Fasting for Weight Loss
It goes without saying that fasting leads to shedding pounds. Without sufficient energy from food, the body begins to use up reserves instead. But are periods of fasting a good way to achieve weight loss in the long run? Perhaps, but the better way to look at is to fast for all of the incurred positive effects and see the weight loss as a bonus.
It has likely sunken in for most people today that the deceptively simple concept of “less food and more exercise” is not as simple as it sounds. Losing weight is just plain and simple hard. The internal reward system that leads us to eat and build up our reserves has been refined for hundreds of millions of years. The positive feelings that weight loss provides isn’t much of a reward in comparison. And even if you manage to get rid of an impressive number of pounds, your body is set to gain them back.
There is a study done on overweight participants of the American TV program, “The Biggest Loser”. During the program, they expose themselves to a few weeks of continuous calorie restriction and hard training. Of course, they lose weight, but the body adjusts to the fact that their food supply becomes restricted and resets. Therefore, if they do not continue with the same dietary restriction and amount of exercise after the program, it’s a wash. All participants except one in the study went up again. And not only that. They went up more than they previously weighed.
When our bodies notice that there is a shortage of food and that the shortage appears to be persistent, our genetic programming slows down the metabolism. But if you fast for at least 2.5 days, the effect can initially be reversed. Metabolism increases and many who are fasting also notice that energy levels and creativity rise after the first few days as well.
One way of interpreting this is to say that genes from our time in the savannah 100,000 years ago wanted to give us a fighting chance incase of a bad food situation. A few days without food resulting in more energy and more creativity meant we would more likely be able to find something to eat. Today, we can “milk” that effect through a few days of severe calorie restriction. Not to trap a prey animal or dig up edible roots, but to find solutions to contemporary challenges in life.
Given the effect on metabolism, it is conceivable that periodic fasting would produce better effect than constant calorie reduction for those who want to lose weight, but there is no research support for it. The weight loss is the same either way according to a recent research review, but as the authors note: more extensive studies are needed than has been done so far.
However, what is quite clear in studies is that a limited period of severe food restriction produces very positive health effects. Examples from recent studies show reduced inflammation, and another about how fasting stimulates the growth factor GDF11 which counteracts cancer and cardiovascular disease, re-forms brain cells and rejuvenates organs.
Fasting can also have psychological effects related to weight loss. After a fast, I personally find myself craving more nutritious foods. Fasting also makes me aware of all the food signals that come and go during a day and teaches me how to navigate them.
Fasting just to lose a few pounds is so boring and pointless that it can counteract its purpose in the long run. It is likely a better strategy to fast for better health, to sharpen the mind and get to know your hunger signals. In time, you can achieve a weight goal through periodic fasting without too much soul-killing struggle against nature.
This is a guest post. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.