Fasting: fad or panacea? - RSA

Fasting: fad or panacea?

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  • Behaviour change
  • Social brain
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Spirituality

Fancy losing weight, looking younger, living longer, fending off Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and even cancer, whilst eating whatever you want? This is only some of what the 5:2 fasting diet claims to offer, and the only catch is that you have to fast twice a week. The ‘fast’ days do not require complete starvation, but instead involve heavily restricted calories – 500 for a woman and 600 for a man. It’s up to the individual how to make up the calories, but the suggestion is that you eat breakfast and one other meal, either lunch or dinner.

The evidence is strong that it's a very effective way to lose weight. But there's more to it than that – much has been made of the link between this pattern of eating and increased longevity. Research conducted by the Baltimore National Institute on Aging indicates that levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) are lowered by twice-weekly fasting. Controlling levels of IGF-1 can promote longevity as well as offering protection against a range of diseases.

High levels of IGF-1 are thought to increase the cell divisions associated with cancer, hence the possibility that reducing it may offer defence against it. Although this evidence is encouraging, the sceptical scientific community still feel that more extensive research needs to be conducted before conclusions can be drawn. Some critics have suggested that the extremes involved might result in the development of eating disorder, although there is no hard evidence for this either.

Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze?

Since the BBC broadcast a documentary about it last year, the diet has grown hugely in popularity, with celebrity support coming from the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Is there something different about this approach to reducing the amount we eat, or is it just another boom and bust fad diet like Atkins or Dukan? According to those who champion it, this approach to reducing calorific intake is much easier to sustain because of the fact that five days out of seven are unrestricted.

Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze? However hungry you might get on the fast day, is the knowledge that you could have a full English breakfast the next day enough to get you through?

It seems to me that this particular approach to eating might not only be easier to stick to than others, but could also encourage deeper consideration of one’s relationship with food. Having not tried this diet myself, I can’t comment from first-hand experience, but I suspect that on fast days, you are more acutely aware of your body’s need for food than on days when you’re eating whatever you want. By deliberately depriving yourself of the ‘usual’ amount of food, you are choosing to make yourself somewhat uncomfortable which much have psychological and maybe spiritual effects as well as physical ones.

The Islamic month of Ramadan uses fasting as a way of teaching Muslims self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity, as well as encouraging reflection on the suffering of the poor, who may be forced to fast through poverty. Being hungry is used as a vehicle for nurturing the skills needed to maintain self-control – acting as a tool for sustaining mindfulness. Perhaps some of these benefits can be gained through regular intermittent fasting as well.

Advocates of the 5:2 diet talk about quite enjoying the feeling of hunger (knowing that it will be short-lived) and of feeling exhilarated on the fast days and liberated on the days when no restrictions are in place. From the various accounts I’ve read of doing the diet, I have not seen explicit mention of spiritual or psychological benefits, but I have a suspicion that impacts on these domains may go some way towards explaining its popularity.

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  • I'm sure I've read fasting can reduce serotonin levels in some studies, but they may have been superseded by different findings? But would be a concern for me if it is the case. But if that is the case, then feeling happier on the fasting days wouldn't make sense!

  • I’m finding the 5:2 diet interesting. As a result of spinning out the tiny meals on fast days, I’ve become better at eating my food more slowly. With a very restricted calorie allowance, small errors make a big difference, so I look up the calorific values of foods and weigh them. It takes a bit of time, but it’s a very good distraction from hunger pangs. On non-fasting days I cook whatever I fancy, savour my food, and enjoy eating snacks I would have avoided in the past. I don't know about the long term health benefits, but it's reduced my problems with acid reflux, which is the better for smaller meals and slower eating.

  • If you watched the BBC Horizon programme about it, Michael Moseley attributes that feeling of a 'high' from the endorphins your brain releases on a fast day. I haven't heard of a correlation between doing Ramadan (where you fast from dawn to dusk for 30 days) and developing an eating disorder, and that is surely a more 'extreme' form of fasting than the 5:2 method.

    In the age of excess it's good to re-evaluate our relationship with food, and if it makes you think a bit more deeply about the nature of the food industry in general, then all the better for it.

    The only difficulty I found with a 5:2 diet is that I don't calorie-count, I refuse to, and trying to work out how much food is 500 calories is nigh on impossible!

  • women who have had eating disorders also describe the effects of starving themselves as feeling elated and high. I'd be worried about the psychological impact on susceptible individuals of this kind of starvation diet.