There is nothing better than a steaming hot plate of food. A hot roast dinner might do it. Or a triple cheese burger with bacon maybe. Until relatively recently, the idea of taking a day or two off eating, out of choice, probably sounded ludicrous. The exceptions have always been religious folk, who often fast for spiritual reasons around certain dates. A transition is occurring and an idea that eating food everyday, might not always be as beneficial as an on-off combination of eating and fasting.
A popular method of fasting is intermittent, where food is eaten one day, and the following is for fasting. The 5:2 diet, where food is eaten for five days and fasting takes place for two, is a popularized from of intermittent fasting made famous by a Horizon documentary, and then written into a book of weight loss. Fasting is not all a case of losing weight though, and the true benefits are beginning to shine through in scientific research.
Fasting is not as new to science as it may seem. In the early 1900’s scientists recommended fasting for the treatment of diabetes, epilepsy, and as a weight loss method, although these assertions were not based on solid scientific evidence at the time. Calorie restriction research then sprang to life in the 1930’s when Clive McCay of Cornell University discovered that rats lived longer when they were subjected to daily dieting. In 1945, scientists from the university of Chicago tested rats on an alternate-day feeding, and found very similar results.
As telling as this early research was, the following decades saw less in the way of relevant fasting studies. Recent research however, is re-affirming what has been known by religions, nutritionists, and everyday practitioners for centuries; that fasting is a beneficial process and not just a crazy idea to lose weight or gain enlightenment.
Dr Mark Mattson of the NIA’s neuroscience lab carried out studies on animals with conditions similar to that of Alzheimer’s. He observed them as they were subjected to a one-day on, one-day off eating pattern, like that of intermittent fasting. Amazingly, he discovered that after fasting in this way, the brain impairment in the animals was slowed down, and in some cases even reversed. Fasting was also seen to help the animals maintain lean muscles with age, a hint at the longevity qualities of the process. Mattson gives us many reasons to believe that eating food every day is not always as beneficial as occasionally fasting, although the study was conducted using rats.
Research was also conducted using humans, and showed a similar effect. Mattson explains the healing properties of fasting as being a result of a state in the body, which causes the release of proteins to stimulate cells and neurons. He believes that intermittent fasting speeds up cellular defence against molecule damage, prevents the incorrect assembly of molecules in cells, and helps the body clear out damaged cells, including those that relate to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and more.
Fasting has not yet become something that a health system would prescribe as a treatment. The evidence has imply not mounted a large enough case yet, and more research on humans is required to understand the full effects of fasting on the body. Still, fasting is no longer considered an act that is for religious purposes only; with the recent major research by Mattson, fasting has become shed with more scientific light. In the future science could prove conclusively that eating food every day, is not always as beneficial for the body as intermittent fasting.
By Matthew Warburton