Guest post originally published by Negin Misaghi, ND
I had a supervisor during my clinical rotation who challenged my recommendations of eating 5 meals a day to a patient. This was and still is such a deeply held belief in medicine that I seriously thought he was either just challenging me for the fun of it and for lack of anything else to pick on or he really didn’t know what he was talking about! I thank him now as that seed he planted in my mind is now taking root as more and more evidence emerges supporting this notion of eating one meal a day (termed intermittent fasting) as opposed to the conventional recommendation of regular eating.
As this is a slightly vague term, followers of this regimen may choose to skip a certain meal in the day, fully fast every other day or every other week, and/or … a myriad variations in eating may be considered “intermittent fasting.”
But isn’t fasting bad for you? And which plan should you follow?
For some of us, the first step might be to try to
experience what hunger feels like again…
Let’s look at the science: Note that there are cases that may prohibit long-term fasting, such as with young children, type I diabetics (on insulin medication), or in cases of clinical myopathy (muscle wasting).
So, how can fasting benefit you?
Scientists acknowledged three major mechanisms by which fasting benefits your body, as it extends lifespan and protects against disease:
- Reduced oxidative stress – Fasting decreases the accumulation of oxidative radicals in the cell, and thereby prevents oxidative damage to cellular proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids associated with aging and disease.
- Increased insulin sensitivity and mitochondrial energy efficiency – Fasting increases insulin sensitivity along with mitochondrial energy efficiency, and thereby retards aging and disease, which are typically associated with loss of insulin sensitivity and declined mitochondrial energy.
- Increased capacity to resist stress, disease and aging – Fasting induces a cellular stress response (similar to that induced by exercise) in which cells up-regulate the expression of genes that increase the capacity to cope with stress and resist disease and aging.
Operating around your system’s circadian clock:
All your activities, including your feeding, are controlled by your autonomic nervous system which operates around the circadian clock. During the day, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) puts your body in an energy spending active mode, whereas during the night your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) puts your body in an energy replenishing relaxed and sleepy mode.
These two parts of your autonomic nervous system complement each other like yin and yang. Your SNS, which is stimulated by fasting and exercise, keeps you alert and active with an increased capacity to resist stress and hunger throughout the day. And your PSNS, which is stimulated by your nightly feeding, makes you relaxed and sleepy, with a better capacity to digest and replenish nutrients throughout the night. This is how your autonomic nervous system operates under normal conditions.
With the circadian rhythm in mind, through simple deductive reasoning then, it is clear that the best time to eat is at night!
What about breakfast, you say?
The meal commonly believed to be “the most important meal of the day”! But what does breakfast mean exactly? To most, it’s the first foods we stuff ourselves with. Be it a fast food purchased on our way to work or a nice hearty meal of toast, dairy, jams, and cereals. But let’s approach “breakfast” from a historical and scientific perspective.
Breakfast literally is understood to be a breaking of a fast. Now, a fast is generally understood to be a minimum of 12 hours of no food consumption while it typically takes your body between 6-8 hours to fully digest a hearty evening meal (depending on your meal density – content of protein and fat, etc). If, for example you start your evening meal at 7pm and finish eating at 8-9pm, your body will shift into a fasting state by the early morning hours (about 4-5am). Hence, your body will not be in a fasting state for most of the night and breaking your fast at about 7-9 am only gives your body about 3-5 hours of “fasting”.
Scientifically, there is growing evidence that the typical breakfast can be harmful. A study by the Human Nutrition Research France indicated that the typical high energy breakfast caused major adverse effects including a strong inhibition of fat burning throughout the day, increase in serum triglycerides and a decrease in HDL (good cholesterol). The researchers concluded that high-energy breakfast does not appear to be favourable to health; they also indicated that the study’s results do not support the current advice to consume more energy at breakfast. Moreover, reports coming from epidemiological surveys have been indicating that the consumption of a high energy breakfast leads to a significant higher energy consumption for the whole day. Furthermore, a big breakfast has shown to yield only a limited satiety effect which lasts merely 2 hours after breakfast.
Therefore, if we are to break fast in the morning, it is wise to ensure that we are indeed breaking a fast and to do so with nothing more than a light snack and only if we are truly hungry!
So what could one eat while fasting?
This is not meant to be a harsh starvation diet and although most foods negate the effects of fasting, there are foods that can be safely eaten without compromising your fast. These include fast assimilating nutrient-dense foods such as quality vegetable proteins, green vegetables, and berries. It is also just as important to know how much to consume and how often.
Small servings (~100Kcal) of vegetable proteins (nuts, seeds & legumes), green vegetables and berries can be eaten very 3-6 hours depending on your level of physical activity when hungry. According to one advocate of such a diet Ori Hofmekler (the author of The Warrior Diet), one to two servings of whey protein should also be supplemented in the diet during the fast. I’d highly recommend this to those who have a difficulty in incorporating a fast assimilating (non-meat) complete protein throughout the day.
Note, although this diet is beneficial to the majority of us, there are those who may require alterations depending on their current state of health and their nutritional needs due to their occupation, hobby, or stage of life (i.e. athletes with high nutritional needs, pregnancy/breastfeeding, etc.). As always, please consult your health care provider before embarking on this therapeutic health program if you’ve got any health concerns.
1. British Journal of Nutrition 2000 Sep;84(3):337-44
I recently received this email from our lovely receptionist Judy at Kew Beach Naturopathic Clinic:
Judy’s gluten-free breakfast “pudding”
Thought of you this morning while I was eating my breakfast. Here's one for the blog. Everyone always asks me what the heck are they going to eat for breakfast if they are gluten-free. This is what I had this morning.
1 cup almond milk
2 Tbsp chia seeds
A bit of sweetener (try vegetable glycerine, maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, or stevia)
2 drops vanilla
- Combine ingredients and put in fridge overnight. It’s like rice pudding or tapioca!
- I actually put it in the microwave for half a minute cause I like my cereal warm in the morning.
- I added a diced apple and some gluten-free granola. You could add just about anything to it, like fruits and nuts.
In my practice I meet a lot of patients who want to lose weight, whether it be 5 pounds or 100 pounds! Most people have an unrealistic expectation of how much weight they can lose and how quickly this can be achieved. I recently read an article called “Ideal Weight or Happy Weight” about the impact even a small weight loss can have on your health and the theory of a weight “set point.”
“If you're overweight, losing just 10% of your body weight is associated with a myriad of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar, and reducing your risk for heart disease.” These are amazing benefits that not only pay off in the short-run when you feel so much better, but in the long-run by significantly improving your quality of life! A 10% weight loss is a great goal to start with and helps patients adopt the habits that will build the foundation for great health for the rest of their lives.
“Your body weight is naturally regulated to stay within a range of 10%-20%.” Once you maintain a certain weight for a few years or even decades, it can be difficult to shift significantly outside of this “set point.” However, it is not impossible, it just requires more time, commitment, and consistency than most patients realize. You CAN lower your “set point” through healthy eating habits, exercise, and lifestyle strategies.
What else can I do to support healthy weight loss?
Naturopathic medicine is a great support for weight loss via a personalized nutrition plan, addressing underlying health issues obstructing weight loss, improving digestion, making the mind-body connection, and perhaps more importantly, supporting behavioural change at a deeper level using energy medicine. We’ve all heard that it is so important to address the REASONS behind habits to change them. In my practice I find homeopathy and acupuncture to be great stimulants for self-healing as well as useful tools to address food cravings, mood, stress, sleep, and motivation, all of which contribute to your ability to reach and maintain a healthy weight.
What can I do today?
You can start implementing some healthy weight loss strategies into your life right now:
• Eat a healthy, nutrient-dense breakfast every day
• Ensure you get adequate, quality sleep each night
• Eat a minimum of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily
• Get outside and walk for at least 20 minutes per day
• Stick with it! As they say, “practice makes perfect!”