In the season of continuous feasting, a silver lining: Intermittent fasting


Written by Abantika Ghosh
| New Delhi |

Updated: January 1, 2020 8:12:03 am


Intermittent fasting could work wonders with obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. (Illustration by Suvajit Dey)

As you work out your resolutions on health and fitness, here’s some new research to factor in.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), intermittent fasting — going without food for long hours periodically every week, or avoiding food for fixed hours every day — could work wonders with obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

And that’s not all, they say. It could also stagger the progress of cancer and help in diseases like asthma and multiple sclerosis.

“…intermittent-fasting interventions ameliorate obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia (abnormal amount of lipids), hypertension, and inflammation. Intermittent fasting seems to confer health benefits to a greater extent than can be attributed just to a reduction in caloric intake,” researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reported in NEJM.

This method of fasting impairs energy metabolism in cancer cells, inhibiting their growth and rendering them susceptible to clinical treatments, the researchers said.

The three most widely studied intermittent fasting regimens are: fasting on alternate days, the 5:2 formula of fasting for two days each week, and daily time-restricted eating — for instance, having food within a period of six-eight hours and fasting for the rest of the day and night.

“Glucose and fatty acids are the main sources of energy for cells. After meals, glucose is used for energy, and fat is stored in adipose tissue as triglycerides. During periods of fasting, triglycerides are broken down to fatty acids and glycerol, which are used for energy. The liver converts fatty acids to ketone bodies, which provide a major source of energy for many tissues, especially the brain, during fasting,” the NEJM report states.

Weight loss caused by intermittent fasting can reduce the severity of asthma symptoms, and energy restrictions slow the degenerative changes associated with multiple sclerosis, an auto-immune disorder that affects the nervous system, the article states.

In India, however, doctors have a word of caution for those embarking on intermittent fasting. In diabetics, they say, there is the risk of hypoglycaemia, a sharp drop in blood sugar that can make a person unconscious or even prove fatal in extreme situations.

Dr Ambrish Mithal, chairman, Institute of Endocrinology and Diabetes, Max Healthcare, describes intermittent fasting as the only “dietary fad” he would subscribe to.

“Whether you believe in the concept or not, many studies have shown that people typically eat less during intermittent fasting. If you are a little careful about the choice of food, people do lose weight. But scientifically speaking, in terms of evidence, we are not yet at a place where we can advise everyone to do it. It’s still an option, not a recommendation,” he says.

“However within diabetics, only a select group — those not on drugs that can precipitate hypoglycaemia — can do it,” he says.

According to former AIIMS professor Dr Anoop Misra, who is chairman of Fortis-CDOC Centre of Excellence for Diabetes, Metabolic Diseases, and Endocrinology, intermittent fasting is just “as good or as bad” as any major calorie-restricted diet when it comes to weight loss.

“I have read the NEJM article and frankly, I am not very impressed. On weight loss, it has similar results as the traditional approach. In diabetics, it runs the risk of hypoglycaemia, very common during the Ramzan fasting and feasting cycle. The only thing is that in animal studies it has been shown to prolong life, that is an argument worth stating. Overall, it looks good, celebrities follow it, but I am not terribly excited,” he says.

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