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The New Science of Fasting

And how to do it better.

The New Science of Fasting

We live in a world that prioritizes comfort and convenience. This extends to our food environment. Many of us are surrounded by “comfort food,” food that has all sorts of triggers that make us more likely to overeat (think: sugar, salt, fat). This food is hyper-processed, hyper-available, and hyper-delicious.

In this environment, we’ve all eaten for reasons other than physiological hunger. Research shows that about 80 percent of eating is now driven by reasons other than true hunger.

For example, we eat because we're stressed or bored or because it's a certain time of day. This is only natural and we shouldn’t feel any shame for it. Eating when we had the opportunity—even if we weren’t hungry—kept humans alive in the past, when food was scarce. Food is comforting for this reason; to compel us to eat.

We still have those ancient drives to eat when we’re not hungry. But now food is everywhere. This means we have to be a bit more mindful of why and how much we’re eating.

Sitting with the discomfort of hunger is a good exercise to build awareness around food. It can help you better understand the nature of hunger and figure why and when you’re leaning on food for comfort instead of sustenance.

Simple Fasting Methods

“Intermittent fasting” is a good way to reintroduce yourself to hunger. It’s basically just periods where you purposefully don’t eat. There are many models of intermittent fasting to choose from.

The 16/8 Method

There’s a daily approach, known as the 16/8 method. It limits the time you eat to one eight-hour window per day. Skipping breakfast is an easy way to practice this.

The 5:2 Approach

Another option is known as the 5:2 approach. In this model, you eat regularly five days a week. For the other two days of the week, you limit yourself to a single 500 to 600 calorie meal. Jimmy Kimmel famously used this method to lose weight.

The 5 Day System

Another option is to string together five “hungry days” in a row, once a month, eating just 700 total calories during those days. Or you can start by fasting one day a week. Or even 12 hours per week.

The Truth About Fasting

The important thing is to experiment and rediscover real hunger. Sit with it and pay attention.

The research suggests that fasting isn’t any better for weight loss than any other diet that reduces the calories you eat by the same amount.

For example, if you ate 14,000 calories over the course of a week on a normal diet and 14,000 over a week on a fasting diet, you’d lose the same amount of weight.

But many people report that fasting makes it easier for them to control their calories and eat less so they can lose weight.

This is because fasting is simple and straightforward. We don’t have to eat weird new foods we may not like. During the windows where we eat, we don’t have to follow any finicky rules.

The approach respects the idea that food is far more than a survival tool. It often represents a connection to family, community, culture, and identity, and should never be off-limits.

Other Possible Benefits of Fasting

If you don’t want to lose weight, intermittent fasting still provides benefits. One study in Nature found that time away from food dials up the process of “autophagy.” In it, our bodies cull older and weaker cells. These cells are associated with inflammation and various diseases.

This is probably why researchers Johns Hopkins noted that fasting may improve heart health and some performance markers, fend off diabetes, and more.

The Lessons of Hunger

Yes, you’ll probably be hungry if you try fasting. And that’s OK! You’ll likely find that a little hunger isn’t that big of a deal. Learning to deal with the discomfort of hunger is a key to finding a sustainable healthy weight. And if you ever use food as a coping mechanism or overeat in times of stress, learning to manage hunger may help you reset unhealthy patterns.

Numerous cultures and people still incorporate regular fasting into their lives. By intentionally feeling some hunger, you’ll cultivate a more appreciative mindset for the rest of your meals. Hunger is the best sauce. You can also reflect on how difficult it is for those in our world who don’t have easy access to the resources we have.

So embrace hunger every once in a while. You might learn something about hunger, yourself, and even boost your health. What doesn’t kill us often makes us stronger.