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.
Here is a hyperlink with slides from the talk I gave today at the Ancestral Health Symposium 2013 in Atlanta. I will upload a video of the talk once the organizers make it available. Until then, you can click on the “Link to audio recording” to listen to a recording that one of the conference attendees made and posted on YouTube. The sound is a bit faint, but still audible, and should make the slides more intelligible.
This presentation is based on material from several previous blog posts
The talk includes some new material not covered in those previous posts, in particular addressing antioxidant recycling, supplementation of calcium and the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. I have also provided a list of references of supporting studies and literature in the final 3 slides.
I enjoyed meeting many new faces and recognizing old ones at this year’s AHS.
Hormesis is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress. Is hormesis a basic principle of biology — or is it merely a strange but unimportant quirk of nature that only applies in exceptional circumstances?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb–the options trader turned philosopher–is intrigued by hormesis, and sees it as but one example of a much broader phenomenon: a fundamental principle he calls “antifragility”. The principle of antifragility applies not just to biology–but to sociology, economics, and perhaps even physics. Taleb has been developing this idea for a number of years. Antifragility made a subdued appearance in his 2007 blockbuster work, The Black Swan, a guide to dealing with unpredictable yet momentously consequential events in our increasingly volatile world. Taleb has now more fully developed the concept of antifragility in his most recent book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.
The antifragile is the antithesis of the fragile. You might suppose that the opposite of “fragile” is something like “robust” — something that resists change. But Taleb points out that that would be the wrong answer. A fragile thing – a package of wine glasses, perhaps — is easily broken when subjected to a stressor, such as being dropped. Something robust is merely resistant to breakage. But an antifragile object actually benefits by being subjected to stress. Taleb conjures up an image of the fragile as an object we would ship in a box marked “Handle with Care”; by contrast, a box holding the antifragile would be labelled “Please Mishandle”
At first, this seems to be a tease. Are there really such antifragile things? Yes, indeed; the world is full of them, including you and me. And there are steps we can take to become ever more antifragile.
What a great conference! I had heard such high praise for the inaugural meeting of the Ancestral Health Symposium last August, but I was too late to register in 2011. This year I submitted an abstract that was accepted as a poster presentation. For those who missed it, I’ve attached a copy of my presentation below.
What an edifying and uplifting experience! We just wrapped up three days of excellent talks, panels, poster presentations and plenty of informal networking and socializing. This conference is really the hub of the Paleo movement. The emphasis was on the most recent developments in the scientific, cultural, political, and practical approaches to overcoming the contemporary health epidemics that derive from a mismatch between contemporary lifestyles and the biology of our evolutionary heritage. The talks and panels were diverse, covering nutrition, cholesterol, cancer, immune health, farming, exercise, and many other topics.
When does stress help you and when does it hurt you? There is no doubt that stresses of the wrong sort can lead to anxiety, emotional turmoil — and eventually depression and diseases like atherosclerosis and cancer. Yet a central theme of this blog is that certain stresses are “hormetic”: at the right dose and frequency, stress can actually make you stronger and more resilient. The many posts on this blog illustrate how stress can be channelled to build muscle, retrain appetite, improve eyesight, strengthen immunity, defeat allergies, and tame addictions and anger. Judicious exposure to stress can even promote joy and excellent health.
But one can come away from the study of hormesis with the misleading impression that it’s all about adjusting the level and timing of stressors to induce an appropriate adaptive or defensive response. In this article, I would like to focus on a frequently overlooked ingredient in hormesis: the role of intention, attitude and voluntary choice. If you omit this ingredient, you are leaving out an important element of the way that stress helps you become stronger.
Voluntary, deliberate exposure to stress can be particularly effective in providing psychological benefits, including overcoming anxieties, obsessions and phobias, and vanquishing appetite cravings, addictions. Beyond overcoming such self-defeating tendencies, deliberate exposure works to unleash confidence and generate a sense of joy and accomplishment.
One of the primary topics covered on this blog is intermittent fasting (IF). Many approach IF as a diet or weight loss method. I know from research, personal experience and conversations with others that IF can indeed be an effective way to drop unwanted pounds. However, viewing IF as merely a new way to diet entirely misses what I believe is the most important reason to pursue it: the activation of hormetic processes that foster improved health, keep degenerative diseases at bay, and hold out the promise of a longer, more vibrant life. These benefits are a known consequence of calorie restriction, but intermittent fasting offers a more comfortable and versatile way to reap the benefits of calorie restriction without the sense of deprivation, the loss of lean body mass, and the metabolic risks that have been associated with simple calorie restriction.
It is because I’ve found intermittent fasting to be an attractive practice, both scientifically and personally, that I was so excited to be invited to give a lecture on IF at The 3rd Door, an innovative health and fitness studio, cafe and social center in downtown Palo Alto. The fitness director at The Third Door, Johnny Nguyen, is himself an advocate and practitoner of IF, which he blogs about with great flair and common sense at The Lean Saloon. The talk gave me an opportunity to reframe intermittent fasting in the terms of the philosophy of Hormetism, or applied hormesis that I write about on this blog. I believe that the framework of hormesis helps to make sense of why IF works, and why it is so much more than a diet.
What follows is a video of my talk on the benefits of intermittent fasting, presented on May 18, 2011 at The 3rd Door. I would like to thank Dianne Giancarlo and Johnny Nguyen for inviting me to speak, Vaciliki Papademetriou for technical assistance, Francesca Freedman for introducing me to The Third Door, Tom Merson for the still photos and Ken Becker for the masterful video production.