Why fasting might actually be good for you

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Breakfast

  • This is controversial, but let me explain…
  • Why fasting might actually be good for you
  • Why you should do the opposite to what most health and nutrition websites tell you.

Can you starve your brain fitter?

Weird question, I know.

That’s why I was in two minds about writing this email.

There’s always the potential that I’ll be chased around the internet by angry readers with virtual pitchforks and never be able to write again.

However, here goes.

For a long time, The People’s Doctor view on healthy eating has been that the optimum way to eat is to have six smaller meals a day and, also, that you have to eat breakfast.

The idea is that you keep the metabolism working at full levels, while avoiding heavy crashes of hunger that make you dive for the nearest pile of cheese, or double portion of chips.

Okay, you’ve heard this stuff before, right?

But do you eat 6 small nutritious meals at even 3-hour spaces through the day?

I’m going to guess not.

Don’t worry, I’m not glaring in judgement.

Neither do I.

The problem of course, is that it’s tricky eating small healthy nutritious meals throughout the day. It’s time-consuming, expensive, hard to do when you’re busy, and impossible if you have a job where you’re always on the move or you can’t get near a kitchen, oven or hob.

But what if the opposite was true?

What if skipping meals was healthier?

…and what if MISSING BREAKFAST was a way to boost your brain power, feel more confident, lift your mood and lose weight?

Now this goes against everything you’ve been told but, before I explain…

My parents are 67 and 70 years old – and they’ve been doing what I’m about to share with you for over two years. They’ve lost weight, they’re feeling healthy and they’ve not ended up with eating disorders.

I’ll be frank, I was always a bit sceptical about it, but they’re still alive, much slimmer, going on walking holidays and generally feeling good about themselves.

That’s pretty much the reason I feel confident writing this.

What they do is fast for two days every week. The rest of the week they eat three times a day, and fairly healthily (unless they’re on holiday, in which case they indulge in treats).

Now, you’ve probably heard of a fasting diet and maybe you think it’s another fad for losing weight. And this is why I have been dubious about it too…

My worry is that you’ll deprive your body for a while, then when you go back to normal eating you put all the weight back on, continuing the cycle.

But I’ve been looking at research that tells a different story…

It’s about what it does to your brain, and how it re-programmes your brain to learn self-control. So the calorific element is actually not the main story.

What researchers have found is…

  • Fasting increases your levels of catecholamines in your brain helping you feel happier. It also increases the number of brain cells.
  • A short fast sparks something known as neuronal autophagy, where your brain cells recycle waste materials and repair themselves.
  • Fasting boosts levels of a protein known as BNF which interacts with parts of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Low levels of it are also linked to depression.
  • Fasting rewires your brain so that a short period of not eating becomes pleasurable, and this leads to other feats of self-control becoming pleasurable.
  • turns self-control into a habit, where every time you succeed your confidence grows. Not only that, the resulting weight loss increases that sense of self confidence.

In other words, it’s potentially a long-term method of re-evaluating your relationship with food, building self-confidence, lifting your general mood and re-programming your brain to enjoy short periods of abstinence.

Now, as well as parents who fast healthily, I also have a relative with an eating disorder. So…

My advice is to talk to a doctor if you have any worries about an underlying medical condition like diabetes and also any history of psychological issues related to food.

But if you’re still sceptical think of it this way…

We didn’t evolve to be constant, regular eaters

Did our ancestors eat regularly every three hours?

No, quite the opposite.

We evolved to eat when we got food, and survive for days without it. Our brains trick us into feeling hungry every three hours because we know food is available.

And as part of my dedication to the People’s Doctor I experimented with this myself…

Last week I went for 24 hours without food. I ate my last meal at lunchtime, and didn’t eat until the next lunchtime. While I felt hunger pangs in the evening, I wasn’t hungry in the morning and got on with my morning’s writing without a problem.

When I ate again at 1pm I did so slowly, and found I was full after a small sandwich. I think didn’t eat again until tea time.

I was genuinely surprised by the hunger switched itself off after a while.

Obviously, if you’re a practising Muslim or Jew, none of this is news to you, as you might also have experience of fasting. Many people fast for all kinds of reasons, religious, meditative, or for increasing self control and awareness.

The Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan says:

“The philosophy of fasting calls upon us to know ourselves, to master ourselves, and to discipline ourselves the better to free ourselves. To fast is to identify our dependencies, and free ourselves from them.”

Or there’s German author Herman Hesse, who wrote: “Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast.”

So in summary…

Fasting can change your brain for the better, increase self-control and release you from food addictions. And it can also help you lose weight.

If you want to try it, here are the options.

  • ‘Leangains protocol’ – this is where you fast for 16 hours each day. To do this, only eat in a period of 8-10 hours then stop. For instance, a meal at 8am, anther at 12pm and another just before 4 pm. Then stop and don’t eat until 8am. Or eat a meal at 8pm then simply skip breakfast and eat again at midday.
  • The 5:2 Method – you eat normally for five days in the week, but on two separate days you only eat 600 calories (men) and 500 calories (women).
  • The 24 hour fast. This was the one I tried. You simply choose one day a week in which you don’t eat. You can drink coffee, tea, juices and water but that’s it. The advice is that in the non-fasting days you should eat normally (although if you want to lose weight then avoid fast food, ready meals and too much sugar).

There are other variants, but these seem to be the popular ones.

Anyway, I’ll leave it for you to try – or avoid if it’s not for you. There are other ways to control your weight naturally. For instance if you missed it, you should try this.

And if you are a regular faster, then do write in and share your experience.

Until next time, stay happy and healthy!

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