“Fasting” means voluntarily depriving oneself of food. It is an ancestral practice often carried out for religious or spiritual reasons, but also for therapeutic purposes. It is even becoming a fad! We’re breaking down this new regimen to help you understand it better.
What is intermittent fasting?
Fasting means voluntarily depriving oneself of food. It is an ancestral practice often carried out for religious or spiritual reasons, but also for therapeutic purposes. It is even becoming a fad!
Intermittent fasting involves reducing one’s food intake window, or eating as much as one normally does but over a shorter period of time. In other words, it includes eliminating either breakfast or dinner and eating the equivalent of the skipped meal during the rest of the day. Intermittent fasting can also entail reducing one’s caloric intake, including full-fast days and “normal” days.
Intermittent fasting must, therefore, be distinguished from complete fasting (zero calorie intake) and continuous partial fasting (continuous restriction of calorie intake). This type of fasting can be practiced by a healthy person (more for preventative purposes) or by a sick person (more for curative/therapeutic purposes).
Different types of intermittent fasting
We can distinguish several types of intermittent fasts, such as:
- The 16/8 method: which involves fasting for 16 hours out of 24, something which is much more common than we think, as many people skip breakfast!
- The 5:2 method: where one consumes 500 calories per day, on two non-consecutive days per week.
These two methods are intended for occasional practice – by individuals who are not used to skipping meals – to rest the digestive system.
- Fasting every other day, or 1 day once or twice a week.
- Therapeutic fasting (angiogenesis): a method that must be supervised by a healthcare professional and practiced for therapeutic reasons (cancer, chronic inflammatory illnesses, etc.).
- Fasting when you want/can: depending on how hungry you feel, this is the most intuitive method.
Benefits of intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting appears to have an effect on circadian rhythm, gut biome, and caloric restriction. Regarding its effect on the gut biome, this regimen seems to reduce the discomfort associated with problems of intestinal permeability and inflammation often present in people who are obese, in particular.
Many people observe weight loss following their intermittent fasting regime because, if it is well-practiced, the metabolism adapts to food restriction by drawing from lipid stores once food reserves have been exhausted.
Other beneficial effects can be noted, such as a decrease in hunger, improved sleep, or an increase in vitality and concentration.
Is it clinically approved?
9 interventional studies studying the effect of intermittent fasting over several months in overweight or obese patients have been conducted. Of these, 7 confirmed weight loss and about half showed an improvement in metabolic markers. However, metabolic markers were not always improved in various studies. There is fairly clear evidence that intermittent fasting is more beneficial than total abstinence from food and some restrictive diets. Scientific studies conducted in mice have shown good results on increased lifespan, resistance to oxidative stress, and toxicity with chemotherapy.
Caution! It is important to note that studies on intermittent fasting are not always of high quality or are well-controlled, and often show limited evidence.
For which diseases is it recommended?
Intermittent fasting could improve symptoms in Irritable Bowel Syndrome, improve pain and morning stiffness in rheumatoid arthritis, significantly reduce pain in chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia. In metabolic syndromes such as diabetes, metabolic fasting could increase insulin sensitivity, stimulate lipolysis and lower blood pressure. It could also improve the signs of atopic dermatitis.
Fasting for cancer
Fasting (generally speaking) is under development in oncology: it could improve the impact of cancer cell treatments, protect healthy cells, reduce the side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea/vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps, and rebuild the immune and hematopoietic (which forms cellular blood components) systems more quickly.
Fasting for cardiovascular disease
Improvements in lipid metabolism, inflammatory markers, and high blood pressure have been observed, and a decrease in weight and in blood glucose parameters have been noted.
Other diets such as the Fast Mimicking diet may be recommended in Crohn’s disease cases. This diet involves consuming plant-based, whole-food derived prepackaged meal kits which are low in calories (restricting daily calorie intake) and rich in good fats for 5 days.
However, there is no scientifically substantiated and proven conclusion to validate these medical indications. In chronically ill patients, it is vital to seek medical advice before starting an intermittent fast, which must be accompanied by appropriate medical supervision, in a fasting clinic, for example.
For whom is it contraindicated?
Intermittent fasting is contraindicated in children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, the elderly, and those at risk of hypoglycemia or with hormonal imbalances.
Some advice before starting intermittent fasting
- Stay hydrated by drinking a minimum of a one-half gallon (64 fluid ounces) of water per day
- Maintain adequate protein intakes (around 1.2 g of protein/kg/day)
- Consume high-quality fat, especially vegetable fats, between fasting periods.
If you don’t know what type of fasting is right for you and how to go about it, it is best to consult a healthcare professional before beginning a fast.
Do you practice intermittent fasting? Have you noticed an improvement in your health?
Warning: This article is a general overview and does not replace medical advice given by a health-care professional. It does not take into account individual patient cases which may vary. Each patient is different, always talk to your doctor before beginning or altering your treatment!
Get Your Gut Back On Track!
An estimated 110,000 people consume antibiotics daily in Ireland, between December/March. (Source: Health Protection Surveillance Centre).
We asked Nutritional Therapist Rosanna Davison for her Top Tips to get your gut back on track after an illness.
1. Take time out
Don’t push yourself too quickly. Remember your body needs time to rebuild its reserves and regain strength.
Take more rest than usual. If you need to sleep longer, go to bed earlier.
Cut back on non-essential activities; they can wait until you are feeling 100%.
- Embrace fibre-rich foods full of protective nutrients
Fresh vegetables and fruits are rich in dietary fibre, vitamins and antioxidants. Try eating seven to nine portions over the course of each day. Choose different colours so that you nourish your body with a variety of phytonutrients.
Eat a portion of complete protein at each meal, such as poultry, fish, eggs, beans, pulses or tofu.
Consume essential omega-3 fatty acids daily. Avocados, seeds (flax, chia) and oily fish (mackerel, wild and organic salmon), are naturally rich in anti-inflammatory fats.
- Go ‘fermented’
Fermented foods are rich in ‘friendly’ bacteria. Sauerkraut is simple to make at home or buy kefir or kimchi in your local health store.
- Reduce or eliminate sugary foods
Processed foods often contain refined sugars to enhance taste. Excess refined sugar and processed foods may encourage the growth of ‘unfriendly’ bacteria, so aim to buy and eat fresh food.
If you have a sweet tooth, try eating berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries). They are rich in antioxidants and naturally low in sugar.
If you need a sweetener, try Stevia which is extracted from plant leaves and doesn’t impact blood sugar levels.
Do vegans need to take supplements?
A varied, wholesome vegan diet provides almost all essential nutrients in sufficient quantities. I hear you shouting ‘Noooo! It provides absolutely everything we need!’ and you may be right, but only if you regularly eat certain fortified foods. The sad truth is that modern food production systems and lifestyles make it more difficult for everyone – vegans or not – to get all they need from diet alone. It doesn’t mean a vegan diet is unnatural or unhealthy, in fact the opposite is true. It means that how we grow, produce and consume food has changed and, with an ever-growing population, the demands on the systems that produce our food are so high that certain nutrients become harder to obtain.
I get a lot of questions about supplements and understand why people are confused. Over the years, I’ve worked on many vegan research projects and as science and population studies reveal ever more data, the guidelines and recommendations change and evolve. Hence, what we were told 10 years ago may no longer be up-to-date and that’s why different opinions arise, depending on where and when we got our information. It’s my job to keep up-to-date, so hopefully I can bring some clarity to the supplement discussion!
So what’s needed? The trio of nutrients to keep a close eye on are vitamin B12, vitamin D and iodine. You may not need to supplement with all these, all year long, but it depends on several factors. Read on…
Vitamin B12 naturally comes from bacteria in the soil and both people and animals would traditionally have got it from eating unwashed plants. However, we not only wash vegetables before we eat them (and for good reasons), but food production is now so sanitised that most vegetables are washed in chlorine, or other sterilising solutions, so there’s not a trace of B12 left.
People are not generally aware that most farmed animals are given B12 supplements and this is how the vitamin eventually ends up in their flesh. So, the argument that meat is a natural source of B12 doesn’t really stack up as meat-eaters essentially consume B12 supplements recycled by the animals that were given them!
It is absolutely necessary that we have a reliable source of vitamin B12 for our bodies. We need it to make red blood cells, for a healthy heart and circulation, and it’s essential for the nervous system. It takes years to develop a B12 deficiency, so on one hand, you don’t need to worry about not having taken B12 for a while. On the other hand, you do need to pay attention, as when symptoms develop, it’s usually serious.
To ensure adequate intake, you should have at least 5µg (micrograms) daily from supplements or fortified foods. The B12 used in both foods and supplements is produced commercially by growing bacterial cultures in large vats – and it’s always suitable for vegans.
There are two forms of B12 in supplements – cyanocobalamin (cheap) and methylcobalamin (expensive). Cyanocobalamin is the stable ‘inactive,’ form of B12 and is used in supplements and to fortify foods and drinks. Once ingested, it’s activated by your body so it can be used. Methylcobalamin is the ‘active’ form of vitamin B12 as it does not require any metabolic reactions to be activated. It costs more and is not so stable.
So which one to choose? Unless you’re a heavy smoker, have kidney failure or any other serious condition affecting your metabolism, cyanocobalamin – the cheap form of B12 – is perfectly fine. Intakes up to 2,000µg a day are safe and you can take either a lower dose daily or a higher dose a couple of times a week.
We need vitamin D for healthy bones, teeth and muscles and it also performs other essential functions in our metabolism. It is produced in the skin when exposed to sunlight and this is the main source of vitamin D for most people. However, if you always use sun-block, cover most of your skin or live in a country, like the UK, where we don’t get enough sunlight over the winter, you need a supplement, whether you’re vegan or not.
The UK Government now recommends that we all take a supplement from October to April and, if you protect your skin ferociously over the sunnier spring and summer months, you should take a supplement all year long. Otherwise, just 20 minutes of sunlight on the face and arms is all that is required by the body to manufacture sufficient vitamin D.
Fortified breakfast cereals, bread, plant milks and vegan margarines can be useful sources if exposure to sunlight is not practicable, but may not be enough. When it comes to supplements, there are two types and your body can use both, but it’s advisable to check the source – vitamin D2 is always vegan, but vitamin D3 can be of animal origin. Many vegan foods are fortified with vitamin D2 and labelled so, but if not specified, especially on cereal products, vitamin D tends to be of animal origin. If you choose to supplement your diet, there’s a range of quality and affordable vegan supplements with vitamin D2. There are also those made from algae or mushrooms that contain D3 and these are recommended if you need a higher dose. When deciding on your dosage, 10µg per day is enough and you shouldn’t go above 25µg.
Iodine has been a hot topic lately, especially with plenty of tabloid ‘experts’ warning that vegans are missing out. This mineral is necessary for thyroid function and helps to regulate how energy is produced and used in the body.
The amount of iodine in plants depends upon the iodine content of the soil in/on which they are grown. The closer to the sea, the more iodine and therefore vegans can get enough from plant foods, but there’s no guarantee. Seaweed, which of course grows in seawater, is always a good source and includes nori, laver, dulse and the kelp family (kombu, arame, wakame). But be warned – kelp absorbs far more than other seaweeds and you can get too much iodine from it. So, while seaweed consumption is encouraged, kelp should be used only sparingly.
It’s best to use a kelp supplement so you know exactly how much iodine you’re taking – it’s cheap, reliable and you don’t have to worry about taking too much. The recommended daily intake is 140µg and intakes up to 500µg are considered safe. In many countries, iodised salt is commonly used to ensure iodine intake, but it’s not the norm in the UK.
The dairy industry has been boasting about the iodine content of cow’s milk. What they don’t tell you is that it’s not a natural component of milk, but comes from iodinated cattle feed, supplements, iodophor medication, iodine-containing sterilisers of milking equipment, teat dips and udder washes. Cow’s milk is neither a natural nor the best source of iodine, so we can happily leave all that dairy out of our diet.
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