Fasting for two days a week may be beneficial in tons of ways. According to a featured article in the Daily Mail, fasting helps trigger protective processes in the brain, which are similar to those you get from exercising.
Fasting, defined not as abstaining from all food but as a dramatic reduction of calorie intake (eating only between 500 to 800 calories a day), helps reduce growth factor (a hormone associated with diabetes and cancer), “bad” LDL cholesterol, and inflammation levels. At the same time, it reduces radical damage.
Based on the data gathered, could fasting be a key in preventing age-related brain shrinkage, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer?
Could Calorie Restriction Work on Humans Too?
The Daily Mail reports that Professor Mattson, a pioneer in the research on fasting, discovered that rats could benefit from calorie restriction if scientists reduce their calories every other day. (link) Regardless if the rats ate as much as they like the next day, they still showed the same results similar to that of a frequent low-calorie regimen.
This sparked the idea that humans may also benefit from this calorie restriction diet, as opposed to a daily calorie restriction program.
A study published in the International Journal of Obesity tested this by involving a group of obese and overweight women. One group was put on diet of 1,500 calories. Another group was put on a 500-calorie diet for two days, and was then shifted to 2,000 calories a day for the rest of the week. Both groups consumed a healthy Mediterranean-style diet.
Dr. Michelle Harvie, the lead researcher in the study, said that both groups of women lost the same amount of weight. They also discovered a similar drop in biomarkers that raise the risk of cancer. She also adds that their aim was to see which group gained improvement in insulin sensitivity, which means better control of blood sugar levels. The fasting group showed better results.
More recent research has surfaced, showing that intermittent calorie restriction can offer benefits similar to those of constant calorie restriction (which has been shown to increase animals’ lifespan by up to 50 percent). This may be helpful for people who find it difficult to commit to a chronically restrictive diet.
Dr. Joseph Mercola says, “While I don’t generally promote calorie restriction, it is an important piece of the puzzle, and this type of intermittent fasting may be helpful for many – especially in light of the compelling research supporting calorie restriction.”
How Calorie Restriction Contributes to Health
Research also shows that the mechanisms that fasting induces to provide brain health benefits are similar to the mechanisms in weight loss and diabetic control. With calorie restriction, brain cells are protected against stress.
According to Professor Mattson, while ghrelin and leptin are responsible for appetite regulation, these hormones are also involved in the process of renewing brain cells (especially those in the hippocampus) for those who are not overweight. Putting on weight can lower ghrelin levels and slow brain cell replacement.
The hippocampus region in your brain is where most of your memory functions are found. The article in the Daily Mail states:
“’Obesity at that age is a marker for cognitive problems later.’ (says Professor Mattson) The good news is that this brain-cell damage can be reversed by the two-day fasting regime, although so far Professor Mattson has shown this only in rats. A human trial is starting soon. There is reason to think it should work.” (link)
Professor Mattson also discovered that intermittent fasting had a positive effect on asthma patients. After eight weeks of fasting, they lost eight percent of their body weight and lowered their inflammation levels by as much as 90 percent. As a result, their breathing improved. However, the professor noted that upon stopping the calorie restriction, asthma symptoms returned two weeks after. This proves that fasting intermittently is a lifestyle commitment.
Fitness expert Ori Hofmekler explains that combining fasting and exercise can be advantageous to the reconstruction of your muscles because of a preservation mechanism that protects your active muscle from wasting. If you don’t possess ample fuel in your system when you work out, your body will immediately break down other tissues, but not the active muscles you use during exercise.
Although there is growing evidence of the benefits of calorie restriction, the practice still has side effects, like decreased thyroid function and lowered testosterone levels. Dr. Mercola adds that when practicing fasting, you should be sensible – fasting with exercise may reap benefits, but it is necessary to consume sufficient quantities of protein for muscle wasting prevention.
What Calories Should You Cut Down?
Dr. Mercola says, “The KEY to successful calorie restriction, however, lies in which calories you cut.”
From a biological standpoint, getting the right nutrients is more important than how many calories you reduce, because not all calories are created equal. Some may not have the same effects on your weight or health as others do.
In the United States, some of the top calorie sources are refined carbohydrates from sugars and grains, which are abundant in the American diet. When restricting calories, it is important to restrict carbohydrates because what your body truly requires are protein and fat.
Replacing refined carbohydrates with high-quality, non-processed foods is a step in the right direction. Some of Dr. Mercola’s favorites are organic grass-fed raw butter, organic eggs, virgin coconut oil, avocados, and almonds.
Compelling evidence has revealed that fat is more appropriate for your health than carbohydrates. Some of these are:
- Stearic acid (found in cocoa and animal fat) – This gets converted into monosaturated fat called oleic acid. Studies show that this has no effect on your healthy cholesterol ratios.
- Palmitic acid – This raises your good cholesterol levels, which can help lower your risk of heart disease.
- Lauric acid (found in coconut oil) – Similar to palmitic acid, it increases good cholesterol. It also helps improve thyroid function and body metabolism.
Lastly, Dr. Mercola encourages you to try intermittent fasting and says, “Cutting down on your grains and sugars, replacing them with high-quality fats and skipping some meals, especially before exercise, seem to be a powerful combination to help you take control of your health.”