Hunger games: what are the benefits of fasting?

Easter is just around the corner and with the feasting, for many, comes the fasting.

Fasting is common across many religions (including Lent and Ramadan) and researchers are now realising the hidden benefits. Was the advent of religious-based fasting designed to give us self-discipline and appreciate what we have, or was it a clever way to get us to manage our waistlines before obesity became a global problem?

Fast approach

Intermittent fasting, where you aim to fast for a period of 14 to 16 hours, and then eat healthy foods in between, is an approach with multiple health benefits. It terms of timing, it simply means shifting your breakfast to later in the morning, and having dinner an hour or two earlier, say around 7pm.

Since you're only eating three meals a day, it's important to make every meal nutritious by filling your plate with plenty of vegetables, some fruit, quality protein, healthy fats and whole grains. There's no snacking between meals and no dessert after dinner either, so just get rid of that creamy vanilla bean ice cream in the freezer to avoid temptation.

Intermittent fasting became popular a few years ago when Dr Michael Mosley, author of The Fast Diet, experimented with the 5:2 intermittent fasting concept to get his health back on track. In this style of fasting you eat normally for five days and then reduce your calories to 500 for women and 600 for men on two non-consecutive days to get back in touch with true hunger and fullness cues. "Your body is designed to go without food for longish periods, even if it has lost the skill through years of grazing, picking, and snacking. Research has found that modern humans tend to mistake a whole range of emotions for hunger," writes Mosley.

Leaning in

I've been experimenting with intermittent fasting for a few months now for two specific reasons. One is to try and budge some extra body fat as part of an overall plan I have to get leaner. The second is, as a human guinea pig, trying it out on myself before advocating it to clients.

I haven't been able to stick to the 14 to 16 hour window, but at least two or three days a week I've opened the fasting window up to over 12 hours. And the results? I have lost over 2 per cent body fat and I find my concentration feels sharper. Reducing alcohol intake has also helped this big time.

Nutritionist Teresa Boyce says "intermittent fasting can stabilise blood glucose and reduce high insulin levels. This is in contrast to the western diet with frequent snacking on processed foods which can cause blood sugars to fluctuate leading to poorer cognitive function".

Boyce notes that the benefits of intermittent fasting extend far beyond the weight loss benefits with research suggesting it can reduce chronic inflammation and oxidative stress within the body that is linked to many chronic diseases, and boost growth hormone levels which increases metabolism, and cell repair.

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Hungry eyes

However, the best benefit of all is learning that it's OK to be a little hungry. So many of us eat out of boredom, stress or because after a few hours we assume it's time to eat again. Intermittent fasting teaches you to listen to your body and proves it is ok to be a little hungry between meals. There is a difference between starving and hunger, being hungry is not only a normal physiological signal it is actually good for us.

For the busy executive who may be surrounded by cakes and pastries at meetings, and lavish finger food (hors d'oeuvre, canapés and trays of decadent desserts) at nightly events, this can be challenging. But it's important to learn how to say no as constantly over-indulging does your waistline, your physical health or your cognitive function no favours.

According to a report by Safe Work Australia, the implications of obesity in the workplace include greater employee absenteeism, lower productivity rates, and higher medical costs. While intermittent fasting may not be the appropriate solution for everyone, it does open the discussion about the benefits of employee health and wellbeing programs.

Guidelines for intermittent fasting

If you want to include intermittent fasting into your regime, here's a few tips to help you get started. (But like all changes in diet or physical activity, we advise to consult with your doctor or health professional before embarking on major changes)

A 14-hour fast is a good way to ease into intermittent fasting. Ensure you fill your plate with nourishing foods to keep your body satisfied. Remember it's an extended fast, not starvation. Here is an example of when and what to eat during the 10-hour feeding window:

Breakfast (9 – 10am)

Poached eggs with tomato, spinach and avocado on sourdough rye bread

Lunch (1 – 2pm)

Quinoa or rice salad with mixed vegetables and grilled chicken

Dinner (6 – 7pm)

Baked salmon with sweet potato mash and green salad or vegetables.

Exercise before your first meal (breakfast) for increased fat metabolism. Research from Northumbria University found that people can burn up to 20% more body fat by exercising first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. After exercise, your body is primed to absorb and use the energy from food for muscle recovery and protein synthesis, so aim to consume your first meal within an hour post-workout.

Stay hydrated

The same part of your brain is responsible for interpreting both hunger and thirst signals, making it easy to confuse the two. You will likely experience some hunger during the fast period, but this can usually be satisfied by having a glass of water, or herbal tea.

Get enough rest

Intermittent fasting results in increased growth hormone levels, which are naturally elevated at night and help in many restorative processes. To capitalise on this, ensure you get at least 7 to 8 hours sleep each night.

Go easy on the caffeine

Stick to two coffees a day max. Although caffeine is an appetite suppressant, don't overdo it. If you want a little pick me up, opt for green tea which is packed with antioxidants and less caffeine than coffee.

Have you tried intermittent fasting, and did it work for you? Let us know in the comments section.

Workplace performance expert Andrew May is a Partner at KPMG Performance Clinic, a best-selling author and keynote speaker. He has spent the past 20 years helping business leaders and their teams improve performance, productivity and wellbeing.

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