Gaining through abstaining

It’s a dangerous epidemic: there are now more obese than underweight people on this planet. A very simple method could help people burn off the flab and live healthier lives.

October 22, 2018 07:05 am | Updated 07:05 am IST

Red apple on a notebook and measuring tape, Diet concept.

Red apple on a notebook and measuring tape, Diet concept.

German people have gotten fatter. Half of women and two-thirds of men are now considered overweight, reflecting a global trend. At the same time, a society of full bellies is tempted by hunger, as more than 70 percent of people in Germany can imagine themselves fasting, according to a survey conducted by the opinion research institute Forsa. This number has increased by almost 10 percent in the last five years.

Last year, the Munich Medical Weekly Journal reported that fasting is “increasingly being used in the field of medicine as well...Underpinned by current studies, so-called therapeutic fasting is undergoing a real boom.”

As such, people are turning to a principle that originated thousands of years ago. The Ancient Greek writer Plutarch advised: “Instead of using medicine, better fast today!” In Germany, in the 1920s, the pacifist Dr. Otto Buchinger created a version of therapeutic fasting that remains popular to this day. After abstaining from alcohol and nicotine and undergoing an intestinal cleanse, one consumes only vegetable stock, juice, honey, herbal tea or water — the energy intake must not exceed 500 calories per day. Buchinger believed fasting not only affects the body but also the soul, which gives it a spiritual component.

Also popular in Germany, the alkaline diet, or Basenfasten, is based on the notion that the body “overacidifies” if an excess of sugar, coffee, white flour or other refined foods is ingested. Only fruit and vegetables are consumed during the fasting regime, in order to deacidify and detoxify the body.

The alkaline diet is very popular among supporters of naturopathy, according to the German Society for Nutrition’s information service, in Bonn. However, they note, “From a scientific point of view, neither the existence of toxins, nor the assumption that acidic foods disturb the acid-base balance has been proven.”

The alkaline diet and the Buchinger method are based on endlessly debatable concepts. The German Society for Nutrition simply states, “Fasting is unsuitable for weight loss.” But one thing is clear: fasting brings about measurable biochemical changes in the human body, which have a pharmacological effect. Long breaks between calories intakes help counteract obesity as well as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Overnourished people in particular benefit if they abstain voluntarily.

The risk of undesirable consequences is low when fasting regimes take place under medical supervision. However, staying in luxury fasting clinics for several weeks at a time is far too expensive to solve a problem affecting so many people — and few can even afford a fasting treatment in a hospital.

Another option is known as interval fasting, although neither the 2:5 version (fast two days per week, eat normally five days per week) nor the 1:1 version (fast one day, eat normally the next) has really caught on. “Reports of extreme hunger while fasting indicate that this may not be a feasible public health intervention”, an article in the Annual Review of Nutrition states, regarding the 1:1 version.

But does that also apply to “time-restricted feeding?” The concept of this method, which has been especially popular in Germany for the past three years, seems simple. By abstaining from a meal at the beginning or end of the day, one restricts calorie intake to a time window of six to 12 hours in a 24-hour cycle. Outside this window, only calorie-free drinks, such as water, tea and black coffee, are permitted. The perk: within the permitted time frame, you can eat as much as you want, although it should be healthy.

This method was prompted by experiments with animals at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, which the Cell Metabolism Journal reported on some time ago. One group of laboratory mice was allowed to eat around the clock; after 100 days, the animals were fat, had high blood sugar levels and liver damage. Food was only available to the other group of mice in an 8-hour time window. While they consumed just as many calories as the mice in the first group, they were healthier and an average of 28 percent lighter after 100 days.

So could timing also be decisive? In a study published in June in the same journal, men with early-stage type 2 diabetes were given food that contained precisely the number of calories their bodies needed. The test subjects were only allowed to eat for six hours in the morning, a schedule known as early time-restricted feeding. If they had their breakfast at 8 am, for example, they wouldn’t be allowed to eat anything after 2 pm. After five weeks, the test subjects had improved sugar metabolism, lower blood pressure, less oxidative stress and a significantly diminished desire to eat anything else in the evening.

These results are consistent with earlier observations. In 11 out of 16 time-restricted feeding studies on people, the test subjects succeeded in significantly reducing their body weight. Furthermore, according to the studies, sleep and digestion improve if nothing is consumed a few hours before bedtime. On the other hand, people who sit in front of the TV or computer screen munching crisps or sipping beer are disturbing their biorhythms. Shift workers who eat at night have an increased risk of obesity, heart attack and cancer.

Consuming calories early in the day and prolonged fasting in the evening and at night “may be a simple, feasible and potentially effective disease prevention strategy at the population level,” according to scientists in the Annual Review of Nutrition .

Obviously, the human body is not designed to eat around the clock. Not snacking in the evening could be one relatively easy step towards losing weight and improving one’s health.


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