Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve probably heard that fasting is a great way to get healthy and, of course, lose unwanted weight. Usually, going on a diet entails moderately cutting calories every day, for a fixed amount of time, but it one week, one month or one year. Conversely, fasting requires you to reduce calories on one or several days every week as part of an overall lifestyle change. This approach, known as intermittent fasting (IF), was initially labelled ‘unhealthy’ nut nutritional experts, but new evidence is casting it in a far brighter light. The theory is straightforward: eat fewer calories a few days a week, and don’t overeat on the others. The result: a slimmer and happier you. As eating less every single day is not a manageable long-term strategy, it’s no wonder that more and more people are now trying intermittent fasting — brief periods of eating little or no food. In fact, research studies have shown that reducing your daily intake of calories by as little as 20% or as many as 40% is an effective way to lose weight. What’s less clear is the notion that that occasional or regular intermittent fast can bring other body benefits, such as mental clarity, disease prevention and longevity. With such an extensive range of benefits on offer, it’s not very surprising this trend has picked up real steam; the only true investment is willpower. But, like anything, the devil is in the details, so let’s look a little deeper to see if this fad is as good a fix as it sounds.
As with many things, the answer is not a simple one. The theory is best supported by evidence related to type 2 diabetes; a disease commonly caused by overeating. Suffers can’t control their blood sugar levels, which means a life dependent on regulating medication. That was until now, as new research is shining a light on the benefits of fasting for these people. A recent study had 11, type 2 diabetic participant go on a very low-calorie eight-week diet, subsisting off a meagre 600 calories a day. The results? Incredibly, all were disease-free by the end of the fast; with a further seven maintaining that level for an additional three months after stopping. Researchers believe it’s effective because it gets rid of unhealthy fat in and around the organs, particularly the two most important in sugar control – the pancreas and the liver. All in all, the researchers concluded that the sooner diabetics fast, the better their chances of reversing their disease.
So how exactly does it work? After approximately 10 hours of fasting, the body has run out of glycogen stored in its liver – its primary source of energy – and thus turns to its fat deposits instead. Top of the list is the unhealthy fat located around your organs, freeing them up to do their job properly. That’s why fasting is so beneficial for diabetes, as their pancreas does not naturally produce a hormone , which tells the liver to remove the sugar and store it safely. So, long story short, this is an excellent example of how and why fasting is so beneficial when a living organism doesn’t have food – it begins to eat itself. Which might seem disgusting is hugely beneficial as this natural process allows the body to recycle energy and do a cleanup, with the fault cells the first ones to get the boot.
It’s for this reason that many researchers, nutritionists and scientists now believe that periodic fasting can help people stay healthy. For instance, damaged immune cells can be pruned back when a person starts to feed again, with new cells spawning from only the strongest and the fittest. In experiments with mouse suffering from multiple sclerosis, a disease in which bad immune cells indiscriminately attack a subject’s nerve cells, a regime of periodic, low-calorie fasting can slow down the destruction of cells and bring about regeneration.
The difficulty in transferring a theory from mice to human beings is that people live a lot longer. During middle age, we are running low on active stem cells, so our ability to generate new ones isn’t very robust. While there is currently no conclusive evidence that any of this works in humans, there is very promising data coming forth. For example, a recent study of 100 healthy people who undertook a fasting diet high in unsaturated fats but low in protein and sugar, found that despite only a minor reduction in weight loss, severe risk factors for ageing, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases all improved.
Furthermore, when the body metabolises its fat deposits during fasting, it produces acids called ketones (your brain’s food source). A chemical called ‘brain-derived neurotrophic factor’ is also triggered by the production of ketones. Important because it, in turn, encourages the brain to make new connections. Again, experiments in mice suggest that fasting can slow the onset of brain diseases such Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, not to mention a reduction in anxiety and depression.
On the flip side, what are the potential harms of intermittent fasting? For overweight people, relatively few; but anyone embarking on such a course of action should consult their doctor first. Generally speaking, the only major concern is this: do not try a water-only fast, as these cause your body to break down invaluable protein stores and will do more harm than good.
With such questions remaining unanswered at this time, it’s important that we don’t get carried away and lose sight of the basics. It’s pretty clear that if you’re overweight, losing weight will reduce your risk of disease. And for many people, regular intermittent fasting diet will help them lose weight, and for others, eating just a few fewer sugary snacks will do them good. The trick is to find the diet that works for you and stick with it.
If you are keen to give it a go, please check our last blog post – Will Caloric Restriction Help You Live Longer – which details three well-known intermittent fasting methods, namely 1] The 16/8 Method, 2] Eat-Stop-Eat and 3] The 5:2 Diet.
To help you along, here is a list of website and apps which can help you stay on course.
- Zero – Fasting Tracker, free
- Fast Habit, free
- My Fitness Pal, free
- Fast Secret, free
- Spark People, free
- My Diet Diary Calorie Counter
- Lose It!, free (but the paid version has better features)
- 5:2 Diet TrackMyFast, paid
- Cron-o-meter, paid
- 5:2 Diet Complete Meal Planner, paid
If all of this good news about fasting has piqued your interest about fasting and you’re keen to try it under the guidance of a trained professional, consider joining a guided retreat. Overall, fasting and detoxing in a group will provide you with the security and confidence needed to share your experiences and gain insight from the retreat leader and fellow participants.
During the retreat, you will receive tremendous inspiration, knowledge and motivation to help you live a sustainable, healthy, happy, harmonious and balanced life during and after your fast. Besides, you will learn about your digestive system, how your body processes food, what types of food are best for you, and how to buy, store, cook, present and eat your food.
Vietnam Detox is the only such practitioner in Vietnam offer retreats as outlined above. We have two great options available for you all year round:
4 Day Healthy Living Retreats – this follows the principles of the Buchinger Fasting Method from Germany, providing novices with an introduction to the benefits of fasting and experienced practitioners with an ideal location to further their journey.
7 Day Fastenwandern Weeks– also known as ‘fastenwandern’ in German, this one also follows the same guiding principles and will enable you to experience the tremendous preventative health benefits of fasting.