What’s up everyone! With the New Year rolling around it’s the perfect time to cover the main benefits of intermittent fasting.
For those who are new to this platform, my personal goal is to shine a positive and inspirational light on the world around me – not to try to persuade or tell you how to live your life. I am not a doctor or practitioner; I want to simply encourage you to think intuitively, seek credible, scientific information, and follow the habits of people you aspire to be like. You need to decide what’s best for your body; I just hope I can help!
Fasting Is Back
I recently finished the book Lifespan by David Sinclair PhD, an acclaimed Harvard Medical School scientist who has devoted his life to studying aging. I’ve been fortunate to follow many others like him; people like Dr. Steven Gundy, Dr. Rhonda Patrick, Dr. Valter Longo, Dr. Peter Attia, and a number of others helping us understand why fasting and nutrition can help us live long, active, and healthy lives. The premise of Sinclair’s book is why we age and why we don’t have to. 1Sinclair, David A. Lifespan: Why We Age — and Why We Don’t Have to (2019) His book isn’t about lifestyle, so I was surprised when he covered fasting. The first recommendation he makes to increase our lifespan is to adopt periods of fasting. He says:
“The important thing is not what we eat but the way we eat. As it turns out, there is a strong correlation between fasting behavior and longevity in blue zones (regions of the world where people live the longest)”. 2Blue Zones are a term coined by Dan Buettner, indicating the 5 regions of the world where people live the longest with a high quality of life. Loma Linda, California is the only blue zone in the United States. 3Quote from: Lifespan: Why We Age — and Why We Don’t Have to (2019) by David A Sinclair, PhD.
“Almost any periodic fasting diet that does not result in malnutrition is likely to put your longevity genes to work, resulting in a longer, healthier life.” 4Quote from: Lifespan: Why We Age — and Why We Don’t Have to (2019) by David A Sinclair, PhD.
I love these quotes by Sinclair, but I do want to get one thing straight before we start – although fasting has undoubtedly changed my overall health, energy, and bodily structure, it is not magic and is not the cure to all your problems. Proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep are all vital components to a healthy lifestyle. But you already knew that, everybody knows that – so why doesn’t anyone know about fasting? Performance and longevity expert Peter Attia M.D. shares my view on the matter. He says, “I don’t think people appreciate how potent a tool fasting, exercise, and sleep are. […] The ability of those three things is more powerful than all drugs combined” 5The Tim Ferriss Show Peter Attia, M.D. – Fasting, Metformin, Athletic Performance, and More (#398). I truly believe fasting is a key ingredient to a lengthy, healthy life, and at the very least, is one of the most useful tools we can use to shed unwanted body fat. This article will strive to shed light on the importance of this commonly missing health component, the component of fasting.
On the average day, I abstain from eating food until the afternoon or dinnertime, typically anywhere from 16 to 24 hours from my last meal the night before, sometimes longer. It’s not a strict schedule, and I know it sounds restrictive but it’s actually more enjoyable than my old routine. Like most of you, when I was growing up I would never miss a meal, and I would never go more than 18 hours without food – I didn’t want to starve to death! Amazingly, if you can even believe it, each day I’m not on the brink of starvation, and I haven’t lost all my muscle. You may be thinking I’m crazy… and maybe I am a little bit. But crazy is a relative term, and before you write me off as a person from another planet, give me a chance to explain.
– Five reasons why we should fast –
1. Fasting makes sense. Constant snacking doesn’t.
I usually joke about the word breakfast, but for now I’m going to drop the theatrics. The word breakfast derives from the phrase “breaking the fast,” and since most scientists and experts agree that the body enters a fasted state after 12-13 hours without food, then how many people are actually eating “break-fast?” 6Source: Cabo, R. & Mattson, M. Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Health, Aging, and Disease (2019). It should be called what it is; around the clock snacking that is harmful to the digestive system and cells in the body. But isn’t “breakfast the most important meal of the day?” James Jackson and John Kellogg would say it is, but then again, they only popularized that phrase in the 19th century to sell cereal. 7Source: Oksman, O. How lobbyists made breakfast ‘the most important meal of the day’ (2016). 8Source: Kramer, C. Nutrition Myths and Facts Series – Part 1: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. (2017). 9Source: Mayyasi, A. How Breakfast Became a Thing (2016).
I’m not clueless; I understand why we haven’t been fasting as a society. It’s not because most of us crave food all the time, or because we don’t have enough will power, it’s because we thought fasting was bad for us. The reason why most of us don’t fast is not because of health – it’s because of misguided information. The thing is, as a species, we weren’t designed to continuously live in a fed state, and we definitely weren’t designed to always be in a state of physical growth. As evolutionary hunters and gatherers, we evolved to endure times without food, to live in seasons of growth and regression. Therefore, on a physiological level, our bodies were built to exist in two different states: fed or fasted. Unfortunately, most people in our society have never flipped the switch to turn on essential, but basic human functions – functions triggered once we reach the fasted state.
How powerful are these human functions? Mark Mattson Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, conducted studies on mice genetically engineered to develop Alzheimer’s disease.10 Source: Halagappa, VK. et al. Intermittent Fasting and Caloric Restriction Ameliorate Age-Related Behavioral Deficits in the Triple-Transgenic Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease (2007). They put the mice on a few different diets; most notably an alternate-day fasting schedule, a common eating anytime schedule, and an eating anytime but mainly junk food diet. The mice put on an alternate-day fasting diet didn’t develop the disease until around 2 years old, or 90 in human years. The mice that ate anytime developed dementia around the age of 1, anywhere from age 40 to 50 in humans – in half the time of the fasting group. As you may have already guessed, the mice in the third group, which included no fasting and mainly junk food, developed Alzheimer’s disease in around 9 months – equivalent to around 33 years old for us humans! The prolonging of a healthy functioning brain in the fasting group has to do with a boost in the protein BDNF, a fertilizer for the brain. 11Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) activates stem cells to convert into neurons, and protects brain cells from adverse changes. Neurotrophic factors are like fertilizers for the brain. Unfortunately, they are completely shut off by modern lifestyle choices like drinking, smoking, inactivity, and an unhealthy diet. 12Source: Stranahan, A. & Mattson, M. Recruiting Adaptive Cellular Stress Responses for Successful Brain Aging (2015). 13Source: Jennings, T. The Aging Brain: Proven Steps to Prevent Dementia and Sharpen Your Mind (2018).
But before we dive into fasting, I need you to be aware of our modern environment. Listen; our economy produces enough food for each American to consume 4,000 calories every day. 14Source: Sinclair, David A. Lifespan: Why We Age — and Why We Don’t Have to (2019). 15Bentley, J. & Kantor, L. Loss-Adjusted Food Availability (2019). Food is everywhere – available all the time. Since the American market started its massive growth, especially around the 1960s, food companies have paid barrels of money to fund so called “research” that would support their newest food product. The food industry spends billions of dollars on marketing each year with one goal in mind; get consumers to consume more.
Imagine what would happen if everyone started skipping just one meal a day. What would happen to these food companies? Would that hurt their bottom line? Would that put millions of people out of a job? Sure, this surge in food provided a ton of jobs and has been good for our economy, but it has also been extremely detrimental to our health. It makes me sick to think that the major driver of what and when we eat is the food industry, not the scientific evidence. It’s not right, and I could go on all day about the misguided system, but I think you get the point.
To make it worse, we are playing their game. Most of us have subconsciously trained ourselves to crave food – to need it all the time. We generally make our nutritional decisions based off habits, hormones, and convenience, and now our hormones expect food at certain times of the day, based off those cues! It’s a cycle that’s incredibly hard to break. But do we need to break the cycle or should we simply make healthy choices all the time? That’s the question, because remember most people think fasting is bad for the body. That’s what I thought too, but despite what your parents probably told you about breakfast, the science overwhelmingly supports periods without food.
2. Hormesis & Autophagy
Hormesis occurs when we endure short periods of stress, stress that would be detrimental or fatal if sustained over a long period of time. This short-term stress creates signals in our body that trigger our natural survival circuits. These circuits initiate defense systems to fight back and adapt to the current environment. For example, we stress our bodies through weight lifting sessions, breaking down the muscle and growing it stronger. But if we were to put too much stress on the muscle for too long, it would tear or fail, causing permanent damage. Similar to exercise, we can create physical stress through fasting, calorie restriction, exercise, sauna, cold exposure, etc. Anything that induces short periods of bodily strain. As Dr. Gundry says, “Hormesis is the beginning of longevity, and is essential for a long and healthy life.” 16Quote from: The Longevity Paradox: How to Die Young at a Ripe Old Age (2019) by Steven R Gundry, MD. Fasting is an effective way to trigger hormesis. After approximately 12 hours without eating, the body no longer uses its energy to digest and store food. It can now use that energy on itself; increasing DNA repair and mitochondrial biogenesis, and cleaning out damaged proteins through a process called autophagy.
Autophagy is what some experts believe leads to a vibrant and youthful life, and it’s the process that fights against all diseases, including aging. 17Autophagy has been known for 50 or so years, but has gained momentous attention due to the great work of Yoshinori Ohsumi. In 2016, he was awarded the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries of mechanisms for Autophagy. It is a “self-eating” process that decreases inflammation and slows the growth of cancerous cells. 18Source: Mandal, A. What is Autophagy? (2019). Essentially, instead of the digestive system working on food in the morning, it uses that time to work on its cells by cleaning and recycling them. It removes the molecular garbage in the body, usually damaged proteins, free radicals, or broken and disease ridden particles. Colin Champ, M.D. states, “Autophagy makes us more efficient machines to get rid of faulty parts, stop cancerous growths, and stop metabolic dysfunction like obesity and diabetes.” 19Quote from: Autophagy: The Real Way to Cleanse Your Body (2019). The process of autophagy ramps up around 16 hours after your last meal, depending on the type of food you consumed. It really is an amazing human ability we were given; similar to the way the body is able to naturally heal its wounds. But along with fasting there is one other way to induce autophagy, and that is through consistent caloric restriction. Both these modems lengthen our telomeres and facilitate mitochondrial networks inside cells, slowing down the process of aging.
3. Caloric restriction
In my experience, when it comes to losing weight, 99% of diets work. The method behind each individual “diet” will vary, but calorie restriction is the key ingredient in all of them – leading to the weight loss. Caloric restriction, or eating at a calorie deficit, is simply taking in fewer calories than you exert each day (negative energy balance). Is being healthy as simple as calories in vs. calories out? Definitely not – the different foods you consume will play a major role in the health of your gut bacteria, microbiome, inflammation levels, and overall internal bodily function. With that said, it is proven that cycles of calorie restriction, over time lead to weight loss and improved quality of life.
The reason fasting induces calorie restriction is because we eliminate calories for an entire portion of the day, most commonly in the morning. With a little self-control and planning in our eating window, we can effortlessly cut down the amount of calories we consume. Remember though, it’s not impossible to gain weight while intermittent fasting, especially if you’re prone to binge eating. Our relationship with food is important; if you aren’t able to control yourself once you do reach your eating window, then intermittent fasting may not be for you. Moreover, skipping a meal and calling it fasting does not guarantee you will eat at a caloric deficit. If we are strictly talking weight loss, then fasting can be a great tool, but it’s not the only thing that matters.
Trust me, I understand the struggle of dieting. I’ve tried the restrictive diet plans. I even had success with a few of them, but I was never able to fully sustain one long-term. We all want to enjoy daily life – this means eating at a caloric deficit needs to be enjoyable, and long-term – it needs to be an adoptable lifestyle we can happily undertake the rest of our lives. As Dr. Joseph Mercola says, “In my 30 years of clinical practice, I saw firsthand that intermittent fasting was one of the most effective–and easiest–ways to rid yourself of excess body fat without losing lean body mass.” 20Quote from: Fat for Fuel: A Revolutionary Diet to Combat Cancer, Boost Brain Power, and Increase Your Energy (2017) by Dr. Joseph Mercola. I couldn’t agree more doc, because in my life, as well as most of my friends, family, and co-workers, fasting allows us to enjoyably create a caloric deficit when needed.
Want to eat vegetarian? Do it. Want to eat a ketogenic diet? Do it. Paleo? Mediterranean? Standard American? Do it (okay well maybe not the SAD diet – Standard American Diet). Again, I am definitely not one of those people who claim you can eat whatever you want. Nutrition is immensely important, but with intermittent fasting you don’t have to be as restrictive in your diet. If you have a fun weekend with friends and eat too much – extend your fasting days longer to start the following week. If you have a big dinner meeting planned for the night – fast for most of the day to balance it out. Pursue a natural and free lifestyle; simply pushing the timing of the first meal of the day as far as you can, not eating until you feel real, consistent hunger. I know that’s a simple thought, but how many of us have been forced to eat when we weren’t hungry?
As intermittent fasting is beginning to gain popularity, I continuously hear that IF means fasting for 16 hours and eating for 8 hours of the day (16:8 method). Intermittent fasting means adopting intermittent periods of fasting, its not defined as 16:8 everyday.
In fact, I’ve found that an 18-22 hour fast is my sweet spot. In fact, its been shown that fasting for as short as 12-hours overnight has benefits. A recent study by Dr. Ruth Patterson’s research group showed that women who fast for only 13 hours overnight had a 36% less chance of reoccurring breast cancer. 21Source: Marinac, C et al. Prolonged Nightly Fasting and Breast Cancer Prognosis (2017). 22Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s FoundmyFitness – 13hr daily fast associated with a 36% decrease in breast cancer recurrence | Ruth Patterson (2019). This modest fast will activate stem cells to generate new white blood cells, improving immunity.
In my opinion, there is really only one bad way to eat: eating constantly, always in the fed state. A study at the Salk Institute found that mice eating on a time-restricted window weighed 28% less than mice that ate randomly. Additionally, the mice on time restricted eating had zero health issues. In the study, both sets of mice were fed the exact same quality and quantity of food; the only thing different was the timing. Furthermore, the mice that were fasting out performed the ad-lib eaters when given an exercise test. 23Source: Hatori, M et al. SALK STUDY MAY OFFER DRUG-FREE INTERVENTION TO PREVENT OBESITY AND DIABETES (2012). That’s pretty amazing! For those of you who still remain skeptical about fasting, I encourage you to simply give your digestive system a 12-hour break from food each night.
There are a few people who will want to avoid fasting entirely – anyone who is pregnant, extremely underweight, or suffering from an eating disorder. Additionally, if you’re an athlete seeking peak athletic performance or you endure long periods of aerobic exercise, then in training and competition I would avoid any extended periods of fasting. As a competitive endurance athlete, your primary nutritional goals are to optimize glycogen stores and maximize muscle protein synthesis. 24American Council on Exercise Fitness Nutrition. It’s imperative to use common sense, and I urge you to seek out a medical or health professional with any questions or concerns.
Outside of those few exceptions, the principle is simple – if you aren’t hungry, don’t eat. The specific fasting method you choose will vary and change throughout life (see my full guide for popular fasting regimens). The details aren’t important, and the best fasting plan is the one you actually follow! Once adjusted to fasting, living in the fasted state becomes freeing. Once you begin to live in two different states, you’re able to find deeper focus in your work, and free yourself from the need to consume something to function.
5. Consistent Energy
Although this is last on the list, consistent energy may be my favorite benefit of fasting. Brilliant philosophers and intellectuals such as Hippocrates (the father of medicine), Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, and more recent pioneers like Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, all practiced and prescribed fasting. This integral part of their practice wasn’t only for physical health or medicine, but also mental clarity. Declan Brown, a friend of mine who recently adopted fasting, sent me this message after completing a 24 hour fast:
“I get the most done and I’m locked in consistently during my fasting days. I look forward to it, honestly.”
Declan is not alone, as I get these messages quite frequently. This mental focus we feel isn’t simply euphoria, it’s actually due to a scientific process in the body. Simply put, instead of using the calories we normally consume in the morning for energy, we use our bodily fat stores for fuel. Dr. Luiza Petre explained it like this, “When your body is using fat for energy, it is slowly digested and given to the liver for processing (ketones). It can then be utilized for energy, which means more energy, higher cognitive function, and concentration levels.” 25Quote from: 6 Benefits of Intermittent Fasting, Because Weight Loss Is Just the Start (2018). When the body begins producing adipose cell-derived ketones as its energy source, it is running on a consistent form of fuel rather than a quick hit of energy. This quick rush of energy usually takes place when we run on liver-derived glucose.
Think of it like a car – ketones for energy is the car that runs on battery, and glucose is a conventional car running on gas. Gas will probably produce faster speeds (like consuming sugar or carbs for fuel), but battery will get you further, with less risk along the way. For athletes, sometimes you need to be a sports car with a hit of gas, or need to quickly replenish by refueling constantly. That’s why when talking about health and nutrition, context is vitally important. Individual needs will vary based off of goals and lifestyle, but for me personally, and for the people who aren’t chasing the NFL, I believe periods of fasting deliver the most consistent energy day in and day out.
For 22 years of my life I was always up and down mentally, my productivity and moods were inconsistent, and I never seemed to show up the same each day. Honestly, I suffered from running on gas all the time. But that was the past. These days, fasting paired with natural, unprocessed food, gives me the energy and health I was always looking for. I know it can do the same for you!
I really do appreciate you taking the time to read this. Usually at the end of an article similar to this one, there is the selling point. “Now that you know this information, take this supplement and start getting in shape now!” Well, this is by no means a sales pitch – I simply believe this is the way we were intended to live. PLEASE, I urge you to do your own research, to seek what you believe to be true, and to use the sources! Additionally, check out my full article on fasting. It’s a guide that expands on the details around the science and benefits of fasting.
In closing, fasting is not some new fad diet or fitness trend, it has been around since the beginning of time and is a natural process in the human body. Our bodies are resilient, designed to withstand extreme temperatures and conditions – let’s use our natural abilities when we can! Enjoy the day folks and remember, our world needs more daily heroes, go out there and be one for somebody!
My full guide on the science and reasoning behind intermittent and prolonged fasting