility that is most appealing. I can do it whilst away on holiday, visiting family or friends or just enjoying Christmas with my family in the UK. IF has formed a really big part of my diet over the last three years and I find it so beneficial if done right.
Benefits of IR
- Balance/reduce blood sugar levels
- Reduce inflammation
- Improve sleep
- Decrease visceral abdominal tissue – which can significantly help in people with autoimmune disease, like myself
- Regulate body weight
- Improve insulin sensitivity
- Can protect against diet induced obesity
- Prevent the development of Diabetes
- Reduce risk of breast cancer reoccurrence
- Reduce oxidative stress
- Stem cell activation
Over and above these, I have personally noticed:
- Improved mental clarity
- Improved digestive function
- Increased energy
- Better mood
In one study, carried out with the help of the University of Surrey, two groups of healthy volunteers ate the same food. The only difference was that the group on a time-restricted eating plan ate breakfast 90 minutes later than usual, and dinner 90 minutes earlier each day. This simple variant resulted in them losing body fat and a greater reduction in blood sugar levels and cholesterol.
How to kickstart IF?
For those who have done it before, you will know your ideal fasting window and you can work within this. My optimal window is around 16 hours and sometimes I can go longer, but this does cause problems for spacing my two meals, so I try and stick to 16 hours.
Here are my suggestions if you are new to it.
- Start by avoiding food for a minimum of 12 hours overnight. Gradually increase this window to around 16 hours. This would mean that you will eat your evening meal around 7-8pm and your first post-fast meal around 11am-12pm the following day.
- During the fasting period you can enjoy water and herbal teas. Some believe that black tea and coffee is acceptable, but I am not a massive advocate of this. Caffeine can make you feel a little jittery, especially if you have problems metabolising caffeine (definitely a genetic predisposition), or if your adrenals are a little taxed. My suggestion therefore is to stick to water and herbal teas.
- During your 8-12 hour eating window aim for two healthy and balanced meals. Don’t overeat and aim for good levels of protein, carbohydrates and fats. Foods like fish, chicken, pulses, lots of wholesome vegetables. A Mediterranean-style diet is the perfect place to start.
- Add a substantial snack or better still a small meal 3-4 hours after eating. Good options include soup, smoothie, boiled eggs and hummus and vegetables.
- Don’t fall victim to eating constantly during the feeding window. Many people feel that they need to make up for food that they have missed out on.
- Continue to drink lots of water and herbal teas throughout your feeding window.
- Limit your sugar intake.
- Make healthy choices. Just because you have skipped a meal doesn’t mean that you can then indulge in processed and refined foods. I appreciate that this will be a little harder around Christmas but do your best and load those sprouts!
Make the right choices
It is REALLY important to note that fasting is not for everyone. Fasting is definitely not suited for people with a history of eating disorders or those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Be sure to talk your health practitioner to decide whether it is the right choice for you.
Whilst weight loss might be an added benefit, it should most certainly not be your main intention for doing IF. It is ultimately to allow your body space and time to repair. The work done by Prof. Valter Longo has highlighted that simply starving the body from food for periods of time can help to kill cancer cells and protect healthy functioning cells. It helps to activate the body’s inherent repair system and as a result will help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress that is caused by feasting over the Christmas period.
Giving your body some daily down time from the work of eating and digesting, you can unlock powerful repair pathways that protect against illness, ageing and obesity.
Wishing you all a happy Wellness Wednesday.