Could it be that when it comes to disease prevention, less is more?
Emerging science points toward evidence that fasting—intermittently depriving yourself of food in a prescribed manner—may ward off inflammation and help prevent some diseases, including certain cancers.
Researchers writing in the Journal of Mid-Life Health note that Indian women have used fasting therapeutically for thousands of years. Fasting, their studies showed, starved tumors of the blood supply they needed for growth.
The Benefits of Fasting
Studies indicate that additional benefits of fasting include improved reproductive features (in menstrual cyclicity, ovulation, and fertility) and metabolism.
Pain and stiffness from rheumatoid arthritis improved when study participants employed fasting techniques for one to two weeks.
Fasting also showed promise in improving cardiovascular health by lowering high blood pressure and reducing the cholesterol that can clog arteries and cause heart attacks. Not only do fasting people lose weight, but their arteries are less inflamed if they fast every other day or employ the 5:2 Fast Diet (which features five days of regular eating and two fasting days each week). With both techniques, fasting days provide about one fourth of a person’s normal caloric intake.
Scientists think fasting mildly stresses cells. They surmise that on low-calorie days, the body is forced to deal with this mild stress, which strengthens the long-term ability to ward off disease.
Why Does Fasting Work?
Your body is programmed to benefit from fasting.
According to Francoise Wilhelmi de Toledo, MD, medical director of the Buchinger Wilhelmi Clinic in Germany, the propensity to deprive yourself of food occurs naturally. Dr. de Toledo contends that because food was often in short supply as humans evolved, our bodies have adapted. Throughout history, droughts and other harsh conditions produced food shortages that caused our ancestors to fast—often involuntarily—and our bodies eventually got the message.
Valter Longo, PhD, of the University of Southern California, argued in a 2014 study that three days of fasting can “reset” the immune system and trigger the production of new white blood cells, helping to ward off disease.
As unappetizing as fasting may sound at first, you may soon find that less—food, that is—is indeed the key to a healthier life.
Important: Fasting is not recommended for people with diabetes, those who have eating disorders, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, the elderly, or children. Always check with your medical professional before beginning any fasting regimen.
Every-other-day fasting suggests that you eat normally on the first day, then limit yourself to 500 calories (for women) or 600 (for men) the next. Continue to alternate. With only 500 calories on your fasting day, it’s critical you make those 500 calories count, so choose food wisely. Opt for nutrient-rich foods, such as lean proteins and fresh produce.
Half-day fasting is essentially 12 hours on—when eating is permitted—and 12 hours off, when you fast. Beginning the fast in the evening makes the limited food intake much easier to tolerate since you’ll be dozing for about two-thirds of the period. Over time, you might find you can increase your fasting hours to 16 hours a day. Some research shows increased health benefits if you limit eating to eight hours per day.
5:2 fasting has you eating normally for five days a week and restricting your intake to 500 calories on the other two days.