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By: Jonathan Tait, D.O.
For those of you who celebrated Thanksgiving last week, did you go a little into the red zone on the calorie meter?
You are probably not alone. According to the Calorie Control Council, the average American consumed about 4,500 calories last Thursday while giving thanks.
Tis the season for holiday gatherings and the chance to overindulge.
For many of us the holidays present an opportunity to take a couple of days away from our hectic schedules, enjoy the company of our family and friends, and share some great food. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with that.
The problem may come with the temptation to overeat, or it may be to eat just a little more of what your maybe not so health-conscious friends or family prepare for their holiday feasts. Either way, not all is lost.
An interesting (and very old) concept that seems to be gaining more traction in the medical and nutritional community is the concept of intermittent fasting. Long known to be effective to help with weight loss – or ahem, battling the bulge during the holidays – it may have far wider effects.
Research led by Mark Mattson from the National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins University, suggest “minifasts of 500-600 calories a day, or skipping breakfast or lunch several days a week could boost the immune system, sharpen the mind, and fight off disease”.
The benefits of fasting can be improved metabolism, or how effectively your body uses calories consumed. Specifically it can improve insulin sensitivity, allowing better regulation of blood glucose levels, which translates to an easier time regulating weight. Once incorporating these minifasts into your schedule on a more routine basis you will also find that somewhat ironically, you will be less hungry, and less likely to overindulge.
To be clear, this is emerging and ongoing research, with the exact mechanism of the proposed health benefits, the optimal fasting diet, and meal frequency still being figured out. The initial findings however are promising.
The core idea according to Mattson’s paper is that a fasting state can induce some mild stress on the cells of your body can make the cellular function stronger and more efficient. Therefore your body is able to ward off more severe bouts of stress, i.e. colds, viruses, and other daily stressors. This is similar to the subtle damage to the muscles created when you exercise. In turn the muscles become stronger and more resilient with better endurance and can stand up to more taxing demands.
I tried this most recently (maybe not in the purest form) this past Sunday after consuming a monstrous brunch. Although I probably consumed enough calories for the entire day, I skipped lunch and stuck with water until dinner. On other occasions, usually when incredibly busy in the office, I’ve intentionally skipped lunches. The results were consistent – I felt cognitively sharper, more focused, and more energetic throughout the remainder of the day. Of course I made sure to drink plenty of filtered water to stay well hydrated, and had a great, healthy dinner that evening.
Researchers will continue to debate what constitutes a “real fast”, with some feeling 4-5 days fasting is needed to see considerable changes in immune system function. (Warning: You should not attempt this unless you are under the supervision of your health care provider).
However, the consensus seems to be that breakfast may not really be the most important meal of the day, and skipping it, or other meals, on occasion may improve your overall health.
To successfully implement this:
Mark Mattson et al. Meal frequency and timing in health and disease. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol. 111, no.47. October 7, 2014.