Over the course of the past week I have literally spent every moment of spare time that I have trying to pick through fact from fiction when it comes to fasting, health improvement and weight loss. I was literally reading so much conflicting advice from so many different sources I felt confused, unsure, disillusioned and increasingly desperate.
I mean, how bloody hard can it be? Go without food, be healthier, yeah? Well, no, as it turns out.
You’ll find some sources telling you to do a daily fasting schedule, some telling you to do it alternate days, some only for a couple of days, some telling you to fast for many days at a time every couple of months.
That conflicting advice was just to do with ‘when’ to fast! When you start reading about ‘how’ to fast, the advice starts to become even more contradictory. Some say no food, water only. Some say one meal only, some say many smaller meals. Some say you should drink replacement shakes, some that you should drink only very expensive prescribed (by the companies that make them) detoxifying juices.
Surely a feed days easy isn’t it? EAT?! Apparently not, take your pick from low carb, low protein, calorie restricted, calorie overload or just sit in Mcdonalds all day, feasting until you explode, because (apparently) it doesn’t matter, just as long as you go hungry tomorrow……
My brain was mush by the end of all that ‘research’. So much for making everything clearer! It was a vicious cycle of new ‘fact’ contradicting yesterdays advice, then while researching the validity of the new ‘fact’, a new ‘fact’ would emerge!
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!!!!!!!
Either I was going to have to just give up on this whole fasting thing and just calorie restrict (probably unsuccessfully) again or I was going to have to get to the bottom of this once and for all….
So, I grabbed the Bull(shit) by the Horns and decided to use the Internet for information (rather than advice) and found contact details for the four scientists involved in the Horizon documentary .
This was surprisingly easy, and within an hour I had written a long email explaining the confusion with the contradictory protocols and explained to them that I was interested in a 5:2 intermittent fasting protocol, primarily for the health benefits with the weight loss a nice bonus. I pointed out that I was finding it difficult trying to get to the very basics about what has actually been shown to work.
The scientists that I approached (in order of appearance in the Horizon documentary) were:
Luigi Fontana – the segment with the Cronies and Dr Mosely physiological profile and tests.
Volter Longo – the segment with the 4 day fast and discussion of longevity and IGF-1 (Insulin like growth Factor 1)
Krista Varady – the segment on Alternate Day Fasting
Mark Mattson – the segment on Alzheimer’s and the response of the brain to fasting. He was also the scientist that suggested the 5:2 protocol to (the presenter) Dr Michael Mosely.
Within a day, 3 out of 4 of the scientist had responded to my email. I was so pleased!! To date, Luigi Fontana still has not responded. But, hey, a 75% success rate was pretty good, right?
The great thing about their responses was that they were relatively short and straight to the point. Exactly what was needed for the sake of clarity! Mark Mattson also sent me several studies that he thought would be of interest to me, which I thought was very helpful.
Let me now sum up what each of them had to say to me, and also what they have said in some other interviews that I have seen.
Luigi Fontana -
Advocates fasting (within the context of 24 hours) for as long as possible. He suggests that if you have to consume 5/600 calories then they should be consumed as one meal, very early in the morning so as to maximise the length of the fast.
Volter Longo -
With regard to IGF-1 reduction:
The evidence indicates that it is better to do 4 days of (consecutive) fasting every few months and then skip meals during the week to maintain weight and try to adopt a plant based low protein diet.
An alternative (to the 4 days fasting) is just to fast on 2 days at a time as in the 5-2 plan but you must also try to move to a healthy diet, plant based and low protein.
He didn’t make it clear if those 2 fast days should be consecutive on the 5-2 plan or how long the fast should last. Since we are dealing in ‘facts’ here, I don’t want to guess what he meant, otherwise this information is no better to you than all of the rest of the confusing information that I have read. You don’t want to know my opinion, you want to know his. So let’s stick to the facts:
Either fast 4 days (consecutively) then skip meals and eat a plant based low protein diet, OR fast 2 days per week and eat a plant based, low protein diet.
Krista Varady -
With regard to how you should eat (if at all), on a fast day:
So far, we have performed studies permitting people to eat 600 kcal between 12pm-2pm. We find that this strategy works well for most people (whereas a complete fast for 24 h does not). We have yet to run a study where we allow people to consume the 600 kcal as 6x100kcal (or 3 x 200 kcal) smaller meals throughout the day. However, we are planning to run this study within the next year.
Again, let’s deal with facts: there have been no studies done yet that show whether eating during a fast is effective or not. They are going to be doing a trial later this year to ascertain this. Dr Varady invited me to contact her later in the year and she will give me an update on how the trial is going, which of course I will share with you! What I can tell you for a fact is that Krista Varady is already of the opinion that ‘eating the 500 calorie allowance throughout the day would prevent a persons body going into a fasted state’
Since it is the fasted state that is so beneficial to us, this information is critical. This tells us that abstinence is the best policy while fasting, but it doesn’t tell us for how long.
Mark Mattson -
These responses are based on our recent animal and human studies:
1. A complete fast (no food) with hydration maintained with non-caloric beverages will be superior to consuming 600 calories on the fasting days.
2. Eating the 600 calories at one meal will be superior to eating several smaller meals spread throughout the day. By eating only one meal, the body goes essentially 24 hours with no food. This results in adaptive cellular stress responses which we believe is particularly good for the brain.
3. In the case of the 5:2 diet, we do not know whether better health benefits are realized with two consecutive days of fasting versus any two days of fasting during the week.
So let’s cut to the chase: it would be much better if you could just get through a fast day without eating at all. Obviously, very few people are able to, or want to go for 36 hours without food. So if you are going to eat a (600 for a man, 500 for a woman) calorie reduced meal, you are much better to consume that as one meal than to spread those calories throughout the day.
This is because the stress produced by going for 24 hours without actually has identifiable positive brain responses such as the growth of new brain cells. It’s like a workout for the brain. How to add that into an intermittent fasting or alternate day plan?
Easy. Either, take a note of what time you last ate on the feed day prior to your fast and then do not consume your 600 calorie fast day allowance until 24 hours has past. So, if you ate at 6pm on a feed day, do not eat your 600 calories until 6pm on the fast day. That way, you’ve gone 24 hours without food AND you get to eat (albeit a restricted) dinner! If that doesn’t grab you, eat breakfast on a fast day and then don’t eat again until your breakfast the next day.
Hopefully this information has helped to give you a little clarity….