There is increasing evidence from recent human and animal studies that intermittent fasting — refraining from food or caloric beverages for at least 12 hours a day, several days a week — reduces the risks of cardiovascular disease, dementia and cancer. Those benefits are well-documented in the hyperlinked articles, so I won’t repeat them here. Yet many nutritionists hold that skipping breakfast or other meals and snacks can lead to weight gain and metabolic imbalance. Several recent articles have suggested that IF and breakfast skipping is a particularly bad idea for women. Much to my chagrin, this view been even embraced recently by a number of ‘Paleo’ advocates whom I respect, such as Chris Kresser and Mark Sisson.
In this post I’d like to address three main objections that have been raised against skipping breakfast and other forms of intermittent fasting:
- It spurs hunger cravings, leading to compensatory overeating and obesity
- It causes cardiovascular disease and metabolic dysregulation of blood glucose and hormone levels
- It’s bad for women, leading to hormone imbalance, disrupted menstrual cycle, and heightened stress response
I believe these concerns with breakfast skipping are overblown, based on an incorrect interpretation of a few animal and human studies, and flawed personal implementation. To the contrary, adaptation to meal skipping can actually help boost stress tolerance and improve blood sugar control. If practiced correctly, intermittent fasting (IF) can actually be a powerful tool to overcome hypoglycemic symptoms, and regain control over a harried lifestyle. And it can be particularly useful for women who are struggling with cravings, weight management and stress management.
Opposition to intermittent fasting arises from both published research and anecdotal reports. I’d like to address both in this post. I’ll first point out some significant flaws in the interpretation of several recent studies purporting to show negative effects of reduced meal frequency on women and other groups. And I’ll end by pointing out how to avoid common mistakes made by many who try intermittent fasting find it to be unpleasant and unsustainable.
Approached correctly, IF can provide major health benefits for most us.
Are we getting fatter because there is just a lot more irresistibly delicious food around us? Does that explain the obesity crisis?
That theory has been around the block but it is in fashion again. In 2009, David Kessler’s book, “The End of Overeating” put forward the thesis that food in contemporary American food has been deliberately engineered–by adding fat, sugar and salt–to exploit our neurochemistry and hijack our free will.
More recently, one of the luminaries of the Paleo movement, Stephan Guyenet, has formulated his own version of this theory, in a compelling series on his Whole Health Source blog, arguing that “food reward” is a main driver of obesity. His prescription: eat a bland diet. Guyenet’s talk about this at the Ancestral Health Symposium last month is the buzz of the paleosphere.
But I think the theory is wrong, for the simple reason that it too blindly takes correlation for causation. And in doing so, it gets the causal direction mostly wrong. We don’t get fat because food has become too tasty. Rather, to a large extent, it is the metabolism and dietary habits of the obese that make food taste too good to resist, leading to insatiable appetites. And the good news is that we are not consigned to blandness. If we eat and exercise sensibly, we can eat flavorful, delicious foods and enjoy life, without packing on the pounds.
One of the most difficult challenges to overcome in life is getting out from under the grip of an addiction, whether it be drug, alcohol or nicotine dependency, a food addiction or eating disorder, or compulsive activities such as gambling, shopping, pornography or Internet addiction. Taken to the extreme, addictions can become highly self-destructive, antisocial or criminal activities such as self-mutilation, kleptomania, or pyromania. At the other end of the scale are ordinary activities, such as exercise or work, which in normal degree are healthful but when excessive can become addictive. There are also minor compulsions which might best be considered bad habits rather than addictions, such as nail biting, hair pulling and the like. Broadly speaking, an addiction can be any habitual behavior which takes over one’s life, interferes with social relations and personal achievement, and threatens one’s autonomy. There are many ideas about what addiction is and how to treat it, but unfortunately success rates are low and relapse rates are high. However, there is a recent approach to snuffing out addiction based on the emerging sciences of neuroplasticity and behavior modification, which holds out the promise of lasting change. The approach is called cue exposure theory, and it goes against the conventional wisdom. I will discuss it after first reviewing the more conventional approaches. And I’m going to do something else unusual at the end of this particular blog post: I will apply this methodology to an “addiction” of my own and follow my progress in the Discussion Forum associated with this blog.