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Sunday, May 24, 2015


Intermittent fasting, restricting food consumption to a short period of the day, has become all the rage, and not just among faddists and pseudoscientists. Respected medical professionals like Gabe Mirkin and Joe Mercola endorse the practice.

Mercola recommends confining food intake to the hours of noon to 6 pm, which he says reduces triglyceride levels, weight gain and inflammation - provided the foods eaten are vegetables and lean protein rather than refined carbohydrates. You can eat as much of these foods as you wish, but you must follow the prescribed eating schedule.

Mirkin recommends eating your normal diet 5 days a week, and choosing 2 days in which you consume a maximum of 700 calories, which for most people is 25 to 30% of their usual intake. Again, eat healthy foods, and there is no need to restrict intake on the 5 "regular" days. Some take it even farther and eat one meal a day, usually dinner, fasting before and after basically on air and water. Both doctors have studies to back up their claims.

Intermittent FastingBut a recent study proves otherwise. Skipping meals, which is what fasting for part of the day or some days a week essentially boils down to, is actually linked to abdominal weight gain. In the study, conducted at Ohio State University, mice ate all of their food as a single meal and fasted the rest of the day. Initially they slimmed down, but when they were allowed to eat without restriction they regained most of the weight back, with a disproportionate amount of it accumulating around the middle. This visceral adiposity, as it is called, led to insulin resistance - a telltale sign of prediabetes. Basically when the liver doesn't respond to insulin signals telling it to stop producing glucose, that extra sugar in the blood is stored as fat.

"This does support the notion that small meals throughout the day can be helpful for weight loss, though that may not be practical for many people," said Martha Belury, professor of human nutrition at The Ohio State University and senior author of the study. "But you definitely don't want to skip meals to save calories because it sets your body up for larger fluctuations in insulin and glucose and could be setting you up for more fat gain instead of fat loss." The mice following restricted diets also exhibited binge behaviors when allowed to consume food ad libitum.

These findings align with personal experience, which is often the best teacher. There have been times where I've restricted food intake during the day in favor of a large dinner, then come home and hoovered the contents of the fridge, often after priming my palate with a half pint of tequila. I simply could not eat or drink to enough to fill the bottomless pit that was my stomach. I had become a human black hole! As you are aware if you've ever skipped a meal or two and then sat down to make up for lost time, it is easy to consume more calories at one sitting when you are famished than you consume over an entire day of snacking and light meals. And the evidence is a beer gut!

Not only that, the types of food consumed when you're starving (as after an all-day fast) tend to be of the high-fat, high-refined carb variety. Like pizza. And fried chicken with biscuits. And as Dr. Wajahat Z. Mehal, director of research programs on inflammation, tells Scientific American, it is precisely these foods that trigger an inflammatory response that can have dire health consequences. Eating too much in one sitting, Dr. Mehal notes, triggers an acute episode of inflammation, and routinely eating so many calories that the body has to store them as fat leads to chronic inflammation, the disease process behind a range of conditions including Alzheimer's, atherosclerosis, insulin resistance and fatty liver disease, among others. While the anti-inflammatory benefits of fasting are well known, they are likely canceled out by the overeating that too often follows.

Now, I'm all for one major meal a day, defined as one daily meal that is cooked and concentrated in calories. But throughout the rest of the day it is best to intersperse small, 300-400-calorie snacks, like fresh fruits and fruit smoothies, or chia pudding, or perhaps even a raw salad with some avocado, which will keep the digestive flames stoked and cravings at bay but still leave you feeling light and free. That's the best of both worlds. And you'll have your flat tummy to prove it.

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