Truthfully, when I gave my conclusions about Michael Mosley’s investigation into intermittent fasting (here), I didn’t really believe it would put many people off dieting in this way, in spite of its potential pitfalls. And, judging by the continued popularity of the 5:2 diet, and alternate-day fasting, my doubts were justified.
But I have noticed that, in spite of the fact that these diets appear to be a good fit with the lifestyles of many, some people are experiencing symptoms associated with following this style of dieting. For this reason, I have put together a quick post explaining how dieters can avoid the negative effects of intermittent fasting.
As I explained previously, the benefits of intermittent fasting do not outweigh those of normal healthy eating. But, for whatever reason, some people find it difficult to stick to conventional patterns of healthy eating, or they have limited success in losing excess weight.
For some of those people, intermittent fasting presents an attractive solution, so it makes sense to find out how to eat in this way without incurring any negative short, or long term consequences.
The Side-Effects Of Fasting
One of the main problems associated with intermittent fasting is related to a sudden drop in blood sugar levels. If blood sugar levels fall too low, the body will attempt to compensate for the lack of available energy by releasing adrenalin.
This can cause such symptoms as shakiness, pins and needles, anxiety and abnormal heart rhythms.
Another thing that happens as blood sugar levels fall is that glucagon is secreted by the pancreas. Under the right conditions, glucagon release is a good thing, allowing fats to be converted into sugar for use as energy. But under the wrong conditions, dieters may experience hunger, stomach rumbling, headaches, nausea, abdominal discomfort and even vomiting.
If blood sugar levels in the brain fall too low, it can give rise to a host of symptoms including confusion, depression, lethargy, and even seizures and loss of consciousness.
An Unforeseen Consequence
And as well as hypoglycemia, a significant reduction in food intake can also lead to hypotension, or low blood pressure, causing dieters to exhibit symptoms such as dizziness, lightheadedness, and even fainting and seizures if the blood pressure is sufficiently low.
The real culprit here is insufficient fluid intake, which sounds strange because dieters will sometimes compensate for reduced food intake by increasing fluids.
However, studies have shown that food is a crucial element in hydration. The presence of food helps the body to store fluids. The studies show that people can become dehydrated even when they are imbibing plenty of liquids, if food is largely eliminated from the diet in any given period.
Drinking lots of water without replacing natural salts can also contribute to hypotension. And, paradoxically, water and juice fasting can cause irreversible kidney damage if approached incorrectly.
Safety, The First Step To Success
So it is important to approach fasting properly, and not to take unnecessary risks. One thing that it is important for dieters not to do is to starve themselves on fast days, or to attempt to prolong the fasting period in the belief that it will accelerate weight loss. This kind of behavior doesn’t really work and can precipitate some of the complications discussed earlier.
An expert in the field of fasting for weight loss is Robert Dave Johnston. On his website, Johnston gives an incredible amount of excellent free information on the subject of how to approach fasting effectively and safely.
As a membership bonus, he is offering a free 6-hour audio/video fasting masterclass. By the end of this training, students know everything they could possibly need to know about safely incorporating fasting into their lifestyle.
If you read my earlier post, you know my views on fasting, but if you choose to lose weight this way, it makes sense to get step-by-step instructions from a highly-skilled team who can give you ongoing, one-to-one support. This is the way to make fasting work for you.
As I’m sure you know, overweight people are often ridiculed for blaming their weight issues on an under-active thyroid gland – also known as hypothyroidism. When people give this “explanation” to account for extra pounds, they are frequently viewed as dishonest – it would seem statistically unlikely that the majority of obesity is due to hormonal causes rather than simple gluttony.
However, it turns out that what many people see as a convenient excuse may actually be true. As surprising as it may seem, hypothyroidism is often partially responsible for weight gain, but for different reasons than you might expect.
The problem is that many people who have an under-active thyroid gland believe that their condition has arisen through faulty genes or bad luck, and that there is nothing that can be done about it other than for a doctor to prescribe medication.
And it certainly does not help that many health professionals and nutrition experts actively perpetuate the myth that sufferers are helpless in their condition. Because, while it is true that a genetic component appears to exist in some cases of hypothyroidism, it is by no means true for the majority of sufferers.
So, it is not just a weak excuse that hypothyroidism may be responsible for weight gain, but the twist is that the function of the thyroid gland can be adversely affected by our habitual eating patterns – we do it to ourselves, in most cases. But is the damage permanent?
Can hypothyroidism be reversed?
In many cases, the cause of hypothyroidism can be traced to poor diet. This does not necessarily imply overeating, and it should be pointed out that there are a number of possible causes of hypothyroidism apart from diet, including stress, infection, pregnancy and anti-psychotic or mood stabilizing drugs, as well as the causes discussed below.
It is notable, though, that some people, having received a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, tend to adopt a fatalistic attitude to both their condition and their diet, feeling that it doesn’t matter what they eat since they are destined to be overweight no matter what they do.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is true that the body’s own immune system will sometimes attack the thyroid gland causing it to become damaged and its function to be impaired, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue, constipation and inability to tolerate cold conditions. But, in an increasing number of cases, Autoimmune Thyroiditis can be attributed to diet.
Autoimmune thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease which has hypothyroidism (or hyperthyroidism) as one of its main symptoms. It is more common in societies that have higher levels of iodine in their diet, such as the United States and Japan.
In North America, high levels of iodine in the diet are mainly due to excessive salt intake. In Japan, they are due to the regular consumption of foods rich in iodine, such as seaweed or kombu kelp. In both cases, dietary adjustments can eliminate the symptoms.
So, rather than being an excuse to eat any old junk because it doesn’t matter anyway, a thyroid problem is often a signal from the body that it is not getting the nutrients it requires in the right quantities to function efficiently. It is a call to action to make important lifestyle changes. And, in cases where diet is the cause, it only requires a few simple and entirely painless changes in eating patterns to restore optimum thyroid function and to correct all of the related issues that the body is facing.
The necessary changes do not call for strict rationing or self-denial. In fact, self-denial would be counterproductive. Hypothyroidism can be caused by iodine levels that are either too low or too high. What is required is a properly balanced diet.
As salt is iodized in many western countries, the consumption of large quantities of any foods with a high salt content should of course be avoided. To add a further complication, even in countries where salt is iodized, it is possible to have too little iodine in one’s diet, and therefore develop hypothyroidism.
So, once our excessive salt intake has been reduced, we still need to seek out foods that contain iodine such as kelp, fish and other seafood, yogurt and bananas, in order to ensure that we are getting enough iodine. But there is no need to overdo it.
But what if the drugs don’t work?
Hypothyroidism is treated with thyroxine which can help to alleviate the symptoms of iodine deficiency. However, some people find that they experience no appreciable reduction in weight in spite of hormone replacement. Why does their metabolism not respond to treatment when other symptoms, such as hair loss and dry skin are improved?
One reason is that poor diet may be interfering with the fat burning process. Supplying adequate thyroid hormone doesn’t mean that the metabolism will automatically recover. After all, the consumption of processed foods could severely diminish the liver’s ability to burn fat. This could result in weight gain (or failure to lose excess weight) in spite of restoring thyroxine to normal levels.
And so, a more holistic approach might prove effective in restoring normal weight. If you find that levothyroxine, or whatever treatment you have been prescribed, is having no effect on your weight, removing junk food from the diet and replacing highly refined and processed foods with fresh, natural foods is a good place to start.
It can be difficult to limit take-away food and to eschew restaurants in favor of wholesome home-cooked food but, over time, your discipline will pay off and your weight will reduce to normal. It may surprise you to discover that, even when a serious thyroid condition causes a slowdown in metabolic function, it is still possible to keep weight under control.
You will have noticed that, up to this point, I have not even mentioned exercise, this is not an oversight, rather, it is because, although exercise does indeed provide a boost to metabolism, doing sufficient exercise to counterbalance the effects of an under-active thyroid would be extremely challenging and does, in fact, usually prove too much for many sufferers of the condition, who fail to lose weight by increasing physical activity, regardless of how vigorous it might be.
This article by Mary Shomon mentions weight loss expert, Dr. Lou Aronne who has a theory that he calls Metabolic Resistance. Aronne theorizes that people with long term weight issues have lower metabolic resistance to weight gain than people of normal weight. So, the heavier you are, the greater the tendency of excess calories to turn into body fat.
It’s an interesting theory but, regardless of how seriously you take it, it remains true that a diet high in fiber and complex carbohydrates slows digestion and prevents sharp swings in blood sugar levels that cause sugar to be stored as fat. And when we add a healthy form of protein into the mix, we delay hunger sufficiently for the fats and sugars, stored in the liver after eating, to be consumed for energy rather than being converted into body fat, in spite of a sluggish metabolism.
Speaking of storage in the liver, the liver of a person with hypothyroidism cannot store sugar properly. Under these circumstances, sugar from food can more readily rise to high levels in the blood triggering the release of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin causes sugar to be stored as body fat.
To make matters worse, sugar is needed by the liver to convert thyroid hormone into its active form, thus speeding up the metabolism and burning fat at a higher rate. The consumption of refined foods – low in fiber, which turn rapidly to sugar in the body, causes the fat storage process to be set in motion. Conversely, eating foods high in fiber keeps blood sugar levels low and steady, preventing fat storage.
With the right approach, then, it is certainly possible for anyone to lose excess weight, even under the disadvantage of hypothyroidism.
Further Perspectives on Hypothyroidism
In this video, naturopathic doctor, Todd Ferguson shares some valuable information for the treatment of hypothyroidism.
In a BBC broadcast entitled Eat, Fast, and Live Longer, journalist Michael Mosley conducted an investigation into some new research into the potential benefits of calorie restriction in the form of fasting. (The full program can be seen on YouTube.)
Mosley tried numerous variants of fasting diets, culminating in a 5-week trial of the “5:2 diet”, which consisted of eating normally for five days out of seven, and consuming 500 calories or less for the other two. This was a gentler form of fasting than some of the others on offer.
The fact that Mosley lost weight and that his cholesterol levels reduced is not remarkable. He himself admitted that his previous diet consisted of a lot of burgers.
But does the research merit the millions of dollars that are being poured into it? Does it yield any valuable new information? Is “intermittent fasting” just another fad diet, or do we all need to urgently adopt it for the good of our health?
Numerous health benefits
Researchers have observed that fasting appears to delay the aging process. Some have hypothesized that the drop in calories reduces the production of free radicals. Others attribute the observed health benefits to insulin-like growth hormone, or IGF-1. This hormone is secreted in the liver in response to dietary protein.
As its name suggests, IGF-1 has a role in growth. Humans who lack this hormone are physically tiny and remain so throughout their lives. IGF-1 also spurs the body to produce new cells. An excess causes our bodies to concentrate on growth at the expense of repair.
But the researchers note that reducing IGF-1 to normal levels causes the body to switch from “growth mode” to “repair mode”.
Much of the research is currently in its early stages and, although suggestive, it has yet to be shown that these restrictive forms of eating achieve any health benefits that could not be attained by simply eating healthily. On the other hand, the dangers of severely reducing calorie intake still remain, and should not be downplayed.
Fasting or healthy diet, which is better?
It is true that when IGF-1 is released at low levels, the body slows the production of new cells and concentrates on the repair of existing cells, leading to a reduction in coronary heart disease (CHD), diabetes, stroke, cancer, and to the potential slowing of the aging process.
But it is also true that a healthy, balanced diet, rich in complex carbohydrates combined with protein and fats from healthy sources, will produce all of the same benefits, without the need for calorie restriction.
One could factually argue that high IGF-1 is a major risk factor for breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer. But the kind of diet likely to produce those high levels is one that is high in processed foods or fast food. A healthy diet dramatically reduces the risk of contracting these cancers.
Experts themselves insist that prolonged fasting should only be undertaken by people in good health and under medical supervision. But how many people who need to lose weight are in good health?
During Mosley’s investigation, in which he trialled a number of fasting diets himself, the experts demonstrated that his blood sugar dropped to normal levels, reducing the risk of diabetes and CHD.
Once again, a healthy diet will produce the same benefits without calorie restriction and without the reduction in protein intake that the researchers seem to consider essential. More on that in a moment.
At one point, one of the experts challenged Mosley to find something else that produced more extreme beneficial metabolic changes than those caused by calorie restriction.
But you already know my response to that challenge: A healthy diet will produce some of the same benefits without fasting or calorie restriction.
Some of the same benefits? I will grant you that IGF-1 levels obtained by observing a healthy diet are not likely to be any lower than those achieved by fasting.
But, then, the fasting experts advocate sticking to the established guidelines in terms of the amounts of protein we should consume, and no healthy diet would recommend the excessive consumption of protein. A healthy diet, high in fiber, will ensure healthy and stable blood sugar levels.
Blood sugar levels achieved by fasting may be lower but not healthier. Blood sugar levels produced by a healthy diet do not stimulate insulin release because they present no danger to the blood vessels or to the rest of the body as a whole, so there is no need for the body to make this sugar safe by converting it to fat.
Because blood sugar is at a safe level, the risk of CHD, cancer and diabetes presented by a normal healthy diet are no higher than those presented by a calorie-restricted diet.
From a health perspective, there is nothing to be gained by driving blood sugar even lower than a normal healthy level, which frequently happens as a result of calorie restriction. But there is plenty to be lost.
Calorie restricted diets have been shown to cause an increase in weakness, dizziness, fainting, falling, accidents, automobile collisions, and a number of other events.
The statistics for these events, as well as “all-cause mortality”, were absent from the data supplied by the researchers into intermittent fasting, but the figures associated with calorie-restricted diets in general are not encouraging.
And apart from the blood sugar issue, calorie restriction is not recommended for children, teenagers or young adults, since it could disrupt both physical growth and brain development. Nor is calorie restriction recommended for older individuals or those who are underweight.
Other side effects of a calorie-restricted diet include chaotic or suspended menstrual cycles, loss of muscle mass, reduced bone density – sometimes leading to pelvic and spinal fractures (as I have mentioned in this article) – swelling in the legs and hands, anemia, and even death, in cases of severe calorie reduction over time.
Fasting has some strange effects
With “alternate-day fasting”, Mosley discovered, dieters are allowed to eat whatever they want on non-fast days, which includes any amount of junk food they might desire. This behavior seemed to have no detrimental consequences.
Dieters lost 5lbs more than average over a 6-month period, not exactly earth-shattering, but I suppose it’s only a limited trial. However, for precisely this reason, I feel it is irresponsible to suggest that “pigging out” on junk food every other day is in any way helpful or sustainable.
We should also bear in mind that, in spite of impressive data indicating a reduction in LDLs, triglycerides and blood pressure, most of the evidence for the efficacy and safety of this approach comes from animal testing.
One researcher suggests that fasting appears to increase the growth of new brain cells. While this may well be true, it doesn’t seem so surprising (at least among adults), since it has been known for some time that exercise can produce the same effect and so, incidentally, does marijuana use. Make of that what you will.
There are a surprising number of different strands of research going on into the benefits, or otherwise, of fasting. And yet it seems, for the most part, that the people who would be helped by fasting – and the associated calorie reduction – are the same people who would be helped by eating a healthy diet, since it can provide all of the same benefits.
An occasional period of fasting, if done responsibly, and for a good reason, could have some positive effects on health. But, in my opinion at least, the many downsides of calorie restriction, and therefore long-term fasting, are too great for it to be considered a viable lifestyle choice.
Others Involved In The Fasting Debate
Brad Pilon at Eat, Blog, Eat concedes the possibility that risks could be associated with high protein intake, hinting that training for optimal muscle growth is not necessarily compatible with eating for optimum health.
At The Big C Survivor, a cancer survivor argues in favor of calorie reduction. Some of his commenters watched the BBC program and have been persuaded to try the 5:2 diet.
In this YouTube video, a dieter gives his personal impressions of the 5:2 diet. He admits that he used to eat when he wasn’t hungry and feels that fasting has helped him to become more conscious of what he puts into his body.
Anyone who has attempted to lose weight knows the benefits of ditching fast food and junk food, and eating more healthily. There’s just one problem – actually doing it. On any new diet, we always start off with the best intentions, but incessant cravings for junk and fast food can regularly sabotage our efforts.
The influence of the fast food infrastructure in the way we buy and consume food has spread far beyond the restaurants, pervading the supermark- ets and the shopping malls, and infecting almost every aspect of western culture, from childcare to health care, from advertising strategy to government policy. But how did we get here, and how do we get back?
Based on extrapolations from observation, scientists tell us that people will seek out foods high in energy and calories in times of plenty in order to store up resources for lean times.
This reasoning is not only flawed, it also fails to get to the root of the current obesity epidemic. After all, overweight people would starve pretty much just as quickly as people of average weight. And they get hungry even more rapidly. So there is a limit to the benefits of storing energy in the form of fat.
So what is really behind this explosion?
In the 1970s and 80s, fast food companies introduced one innovation after another aimed directly at persuading people to spend more money on food and beverages. Super-sizing was followed by value meals and multi-buy promotions, encouraging consumers to eat more for less money, resulting in greater revenues for the fast food giants and their shareholders.
Consumers were bombarded with advertising designed to influence them on a psychological level, and convince them that eating out in fast food restaurants, or grabbing a take-away, was not to be regarded as a luxury or an occasional treat, but as part of an everyday routine.
The combination of this highly sophisticated form of pressure, increased portion sizes and a sharp degradation of the nutritional content of food played a dominant role in creating the current situation. Personal responsibility plays a part, of course, but perhaps less than we might think.
Laboratory animals have been observed to eat to excess and to gain weight when fed a diet of sugary snacks and junk food, just as humans do. This is obviously not a phenomenon that is restricted to humanity, nor can it be explained away as simple gluttony. (I have discussed some of the motivations behind overeating in this article)
So why are scientists wrong with their “storing up energy for lean times” hypothesis?
I am aware that it has been shown that people tend to eat more without necessarily noticing the difference when portions are increased in size, and I fully accept the validity of these findings.
However, the idea that people are programmed to seek out and store high-energy foods compulsively and uncontrollably does not describe the behavior of real people in normal circumstances.
One could argue that the idea of fast food stretches back to ancient Rome, where street vendors prepared and sold cooked foods to a hungry public during the many cultural and sporting events that took place in those times on a regular basis, much as they do in modern times.
In Britain, fish and chip shops have been around since the mid-1800s. Hamburgers date back to the 1700s. But, even if we constrain our definition of fast food to the modern hamburger chain, we can still trace its origins back to the early 1920s.
Although rates of obesity at this time were steadily growing, this was not due to an increased availability of high-calorie foods, but to the introduction of inferior fats, such as margarine and processed vegetable oils as well as, later on, to processed foods stripped of fat which was replaced with sugar and artificial additives in an attempt to disguise the nasty taste resulting from the removal of that fat.
The point is that it is not the presence of high-energy foods that causes people to overeat – high-energy foods have been around for a long time, and for most of that time people have not been driven to eat to huge excess, no matter how available, or how tempting, the food was made.
Rather, it is the nature of the food itself that is to blame. For decades, fast food and soft drinks manufacturers have been guilty of a systematic adulteration of the foods they prepare, leading directly to the current crisis, since these foods do little to satisfy hunger while inflating normal appetite to astronomical proportions.
So how do we break our addiction to fast food?
Of course I realize that you spotted the apparent contradiction: If people are susceptible to increased portion sizes then doesn’t that mean that the earlier scientists’ hypothesis is right? People do seek out foods high in energy and calories and will continue to consume them, where available.
Ah, it is not merely increased portion sizes, but the combination of increased portion size and low quality food that does the damage. Eating large amounts of healthy, nutritious food does not tend to result in obesity because this kind of food does not impair the function of the liver and reduce our ability to efficiently break down fats, whereas fast food does cause such damage.
Also, healthy food, high in fiber does not stimulate the release of insulin causing sugars to be stored as fat. Fast food does stimulate the release of insulin, leading to obesity.
And, in addition to that, healthy food satisfies hunger. The fiber and unprocessed fat and protein digest slowly over a number of hours and do not leave us feeling hunger pangs and cravings after an hour or two.
It is clear, then, that if we are to begin to free ourselves from the bondage of fast food cravings, we need to pay special attention to feeding ourselves the kinds of foods that will heal our bodies and re-balance our distorted biochemistry, thus bringing our appetites and our urges back under our control.
Other Views On Fast Food
Fast food, junk food and just plain garbage. In this YouTube video, Natalie of Psychetruth.net gives an excellent rundown of some of the unhealthiest foods dreamt up by human imagination.