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By Mike Valdez

At the end of last year my sister started a fasting diet. She had tried many other ways to shed the kilos, but nothing seemed to help much. She announced to mom and myself that she wasn’t going to eat anything solid for one whole week - no fish, chicken, pork, veggies or fruit; only liquids like water, fruit smoothies, vegetable juice, and herbal tea. While mom tried to talk her out of it, I had heard of an intermittent fasting diet being safe and effective, so I decided to do some detailed research before I added weight (pardon the pun) to mom’s argument. We both wanted what was best for my sister as she was getting depressed with her perceived situation, and it was beginning to affect her quite badly. It wasn’t that she was obese, or even chubby, but teenage girls can sometimes become obsessed with weight issues, among others.

Fasting has often been used as a quick way to lose weight, but my research showed that it can also help our bodies fight off many diseases. There was a research program conducted at the University of Southern California which showed that not eating for just 48 hours could help regenerate the immune system and assist the body in fighting infection. It can also significantly lower our white blood cell count. The university’s Professor of Gerontology and Biological Sciences, Valter Longo, said, “It gives the OK for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system.”

Pros and Cons

Fasting for a few days is unlikely to hurt anyone who is healthy, provided that they take plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration. But our bodies also need vitamins, minerals and other nutrients contained in foods to stay healthy.

It’s important to remember that fasting for too long can be life-threatening for any of us. On some occasions, you shouldn’t fast even for a short period. This is especially true for diabetics, because it can lead to dangerous highs and lows in the blood sugar. If a diabetic fasts, the pancreas can’t release enough insulin to help the body store and use the sugar and fat we need from food.

But if you don’t suffer from diabetes, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested that intermittent fasting - defined in the study as one day of water-only fasting a week - may actually reduce the risk of diabetes among people who are at high risk for the condition.

During a fasting period, your body adjusts and curbs your appetite to stop you feeling hungry. Your body goes into starvation mode to save energy, which ultimately slows down your metabolism. But when your body tries to save energy, it also tries to recycle a lot of the immune cells that may be damaged. It’s reported that cancer patients who fasted for three days prior to chemotherapy were protected against immune system damage that can be caused by the treatment, which specialists attributed to immune cell regeneration. "The good news is that the body gets rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts, during the fasting," says Dr. Longo. "Now, if you start with a system heavily damaged by chemotherapy or aging, fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system."

Can It Help?

A joint study carried out by researchers from the University of Illinois, the University of Alabama, Stanford University and Pennington Biomedical Research Centre, found that there is very little difference between fasting diets and ordinary calorie-controlled ones.

The study found that people who fasted every other day lost no more weight than those on a normal 500-calorie-per-day diet.

The 12-month study gave 100 overweight people one of three options: a daily calorie-controlled diet, fasting on alternate days, or a normal dieting regime. Both of the dieting groups lost more weight than the fasting group, but there was no difference in weight loss between the two diets. This could indicate that the two diets are equal, but there are several shortcomings in the trial. Over one-third (38 percent) of the participants dropped out, mostly from the alternate-day fasting group, which may suggest that regular fasting is more difficult to stick to than traditional diets.

According to Dr. Michael Mosley, author of the book The Fast Diet, his popular intermittent “5:2 Fast Diet” can not only help people to lose weight, but also offers a multitude of other health benefits. This diet involves eating a recommended calorie intake for five days a week, and then reducing the number of calories for the remaining two days.

But there is a fear amongst many nutritionists and doctors that intermittent fasting can deter people from healthy eating habits, and even trigger eating disorders that result in serious health problems.

"The 'anything goes' mentality some experts permit during the feeding state could lead someone to overeat, creating guilt, shame, and other problems that only become worse over time. For someone with emotional or psychological eating disorders, intermittent fasting could become a convenient crutch to amplify these issues." - JJ Virgin, nutritionist expert at The Huffington Post

After trying several different fasting programs, and many calorie-controlled diets, my sister ended up mixing them together, resulting in something that suited all her needs. From Monday to Friday, she fasts for five hours from the time she wakes, then has two calorie-controlled meals before bedtime. She does eat very healthily now, and although she never had much weight to lose, she did shed what she wanted to, which made her life much happier.

If you decide that fasting might be for you, be sure to stay well-hydrated at all times, refrain from over-exertion or too much physical exercise, and take plenty of rest. But before you try any form of new diet, especially if it involves fasting, you should seek professional advice from your doctor.


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