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Does Fasting Make You Live Longer?

August 9, 2012

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Could cutting calories extend your lifespan? So suggests new research about the benefits of fasting.

Long viewed as a way to both physically and spiritually detox from the rigors of daily life, fasting traditions exist in in nearly every culture and have been a sacred form of primary food for most world religions.

The purported health benefits of fasting have been controversial, with many arguing that cutting calories slows down metabolism, can cause cravings and binge eating, and - at worst - can damage the brain and vital organs.

Yet researchers have long known that animals on a low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet live longer, and new research suggests the same is true for monkeys. Over 20 years, monkeys who consumed 30% fewer calories were three times more likely to survive and had half the rate of cancer and cardiovascular disease than the monkeys who ate freely. Moreover, they also maintained better brain volume in areas associated with movement and memory.

Researchers aren’t sure why cutting calories delays the aging process, but some speculate that eating less reduces the production of damaging free radicals. Others attribute it to lowering levels of a growth hormone called IGF-1, spurring the body to switch from “growth mode” to “repair mode.”

Could the same be true for humans? Though researchers are wary to overgeneralize their conclusions, anecdotal evidence suggests it could be true. British journalist Michael Mosley documented his own experience with intermittent fasting in the BBC program Eat, Fast, and Live Longer when he followed the so-called 5:2 diet for five weeks, eating normally five days a week and consuming 500 calories or less for the other two. Not only did Mosley find the regimen surprisingly easy; he also lost nearly 14 pounds and his glucose and cholesterol levels improved.

Ayurvedic expert and Integrative Nutrition visiting teacher John Douillard advocates a milder form of restriction and encourages people to fast between meals – in other words, no snacking, and especially no late-night snacking. Douillard argues that eating an early dinner (or no dinner at all) allows the body to stabilize blood sugar levels and burn fat during the night, and breakfast should be just that – the breaking of a long daily fast.

Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all diet, intermittent fasting certainly isn’t suitable for everyone, and we tend to agree with Mosley’s conclusion that “fasting, like eating, is best when done in moderation.”

Do you ever fast? How does it make you feel?