February 19, 2013
Contrary to popular recommendations to eat smaller, more frequent meals, new research suggests that a short, periodic fast (called “intermittent fasting”) might actually rev up your fat-burning machinery while helping you control glucose and insulin. Important hormonal changes mean that you might lose more fat and gain more muscle, all by skipping a few meals. Some data show that Intermittent fasting, when done properly, might help extend life, regulate blood glucose, control blood lipids, manage body weight, gain (or maintain) lean mass, and more.
There is no conclusiveness to the research on intermittent fasting, but honestly there doesn’t likely need to be. In my opinion “conclusive” will always be somewhat unachievable and unrealistic when it comes to human nutrition. For some people it will be a wise approach that will lead to better health while for others intermittent fasting will be the wrong approach.
There is too much individuality and variability in humanity to make any one approach the answer for everyone. From omnivorism vs. veganism to intermittent fasting, this is one truth that becomes apparent the more you investigate nutrition. We all come from a line of genes that are built on highly diverse diets based on your ancestral geography. And chances are good that it will be very different from the person next to you. Espousing one approach as the correct way for all humans will always be wrong.
Traditional Doesn’t Necessarily Make it Right
Yes, the idea that we should return to our roots and eat “paleo,” run barefoot, and eat less often all have a certain appeal. But we have to be very careful with this line of thinking. I’m guessing that we’re not going stop bathing, using deodorant, or using cell phones are we? Not everything we used to do as cavemen is practical – or even smart – anymore. We have evolved. It doesn’t mean we should ignore our evolutionary history, but it also doesn’t mean we should devolve and embrace everything from the paleo period of human history.
This is Your Brain on Calories
Sometimes I think I know too much about how the brain works. Your brain uses a very high amount of energy – around 20% of the calories you used in a day! In fact, per unit of tissue, your brain uses more energy than your quadriceps muscle. In caveman times, we were fasting/starving more often for sure. But we also did not have to think as much as we do now. The body of knowledge we have to walk around with combined with the incoming stream of information and news from around the world and in your own personal world is staggering. And this means your brain is going to work harder and thus need more energy.
Cause and Effect or “Just ’Cause I Said So?”
Too often with an extreme shift in thinking, something seems so shocking that it can create a buzz and cause people to rush and adopt a certain behavior. Other people just do it because they know someone else who did it. There is often a rush to find the next perfect diet, which is the risk with intermittent fasting.
It could be that the results are just from people eating better food (since this often happens when someone is dieting anyway) and/or eating less junk (if you’re periodically fasting, you’re eating less junk even if you’re still eating junk when you eat.) It could also be that a periodic fast might help you learn the difference between real hunger (the body telling you it needs something) and mental hunger (eating from boredom or any other reason than real hunger.)
Find out More
If you want more information or would like to give it a try, I would direct you to the excellent free e-book by John Berardi of Precision Nutrition. It is an excellent review of the pros and cons along with helpful details of how to try various versions of intermittent fasting. It is mostly a spot on review of all the factors you would need to know to decide if you want to try it and if it might be for you.
Do the research from credible sources and decide for yourself.