Fasting Might Limit Aging & Disease - But Is It Healthy?

Among certain groups, fasting, abstaining from food, is often practiced. Christians, for example, would fast as a personal sacrifice and pious imitation of Jesus. Today some groups maintain similar practices, though it is far from being the norm. Yet, the potential health benefits of fasting are starting to reignite people’s interest in the subject. It’s been claimed that fasting can transform your body, reduce your weight, fill your energy levels, reduce the likelihood of diseases, such as cancer, and even prevent aging. 

You may have heard something about this new fad for fasting diets. But is fasting considered safe?
Modern Fasting to lose weight
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The longest fast in recorded history was completed 50 years ago, when Scotsman Angus Barbieri had his first taste of food in 382 days. He undertook this mammoth fast because he was dangerously overweight (456 pounds) and was motivated by the thought of reaching his ‘ideal weight’ of 180 pounds. Doctors to this day are astounded by this young man’s achievement (he was 27 in 1966). This unique case is today inspiring many other hopeful people with the same intention. 

Yet the risks of fasts of such length are undoubtedly great too. Fasting, i.e. not eating, appears to go against a natural survival instinct that impels us to eat. Doctors would never recommend abstaining from food for longer than a few days due to the health risks. Furthermore, psychologists worry about the slippery slope of fasting leading to eating disorders, which result in terrible health problems. Abstaining from food for a certain length of time leads to heart troubles, which are exacerbated when the body’s store of fat runs out. 

But there are promising signs that fasting does do something extraordinary to our bodies’ health. It could be that fasting reduces the physical changes that lead to diabetes and obesity. Some studies seem to suggest that fasting starves and kills tumor cells, thus preventing or fighting cancer. It may also slow down the natural aging of our bodies’ cells.
Fasting as part of our evolution
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Fasting, or going for long periods of time without food, is assumed to have been a typical way of life during mankind’s prehistoric hunter-gatherer phase, especially during cold seasons when food was scarce. According to Professor Leonard Guarente, during such fasts, the natural processes of our bodies would slow down – we would stop aging. And then when food was plentiful, we’d grow, reproduce and age.

You’ll be surprised to learn that starving people concentrate harder and are more driven than people who are full and satisfied. This is because hunter-gatherers, when looking for food, needed to be alert and focused. In pre-history, if an individual could not hunt well while hungry they would be less likely to survive. We are the descendants of those who could perform well when low on food. It’s no wonder, therefore, that we often refer to energetic people as ‘hungry’.

So, perhaps we are meant to regulate our bodies by having seasonal bouts of eating and not eating, just like our ancient ancestors had to. Remember that even our most recent ancestors would fill up during Christmas time and fast during lent.
But is fasting too dangerous?
fasting, health
Osteopathic physician and founder or True North Health, Alan Goldhammer is bold enough to say that the dangers of fasting are a complete myth. Under his supervision many overweight people have successfully completed lengthy water fasts. These patients are given electrolytes or broth when they need them.

Nevertheless, the current scientific consensus states that fasting is safe for most healthy people, if they are taking supplements, for only about six weeks under a doctor’s supervision. After which time people enter a ‘danger zone’, says Frank Greenway, chief medical officer at Pennington Biomedical Research Center. After seven weeks, heart trouble typically begins; and at eight weeks there is a strong chance of sudden death. Skinny or underweight people could be at risk even sooner.

Thus, as you might expect, fasting is safe for healthy people when done with a degree of moderation. Imitating Angus Barbieri would not be a good idea for most people. The risk, therefore, is in fasting too much.
Isolating the benefits of fasting, without fasting
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Fasting, though undergoing a bit of a revival, is hardly going to catch on, because the idea and the experience of fasting is felt to be too miserable and unpleasant for most people. Without the spiritual element of religious fasting, medical fasting is not inspiring enough for people to do without the food that they love to consume.
Researchers are, therefore, understandably keen to isolate the good parts of fasting, the amazing reboot that the fasted body feels, without foregoing the body’s wish to consume a certain number of calories every day. Thus, Guarante has developed a supplement designed to activate the cellular mechanisms capable of stopping cells from decaying through age.

This is also meant to activate a repair of DNA, restore a person’s energy levels and make them feel completely rejuvenated. Though this supplement is still at an early stage of its development, it and attempts like it are exciting researchers keen to come up with a wonder pill that takes all the suffering out of fasting.

Yet some purists, such as Goldhammer, are a little cynical about this attempt to market supplements to do something that should actually be free. Abstaining from food actually saves you money, and therefore it is never going to be marketed by interested companies, who’d prefer to sell a product. 
4 Fasting diets to try
If you are interested in fasting as a means to reduce weight, inflammation and aging, and to improve cognitive function, here is a breakdown of four different type of common fasts you could try. Note that number 1 is the most dangerous, I suggest you try one of the others first and see how you get on. 

WARNING: Always consult with your doctor before radically reducing your calorie intake. 
fasting, health

1. Water fasting
What is it? Abstaining completely from food for days or weeks. Only drinking water and taking nutritional supplements for safety.
What are the potential benefits? This may help with hypertension and reduce inflammation.
Dangers: Can be dangerous if extended beyond 6 weeks, or if you are already underweight.

2. Calorie restriction
What is it? Reducing calorie intake by between 10-45% per day.
What are the potential benefits? In animals this diet may extend life and slow aging, yet this may not be possible for humans.
Dangers: Not thought to be dangerous for healthy people.

3. Fast-mimicking diet
What is it? Limiting calorie intake drastically (by around 2/3) for around five consecutive days per month.
What are the potential benefits? Valter Longo believes his diet can slow aging and reduce the likelihood of the following diseases occurring: cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes.
Dangers: Not thought to be dangerous for healthy people.

4. Intermittent fasting
What is it? Regularly abstaining from food for one or two days per week.
What are the potential benefits? Might help lose weight and reduce the risk of cancers.
Dangers: Not thought to be dangerous for healthy people.


Images courtesy of depositphotos.com

H/T: businessinsider.com.au: 1; 2

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