Saturday, September 15, 2012

To the well-fed: let yourself feel hungry

Think about what time you ate your last bite last night. Now think of what time you ate your first bite this morning. Now figure out how much time passed between those two events. Do you know what you were doing in that time? You were fasting.

Fasting simply means reducing your typical intake of food. Many well-fed Americans recoil from the idea of fasting, imagining weeks of growing gaunter and weaker until one looks skeletal. But we actually fast every night while we're sleeping and nothing bad happens.

This is what happens: the brain needs glucose for fuel and when the body doesn't have fuel coming in, it breaks down triglycerides (fat) in order to feed the brain. Even when you're not eating, your body maintains its normal metabolic rate, using your stored energy (fat) to keep all processes running smoothly.

Maybe you're thinking, "That's fine for being asleep, but I need food to jump start my metabolism in the morning and give me the energy to get moving. Plus eating frequently throughout the day keeps my metabolism burning more calories. Right?"


TEF = thermic effect of food

The thermic effect of food does cause our metabolism to rev a little higher as food is digested, but eating small meals frequently does not get you a bigger net daily calorie burn. If you eat three big meals and no snacks, you get three big metabolic boosts. If you eat a bunch of small meals, you get a bunch of small metabolic boosts. It's the same amount of TEF either way. You can't trick your body into burning more calories with frequent snacking.

Maybe you're thinking, "But going hungry makes me weak and unable to think and it lowers my blood sugar level and metabolism."

If your body is used to getting food all day long, you probably will feel hungry or light-headed, maybe tired, if you delay eating. But your metabolism doesn't slow down until you reach a state of starvation.

Starvation = metabolic slowdown  and conservation of calories

But it takes more than 60 hours without food to reach this point. We well-fed people can go without a bite for about three days before our bodies start conserving calories with a lowered metabolic rate. And it takes even longer than that for your body to start doing the other thing people fear: breaking down muscle and endangering your health.

How would humans have survived if hunger impaired the ability to function? Prehistoric humans regularly went without eating while they searched for food. If hunger prevented the human brain from thinking and strategizing, people wouldn't have been able to hunt and gather when they needed to. Hunger couldn't possibly reduce the brain's ability to function or the human race would have died out long ago. Tiredness and fuzzy thinking can hit while your body anticipates the next sugary/starchy snack, but if you push through that stage, your body will start to burn the extra energy we well-fed people carry around at all times.

Now here's the reason that fasting is actually a healthy thing to do: autophagy.

Autophagy = spring cleaning for cells

Without a fuel source, hungry cells will burn their own waste products for energy. This is good because it clears out junk like dead viruses and dead membranes that weigh the cell down. Then when eating resumes and they get new fuel, the cells are healthier and more efficient. Autophagy could be behind the many benefits of fasting. These include:

Reduced inflammation
Increased sensitivity to insulin 
(which means better control of blood sugar levels)
Lower blood pressure
Better illness fighting (“starve a fever”)
More resilience to stress
Reduced epileptic symptoms, especially in children
Better chemotherapy results (fasting benefits normal cells while it weakens cancer cells. It also reduces side effects of chemo)

Last February I began fasting regularly to see if it would help my spring hay fever symptoms. It did. Friends confirmed that skipping a few meals does help allergy symptoms (one person said just reducing sugar helped). 

Also, on a Friday several months ago, I started feeling achiness and a sore throat. Afraid that I'd have a full blown cold by Monday, I did a water-only fast from Saturday noon to Sunday noon. On Monday morning, I felt fine.

Please, well-fed people, let your cells clean house every once in a while. Some health experts promote regular 16-hour to 24-hour fasts of water only, maybe once a week. If it feels good do it, but if it doesn't don't worry about that. Try this instead:

The Experiment:
Stretch your nighttime non-eating period by stopping your eating an hour earlier. Continue the experiment until your nightly fast reaches 12 full hours, if possible. Also, maybe skip a meal every once in a while. Give your cells a chance to clean out and become more efficient through autophagy.

You might think, "But going without food for hours and hours causes overeating and weight gain."

Yeah, that can happen. So don’t do that. If you find yourself stuffing yourself in anticipation of  hours without food, or you feast in the morning because you're "starving," then shorten the amount of time you’re going without food. You want to eat the same amount, just with more of a break at night. But it might not be that hard. I find that if I eat good protein-filled meals, I don’t get as hungry in between and I can comfortably go longer without food, including at night. 

As a rule, I don’t eat between 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. and I try to stick to three meals a day with only a bit of snacking. If you’re a breakfast person, and I am, eat breakfast. But if you’re not, wait until your body really feels like it's ready to eat. My husband doesn't eat his first solid food until about 11:00 a.m. most days. Stretching that nighttime fast is actually just fine for your metabolism, blood sugar, insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.

And if you get too busy to eat during the day, go ahead and skip a meal. It'll give your cells a chance for some spring cleaning and give your liver a rest from constantly processing food and weeding out toxins. For most of us, nothing bad will happen if we allow ourselves to feel hunger. American bodies tend to have plenty of extra stored energy to get us through.


Mick said...

Serious point but I was reading an article the other day about a new diet theory that involved fasting two days per week (i think).
Will try and find it and post a link.

Mick said...

Thats the link

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Thanks for the link, Mick. Yes, intermittent fasting (IF) is a big subject these days. Some people make 16 to 48 hour fasts a regular part of their lives. I've enjoyed the effects of IF in the past several months. But just increasing your nightly non-eating period is good, too. Serious IF doesn't work for everyone.