A little more than a month ago I came across a BBC program on the subject of fasting. You can watch the whole thing here.
If you don’t have a whole hour to watch I recommend picking up around the 36 minute mark where they start discussing intermittent fasting, or alternate day fasting. The basic concept is to alternate between fasting days and “feasting” days. A fast day consists of 400-500 calories for women or 500-600 calories for men. (You are encouraged to drink all the water you want on fast days). On the feed/feast days you eat whatever you want.
What are purported benefits of alternate day fasting? All sorts of things according to the researchers interviewed. Here are some mentioned in the documentary:
- Weight loss. It turns out that people doing this intermittent fasting don’t normally eat double their daily recommended calories on feed days. They are more likely to eat about 110% of recommended caloric intake so there is a net calorie deficit every week and that means steady weight loss.
- Reduced blood sugar levels. Warding off diabetes is always a good thing, right?
- Reduced levels of triglycerides, bad cholesterol, and blood pressure. They say this is a good thing. Reportedly reduces risk of heart disease and whatnot.
- Improved brain function. Mice on intermittent fasting remain mentally sharp far longer than the mice that were fed well daily. The theory is that humans see similar benefits. Fasting reportedly causes brains to grow new brain cells. Researchers interviewed for the piece think that this is an evolutionary survival mechanism; as we fast our brains quickly get stronger to give us better odds of wrangling up some food to stay alive. (I’ve been told that other studies indicate fasting has been shown to improve student test scores as well.)
The host of the BBC show decided to go with a dialed back version of intermittent fasting called the 5:2 diet. On the 5:2 diet he fasts two days per week and feeds on all the other days. After 5-6 weeks he reported losing 14 pounds and reducing his blood sugar and cholesterol levels significantly. (He reduced levels of some other cancer related stuff too — watch the episode for more technical details on that.)
After watching the show I decided to give this 5:2 diet a whack and have been doing it for about 5 weeks now too. So far I like it. First, it isn’t all that hard. As a Mormon, I’m pretty used to fasting already so that wasn’t a big deal. (Although let’s be honest, Mormon fasting often consists of skipping breakfast and then pigging out at “dinner” at 2:00 pm after church.) On this plan drinking all the water I want and downing 600 calories or less on the fast days requires paying attention but it is not that painful. I have been cutting between 1-2 pounds per week on the plan which is cool. What I really like is that I don’t feel guilty when I pig out on occasion during the feed days because I’m still cutting pounds overall on this plan. And if my brain is getting sharper and my risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are dropping as well I could see this as a long term deal for me.
Remember those studies that came out that showed Mormons live longer on average than non-Mormons? The Mormon health code, the Word of Wisdom, is normally credited for those results. I am now wondering if the Mormon habit of fasting at least once per month might be part of the reason for those results as well.
What do you think? We Mormons have a long history of fasting to get closer to God. Do you think there could be merit to this intermittent fasting for health idea too?