The Do’s, Don’ts and Whys of Intermittent Fasting (IF)
“Our ancient ancestors, whose bodies we inherited, ate and weighed a good deal less in relation to their size than we do. Over hundreds of thousands of years their desire for food was checked by its scarcity and the effort it took to collect it daily from the countryside. Thereby they set the reference standard for living and eating normally and healthily, not we. We eat as much as we like. No creature has ever been adapted to that.”
Nobel Prize winner, Hans G. Demelt
University of Washington, Seattle
Anthropologists tell us that human history was filled with periods of scarcity and famine. Evolutionary biologists note that this would most certainly have an effect on the human genome, meaning that we are designed for periods of scarcity and/ or immanent starvation.
What then are we to think about the modern habit of eating three meals plus snacks, 365 days a year, with periodic feasts and frequent overeating? It appears that, once again, we are out of synch with our genes. Some of the consequences are obvious (our expanding waistlines), but others are invisible.
It appears that digestive “machinery” can wear out. I remember the physiology unit covering the gastrointestinal tract. With every chapter, I became more and more astounded at the intricate symphony of acids, enzymes, co-enzymes, hormones, vitamins, minerals (especially zinc), muscles, glands and organs – all required to perform their part in perfect harmony, responsive to every morsel that passes our lips.
Overeating taxes the ability of this system to process foreign (not-self) material; essentially to reduce complex foods in massive molecular structures down to their constituent small molecular weight compounds so that that your body can then re-assemble these nutrients into the complex structures called self; your bones, blood, heart, skin, hair, brain, etc.
The greatest burden falls on the pancreas, small intestine, liver and kidneys; and evidence suggests that non-stop eating is contributing to the damage, degeneration and disease associated with these organs.
The good news is that getting back in synch with our genes, and reaping significant metabolic benefits, is rather easy. The process unfolds step-by-step.
Step 1. Stop overeating
I had the opportunity, many years ago, to attend a centennial birthday party. The man who was celebrating his 10th decade of life was Japanese, living in San Francisco. Not only was he independent; he raised a backyard garden, used public transportation to maintain an active social calendar, and cognition testing showed that his memory and information processing speed was that of a man in his mid 50’s.
I asked him for the secret to his remarkable health. He replied, “I eat when I am hungry and I stop eating when my hunger is gone.”
Perplexed, I said, “Well, so do I.”
“No you don’t,” he said softly. “You probably eat until you are full. If you are like most people, you sometimes eat until you are stuffed.”
My silence indicated agreement.
“Try to be sensitive,” he said, “to the point where your hunger is satisfied. You will be surprised at how little food that requires. Stop there, even if your tongue wants more. Tell your tongue that if you are truly hungry in a few hours, you can have more to eat.”
Thus began my habit of conscious eating.
In clinical practice, I saw many clients who would recoil at the thought of depriving themselves of a second helping or a massive dessert. We all carry within us the DNA of starving ancestors, so I was certainly not critical. My approach was more educational. “Digestion,” I would say, “is like a chemical fire. Imagine you’re on a camping trip and the weather has turned. You’re desperate to start a fire. Your cold hands are shaking as you carefully pile some kindling on top of crumpled paper. You are alarmed to see that you only have two matches, so everything has to be timed perfectly. Light the match, the paper ignites, a few twigs catch fire, then a few more. You are just starting to feel the warmth on your face from an ancient survival skill…
Then your friend throws a huge soggy log on the fire. It sputters, and goes out.”
Rarely did I have to explain the metaphor, but I would continue: “When you overload your digestive “fire,” it smolders and sputters, leaving undigested food in your GI tract. It’s very warm and moist down there, so this material quickly ferments and putrefies, creating the bloating and discomfort that you noted on your symptom list. And that’s only the beginning. These chemical reactions produce toxins that increase your risk of serious intestinal disease, and some are absorbed into your bloodstream, creating other problems.”
That would usually do it, but some clients would still protest that they had already tried to push themselves away from the table, but to no avail. That’s when I would put on my counselor’s hat and talk about behavior modification. It’s not about shoulds and oughts. It’s not finger-wagging and certainly not about guilt and blame.
Overeating is a habit. We have all created the physical and emotional cues that determine our eating habits. And while habits do not change overnight, they can be changed through awareness. After a meal, the only thing you should feel is not hungry. There should be no discomfort whatsoever. No bloating, gas or pain. No having to let your belt out a few notches.
Eating slowly is the most important tool. Savor every mouthful. Put your fork down between bites, and don’t pick it up until your food has been thoroughly chewed, swallowed and appreciated.
When you have conquered overeating, you are ready for step 2: Skip a Meal – which requires a short (and fun) physiology lesson.