DOES IN­TER­MIT­TENT FAST­ING WORK?

Sharon Stephen­son gives food the heave-ho for eight hours a day

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I’m not the kind of per­son who can go 16 hours with­out eat­ing. I adore food the way oth­ers adore fluffy kit­tens and the smell of new ba­bies. If I’m not eat­ing, buy­ing or pre­par­ing food, I’m think­ing about what I’m go­ing to eat, buy or pre­pare. The prob­lem is that when you’re a smidgen over 1.5m tall, all that eat­ing means the love han­dles can get a lit­tle too much love. I need to find a way to rein in the con­sump­tion.

Di­et­ing is out: over the years I’ve cy­cled through ev­ery con­ceiv­able food re­stric­tion pro­gramme and most of them left me bored, feel­ing de­prived and with lit­tle move­ment of the scale. I’m done with count­ing calo­ries, hor­ren­dous green juices that taste like grass-clip­pings and the te­dious in­con­ve­nience and guilt of it all.

What I need is a life­style change, some­thing I can tuck into my rou­tine that I don’t have to starve my­self stupid for, that’s so­cially ap­pro­pri­ate (I still want to be able to en­joy a meal out) and easy to fol­low. If there are associated health ben­e­fits, other than weight loss, well that’s the ic­ing on the low-fat cake as far as I’m con­cerned.

One evening over a carb-heavy plat­ter and too many bot­tles of wine, my friend Jo sug­gests I try in­ter­mit­tent fast­ing (IF). This busy mother and nurse hasn’t eaten break­fast for five years, hav­ing her last meal be­fore 8pm and not eat­ing again un­til noon. She cred­its IF with help­ing her lose 13kg, as well as a host of other ben­e­fits from im­proved mood, mem­ory and learn­ing func­tion to lower blood pres­sure and a longer life ex­pectancy.

She had me at 13kg. My only is­sue is with the word fast­ing, which conjures up images of po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated hunger strikes and gim­micky di­ets. (Any­one re­mem­ber the maple syrup and cayenne pep­per regime?) Not to men­tion re­li­gious events such as Ra­madan and Lent.

But Jo re­minds me that fast­ing has been around ever since our loin cloth-wear­ing, spear-chuck­ing ancestors roamed the planet in search of food. “From an evo­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive, three meals a day and con­stant snack­ing is a mod­ern in­ven­tion,” she says. “Our an­cient ancestors ate when­ever food

was avail­able, which meant long pe­ri­ods of fast­ing. Our bod­ies, there­fore, are de­signed to sur­vive in times of feast and famine. Go­ing with­out food for a few hours, or even a day or two, is pos­si­ble.”

It’s not about starv­ing your­self, which can cause the body to hold on to stored fat in­stead of burn­ing it off as fuel, she says. In­stead, IF, also known as sched­uled eat­ing, typ­i­cally refers to eat­ing only dur­ing cer­tain pe­ri­ods of the day.

Sounds good, but what do the ex­perts think? Dr Mark Matt­son, neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the US In­sti­tute of Aging and Pro­fes­sor of Neu­ro­science at John Hop­kins Univer­sity, con­curs. “The body con­verts food into glyco­gen — a form of en­ergy that it can store for later use,” he is re­ported as say­ing. “Your body then squir­rels that glyco­gen away in both fat cells and in your liver. If you’re eat­ing all day, the stores of glyco­gen in your liver are never de­pleted.”

On the other hand, af­ter about 12 hours with­out food, your liver runs out of glyco­gen — at which point the body starts draw­ing en­ergy from the glyco­gen stored in your fat cells. Cue fat burn­ing mode and a whole heap of other re­ported health ben­e­fits (see side­bar).

There are, ap­par­ently, three ways to do IF: the 5:2 diet, in which you eat reg­u­larly for five days a week and re­strict your in­take to 600 calo­ries dur­ing the next two; al­ter­nate day fast­ing, where you ro­tate be­tween stan­dard and 600-calorie days, and time re­stricted eat­ing, in which eat­ing is lim­ited to an eight-hour pe­riod each day.

I set­tle on the lat­ter — be­ing able to sleep through the hard­est part of the fast sounds good to me. Which means no food af­ter 8pm, nor be­fore noon the next day. I worry that the eight-hour win­dow will be one long binge fest but Jo and the in­ter­net tell me oth­er­wise.

“It’s odd but you won’t over-eat,” says Jo. “When you’re only hav­ing a cou­ple of meals a day, you choose your food more care­fully and I found I was eat­ing bet­ter. I never once felt like cram­ming in as much food as pos­si­ble into the eight hours.”

A study from the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia backs her up, find­ing that, con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, peo­ple did not con­sume more kilo­joules dur­ing the non-fast­ing win­dow.

I’m sold. I de­cide I will fast for three weeks, eat­ing din­ner be­fore 8pm and not eat­ing un­til lunchtime the next day, with a snack around 3pm.

It’s not, of course, as easy as it sounds and the first few days are tough. Ev­ery morn­ing, I drink my usual bucket of green tea and don’t feel hun­gry un­til around 10am, when a pound­ing headache de­vel­ops be­hind my right eye. I’m not used to this gnaw­ing sen­sa­tion in my stom­ach but I feel oddly “lighter”, which re­sults in a blast of en­ergy and alert­ness (Yale Univer­sity re­searchers found that work­ing on an empty stom­ach ac­tu­ally helps you think and fo­cus bet­ter). This could ex­plain why, headache not­with­stand­ing, I power through my morn­ing’s tasks. For­tu­nately, be­cause I work mostly from home, I’m not dis­tracted by oth­ers’ eat­ing habits.

Around 11am each day, when my stom­ach siren goes off, I do what a nu­tri­tion­ist once ad­vised — add a tea­spoon of cin­na­mon to a cup of hot wa­ter. Not only does it make me feel full, it also sat­is­fies my crav­ings for some­thing sweet.

Strangely, when midday rolls around, I don’t latch on to the fridge as though it’s the last he­li­copter out of Saigon. I have my usual lunch, some fruit at 3pm and din­ner at 6.30pm. My fre­quent trips to the pantry to shove every­thing from choco­late sprin­kles to hand­fuls of muesli into my gob also cease. It doesn’t take long, but eat­ing be­comes an ex­pe­ri­ence to be en­joyed rather than a bore­dom-filler. I’m at a loss to ex­plain it, but some­how I felt fuller with less food.

Within a few days, by­pass­ing break­fast be­comes the new nor­mal and, thank­fully, the hangry switches off. There is a mi­nor hic­cup in week three when I have a work brunch and a two-day trip out of town, which makes it too hard to main­tain the IF, but I sim­ply slide back into it the fol­low­ing day, amazed at how easy it is — there’s no count­ing calo­ries or banned foods, you sim­ply don’t put any­thing in your mouth ex­cept wa­ter and tea/cof­fee for 12 hours.

The real pay-off comes at the end of the three weeks, when the scales show I’ve dropped 2kg. And that’s with no change to my usual ex­er­cise rou­tine of daily dog walks, a cou­ple of runs a week and a yoga class (when I can be both­ered). Even bet­ter, it’s my pesky belly fat that seems to go first.

Will I stick with it? You bet. I’m not nearly as hun­gry as I once was and reckon I could go a whole day with­out eat­ing and not no­tice. My en­ergy, fo­cus and mo­ti­va­tion have all sky­rock­eted and it has also saved me time and money, hav­ing to buy and pre­pare one less meal as well as late-night snacks.

My hus­band, of course, thinks I’m nuts; he’s a com­mit­ted mem­ber of Team Break­fast is the Most Im­por­tant Meal of the Day, and tries to taunt me at the week­end with stacks of fat, fluffy pan­cakes. But it’s been al­most five weeks since I gave break­fast the heave-ho and I have no in­ten­tion of go­ing back.

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