Dieting vs Fasting—The Proof is in Your Hormones

Dieting vs Fasting—The Proof is in Your Hormones by Dr. Andrew Rudin MD

We often hear weight loss referred to as a “journey,” and boy is that accurate. Losing weight can be a mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting endeavor. There are ups and downs, doubts and fears, and sweet moments of triumph. But can’t we make this journey a little… easier?

This all too common narrative stems from the fact that we approach weight loss with biologically challenging techniques. What’s the first thing anyone does when they want to lose weight: they start a diet. The problem is, dieting may not actually be the best way to go about achieving weight loss.

Sure, eating healthy, fresh, nutrient rich food is going to be WAY better for your overall health, but couple it with caloric deprivation and you’ve set yourself up with a whole new obstacle standing in your way of losing weight: your body thinks it’s starving.

When we deprive our bodies of too many calories, they actually begin to shut down and go into what’s commonly referred to as “starvation mode.” It seems completely counterintuitive to the narrative we have been told about weight loss (Eat less calories, lose weight, right? Wrong.) In reality, dieting simply will never result in long term, maintainable weight loss.

Unfortunately, our brains are trained (through millions of years of evolution) to see a long-term lack of calories as a threat (namely, there’s not enough food for us to eat!) Our bodies then respond to this perceived lack of resources by burning less calories in order to preserve the existing energy we have already acquired. Why do you think you feel tired, groggy, and moody when you’ve been on a diet for a few weeks? It’s because your body is trying to encourage you to rest as much as possible in order to preserve the energy it needs to survive. Our bodies are wired to be more concerned about trying to prevent starvation than helping us get into that smaller pair of jeans.

You’re probably wondering now, if dieting isn’t the answer… what is?

How about instead of focusing on how much to eat, let’s ask ourselves when/if we should eat at all? I’m talking about intermittent fasting.

Fasting has been around for ages. In fact, cultures around the world have been practicing this healing tradition for centuries, but popular media is just beginning to pick up on how beneficial intermittent fasting can be for your body.

Normally, you eat food in regular intervals, your digestive system breaks down that food, glucose gets released into your bloodstream, and that glucose serves as fuel for your body. It’s predictable, consistent, and your body is great at keeping up this status quo.

When we don’t eat for prolonged periods of time, between 6-24 hours after eating our body begins to burn any excess glucose (called glycogen) stored in the liver for fuel. Once that extra fuel storage gets used up, our body goes after another fuel source: fat.

The problem with dieting is we may initially see small decreases in weight (usually in the beginning of a diet, followed by a plateau), but as anyone who has ever gone on a diet will tell you, the second you stop that diet, you begin gaining it back. Why?

Think about it: you’ve told your body there’s a sustained lack of food and it needs to slow down it’s energy use if it wants to survive, so it does, and then you decide to stop your diet. You begin feeding your body what should be a normal intake of calories for maintaining your weight, but what you’ll notice is that you actually gain weight faster than you did pre-diet. Your body is no longer as efficient as it once was at burning calories, and ultimately, your metabolism may never fully recover to it’s original efficiency level.

When we intermittently fast, yes our bodies perceive a caloric deprivation for that day, but it is not long-term enough to send our bodies into “starvation mode.” Our bodies burn extra glucose and fat for the day. Then after we fast, we feed ourselves our normal caloric intake, and our bodies are reassured that there are plenty of resources available.

Contrary to what we might think, fasting isn’t dangerous, and it isn’t the symptom of some kind of eating disorder. When done responsibly, it’s actually one of the most natural means of weight loss that people have been using for thousands of years.

One common myth people spread about fasting is that the body will start burning muscle instead of fat, but the science just doesn’t support that. In one study in which subjects fasted on alternate days for 70 days, researchers saw an average decrease in body mass of 6 percent, an average decrease in body fat of 11.4 percent, but no change in muscle mass. Our bodies have adapted to utilize our fat deposits to survive.

Another concern people have about fasting is that it will make their energy levels drop, making it difficult to perform at work. This is also a myth, and actually the opposite is true: your basal metabolic rate goes up. It also lowers your blood sugar which can help prevent diabetes by better control insulin (the fat-regulating hormone.)

What we have learned is that obesity is not really about calories at all, it’s about hormones, and what those hormonal releases are signaling to your body.

Want to give fasting a try? Here are some tips to get started.

  • Start fasting 1 day a week in which you skip eating for one 24-hour period
  • If you feel like skipping food might be psychologically difficult, eat dinner at night, then opt out of breakfast and lunch the next day. This allows you to eat something every day, while still abstaining for a full 24 hours.
  • While you fast, drink green tea, water with lemon, and/or coffee. Also make sure to consume 2 liters of water. This will help boost that metabolism even more and keep you hydrated.
  • If you’re new to fasting and feel like you need somethings to tide you over, try having some bone broth to replenish the salt your body. This will help stave off any unwanted headaches due to low sodium levels, and give you the sensation of consuming something small.
  • When it’s time to end your fast, prepare a healthy dinner of lean meat, low fat proteins, and fresh fruits/vegetables. Don’t eat a huge burger to “reward” yourself for not eating.

The first fast is the toughest, but it gets easier as your body (and mind) adapts. Once you understand the hormonal benefits of fasting and the hormonal damage of dieting, you’ll begin looking at eating and your body in a whole new way.

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