Is intermittent fasting the way ahead for a healthy body and brain? Jo Foley investigates
We all know that by eating less and moving more, anyone can lose weight. We also know that that the planet is littered with diets promising to make us slender and lithe – but sadly we know that diets don’t work.
For a short time, while we restrict calories or cut out carbs we will lose pounds, but we are also aware that once we get back to our ‘normal’ diet, those pounds will again latch on to waists, hips or thighs.
Over the past few years we have become better acquainted with our gut and the importance it should have in our lives and our bodies. Not for nothing is it known as the ‘second brain’. So off we go, in search of a healthy gut, to spas and wellness centres where we can indulge in a detox cleanse.
That is when we realise that the gut, like the rest of us, sometimes needs a brief day or two of relaxation, which is why a supervised radical detox works. Places where nothing
is ingested other than broth, yogurt, Epsom salt and tisanes (a small boiled potato if you are lucky) for six or seven days, after which we return to our normal lives and behaviour glowing with detox zeal and vowing to live by some of the new habits we have acquired. And while good intentions last for a little while, more often than not we’re booking another detox retreat for the following year as we’re overweight and unfit again.
But what if we decided to take back responsibility for our weight and health and discovered there is a relatively simple way to lose pounds, as well as a means to a clean the system with a healthier gut and body? A way in which we could lose weight, but also a way to help us fight against the onslaught of such diseases as type 2 diabetes, help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, lessen the chances of being struck by any number of inflammatory diseases, and help keep the brain healthy and slow down the ageing process. Best of all, a way which states it’s not a matter of what we eat, more about when we eat.
This is the foundation stone of intermittent fasting (IF), an eating pattern we can adapt to our lifestyles. There are three popular methods of adopting this eating pattern: 5/2, which allows us to eat normally for five days and then on two non-consecutive days to consume no more than 500-600 calories.
A plan where you fast for 24 hours once or twice a week.
16/8, when you consume nothing for 16 hours and eat two meals in the remaining eight hours.
The last of these has so far proved the most popular, as it works particularly well if you decide to skip breakfast and then have lunch around midday and supper by 8-9pm. The remaining hours are spent resting or sleeping and of course, fasting.
Dr Eva Lischka, the medical supremo at the fasting specialist clinic Buchinger Wilhelmi in Germany, often recommends the one-day fast to guests when they return to normal life. ‘It is particularly easy to do on a Monday after a weekend of feasting with friends and family, and many people find it suits their lifestyle,’ she says. ‘But it doesn’t matter which system you choose as the results will be the same – you feel better, healthier as you gradually retrain your metabolism.’
However, she does insist that nobody should embark on a round of intermittent fasting without consulting their own doctor, especially if they are on medication, as many prescription pills need to be taken with food to aid their absorption.
A great advocate of IF is clinical nutritionist Stephanie Moore, who has devised the seven-day health regime at Grayshott Spa in Hampshire, and who favours the 16/8 version, although her own preference is the more dramatic 18/6, which leaves even less time for eating.
‘For most people the 16/8 is easily achieved and the benefits are tremendous for both physical and neurological health,’ she says. ‘It not only helps weight loss but, by reducing inflammation, increases the ability to burn fat and reduces stress levels as it rebalances your hormones.’ According to Moore the real fat-burning magic occurs after 12 hours without food, and most of that time you are asleep.
It’s little wonder, then, that intermittent fasting has become the smart way to manage your weight. Not only does it help the body to lower cholesterol, blood pressure and stress levels, it also aids the digestive process and gives the gut a rest. And, more importantly, recent research shows that it also offers protection against brain damage (via strokes) and can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Many enthusiasts have adopted intermittent fasting after a detox break where they can monitor how the body reacts without food while under supervision. Others have just gone straight into a one-day fast and then gradually adapted their eating patterns to the system that works best for them. However, participants are still exhorted to keep a count on calories – 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men – to ensure that a fast isn’t immediately followed by a feast.
Jo Foley is a writer specialising in spas and wellness