Benefits of Fasting for Weight Loss Put to the Test

Benefits of Fasting for Weight Loss Put to the Test

November 1, 2019 100 By Ewald Bahringer


“Benefits of Fasting for Weight
Loss Put to the Test” I talked about the benefits
of calorie restriction. Well, the greatest caloric restriction
is no calories at all. Fasting has been branded the “next big
weight loss fad” but has a long history throughout various spiritual traditions, practiced by Moses, Jesus,
Muhammed, and Buddha. In 1732, a noted physician wrote, “He that eats till he is sick
must fast till he is well.” Today, about 1 in 7 American adults
report taking that advice using some sort of fasting as a
means to control body weight. Case reports of the treatment
of obesity through fasting date back more than a century
in the medical literature. In 1915, two Harvard docs
indelicately described “two extraordinarily fat women,” one of whom was a “veritable pork barrel.” Their success led them to conclude that “moderate periods of
starvation constitute a perfectly safe, harmless,
and effective method for reducing the weight of
those suffering from obesity.” The longest recorded fast,
published in 1973, made it into the Guinness
Book of World Records. To reach his ideal body weight, a 27 year
old man fasted for 382 days straight, losing 276 pounds and managed
to keep nearly all of it off. He was given vitamin and mineral
supplements, so he wouldn’t die, but no calories for more than a year. In their acknowledgements, the
researchers thanked him for his “cheerful cooperation and
steadfast application to the task of achieving
a normal physique.” A U.S. Air Force study of more than 20
individuals at least 100 pounds overweight, most unable to lose weight on previous
diets, were fasted for as long as 84 days. Nine dropped out of the study,
but the 16 who remained were unequivocally successful at
losing between 40 and 100 pounds. In the first few days, subjects were noted
losing as much as four pounds a day. This was mostly water weight
as the body starts to adapt, but after a few weeks
they were steadily losing about a pound of mostly
straight fat a day. The investigator described their
starvation program as a “dramatic and exciting
treatment for obesity.” Of course, the single most
successful diet for weight loss— namely no diet at all—is also
the single least sustainable. What other diet can cure morbid
obesity in a matter of months but practically be guaranteed to kill
you within a year if you stick with it? The reason diets don’t work,
almost by definition, is that people go on them,
and then they go off of them. Permanent weight loss is only achieved
through permanent lifestyle change. So, what’s the point of
fasting if you’re just going to go back to your regular diet
and gain it all right back? Fasting proponents cite
the psychological benefit of realigning people’s
perceptions and motivation. Some individuals have resigned
themselves to the belief that weight loss for them
is somehow impossible. They may think they’re just
“made differently” in some way, and no matter what they do
the pounds don’t come off. But the rapid unequivocal weight loss
during fasting demonstrates to them that with a large enough
change in eating habits, it’s not just possible but inevitable. This morale boost may
then embolden them to make better food choices
once they resume eating. The break from food may allow
some an opportunity to pause and reflect on the role food
is playing in their lives, not only the power it has over them,
but the power they have over it. In a fasting study entitled “Correction
and Control of Intractable Obesity,” a person’s personality was
described as changing “from one of desperation,
with abandonment of hope, to that of an eager [extrovert] full
of plans for a promising future.” She realized that her weight was
within her own power to control. They concluded: “This highly
intellectual social worker has been returned to a full degree
of exceptional usefulness.” After a fast, newfound commitments
to more healthful eating may be facilitated by a reduction
in overall appetite reported post-fast, compared to pre-fast,
at least temporarily. Even during a fast, hunger may start
to dissipate within 36 hours. So challenging people’s delusions
about their exceptionality to the laws of physics with a period
of total fasting may seem barbaric, but in reality, this method
of weight reduction is remarkably well tolerated
by obese patients. That seems to be a recurring theme
in these published series of cases. In this influential paper,
“Treatment of Obesity by Total Fasting for Up to 249 Days,” the researchers remarked that
the most surprising aspect of the study was the ease with which
the prolonged fast was tolerated.” All their patients evidently
“spontaneously commented on their increased sense of
well-being” throughout the process, even in some cases “frank euphoria.” Though it’s essential that “fasting
should only be prescribed under close medical supervision,”
they concluded that they were “convinced that it is the
treatment of choice, certainly in cases of gross obesity.” Fasting for a day can make people
irritable, moody, and distracted, but a few days in, many report feeling
clear, elated, and alert—even euphoric. This may be in part due to
the significant rise in endorphins that accompanies fasting. Mood enhancement during fasting
is thought to perhaps represent an adaptive survival mechanism
to motivate the search for food. This positive outlook towards
the future may then facilitate the behavioral change necessary to
lock in some of the weight loss benefits. But is that what happens? Is it actually effective over the long term? And I’m sure you saw
titles like this flash by. Is it even safe? We’ll find out, next…