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It’s odd to think that depriving yourself of a necessity for life might be one of the most powerful ways to transform your health.
Yet there’s more and more evidence for the idea that fasting could have powerful health benefits for both the body and brain.
There are many different forms of fasting, however, ranging from going extended periods of time without food to consistently eating less (perhaps cutting caloric intake by 20%) to intermittent or periodic fasting.
But of all these different kinds of fasting, intermittent fasting is very likely the most popular and certainly the trendiest one. Celebrity adherents include Hugh Jackman, Tim Ferriss, and Beyonce. In Silicon Valley, whole groups of self-optimization obsessed biohackers meet to collectively break their fast once a week, and executives at companies like Facebook say that fasting has helped them lose weight and have more energy.
The hard part about classifying “intermittent fasting” is that there are a number of different forms of this kind of fast. Intermittent fasting regimens range from only allowing yourself to consume calories within a certain span of the day, likely between six and 12 hours; to eating normally five days a week and dramatically cutting calories on two fasting days; to taking a 36-hour break from food every week.
The different forms these fasts can take mean that much of the research showing benefits might be true for one of these fasts but not necessarily others. But there is good research on several of these fasts indicating that the benefits of intermittent fasting go beyond weight loss. There may be real long-term disease-fighting health improvements.
Here’s what we know so far.
A recent study suggests that intermittent fasting can do more than help people lose weight — it also may improve blood pressure and help the body process fat.
For this small study, researchers had overweight participants either cut calories every day or eat normally five days a week and only consume 600 calories on their two fasting days.
Both groups were able to lose weight successfully, though those on what’s known as the 5:2 diet did so slightly faster (though it’s not clear the diet would always help people lose weight faster).
More significantly, those from the intermittent fasting group cleared fat from their system more quickly after a meal and experienced a 9% drop in systolic blood pressure (the “regular diet” group had a slight increase in blood pressure).
This was a small study and researchers say participants had a hard time following the diet, but these are promising results.
Other studies indicate intermittent fasting could reduce risk for forms of cancer, but more research is needed.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
Other small studies on a similar 5:2 diet and on other intermittent fasting diets have shown that this form of intermittent fasting is associated with physical changes that could lead to reduced cancer risk, particularly for breast cancer.
Much more research on this area is needed, but these are promising results, Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health, previously told Business Insider.
There may be evolutionary reasons why depriving ourselves of food for some time makes us feel energetic and focused.
“Hungry,” from an evolutionary perspective, isn’t lifeless or drained. It’s when our bodies and brains need to function at maximum capacity.
“It makes sense that the brain needs to be functioning very well when an individual is in a fasted state because it’s in that state that they have to figure out how to find food,” Mattson previously told Business Insider. “They also have to be able to expend a lot of energy. Individuals whose brains were not functioning well while fasting would not be able to compete and thrive.”
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