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Newspapers, magazines and TV programmes have been abuzz on the subject of intermittent fasting (I.F.) for the last few years - the 5:2 diet being the most popular - but many people still get the fundamentals wrong.
Before I explain let me first state that I'm delighted fasting is now popular. Fasting-based protocols have been the cornerstone of my nutrition approach for over a decade. It's a method that's accessible to all, that belongs to nobody or brand and gets results safely.
For the most part, the diet industry is just that - a very lucrative industry with an ideal repeat business model. Long term calorie restriction without nutritional consideration, the backbone of traditional weight loss, can actually make you prone to weight gain.
For those new to the subject, fasting includes things like juice detoxing for a few days at a time and intermittent fasting (I.F.), based on splitting up your time according to hours you eat normally and hours you eat very little.
The most commonly used are the 5:2 diet where you eat just 500-600 calories two days of the week, or the 16:8 fast when you are food-free for 16 hours day and eat within an 8-hour window.
The magic happens what happens when you restrict calories for relatively short bursts of time at the same time as optimising nutrition. Research shows that you must have the right balance of nutrients to trigger a natural process called autophagy where your body breaks down waste cell debris.
In other words, drinking diet coke all day, saving your calories for a glass of wine and packet of crisps won’t work.
It flies in the face of the “eat little and often” mantra, since, when we snack, we use the food for fuel, and this prevents our bodies tapping into our stubborn stored fat. Constant grazing might be what’s keeping fat locked away in your belly, bum or thighs – and fasting is one way to release it.
But the benefits of fasting go way beyond looking better in your clothes.
Cells respond to periods of well-managed fasting by protecting cells and fighting toxins. Dr Valter Longo at the University of Southern California one of the world’s leading authorities on fasting showed that certain cells lived up to 10 times longer than control group cells when restricted.
Self-healing mechanisms are buried deep in your DNA and fasting triggers them.
When you fast organs such as the liver shrink because the are deemed less necessary - when you begin eating normally again healthy stem cells are triggered which regenerate newer, younger, more functional versions.
Fasting kills cancer cells by depriving them of glycogen.
Fasting triggers the creation of new stem cells, which repair the body by regenerating tissues, organs and blood and rebooting the immune system.
Autophagy shuts down an enzyme called PKA, the absence of which has been linked to extended lifespan and the proliferation of stem cells, and decreases the hormone IGF-1 which is associated with ageing and cancer risk.
If the specifics seem a world away from your current daily concerns then all you need to remember is that above and beyond weight loss, fasting helps to de-stress the body. When you fast you give your body a break and a chance to catch up on its inner “to-do” list. Something we all could do with a bit of help with.