Yesterday, I covered why fasting is stigmatized as “starving” by science, and several definitions of fasting and starvation. Today, I shall look at the myths and realities of this extremely beneficial lifestyle. For sure, more scientists and institutions like Mark Mattson at the National Institute of Health need to study fasting to shed light on and de-stigmatize the practice, and people interested in their health should view all research done by food and pharmaceutical companies and propagated by its lackeys, witting and unwitting, as suspect.
Myth #1: Starvation mode is automatically bad because it has “starvation” in the name!
Actually, the body goes through a process when its energy supplies are curtailed. Whether we intentionally fast or unintentionally starve, our body conducts the same procedures to keep it performing at an optimal level. Truth be told, our bodies perform at a higher level without a sufficient energy source. A mechanism evolved in our species over millions of years in order to make us better food searchers and finders. Scientists dubbed this bodily progression the “starvation mode” because at the time they were studying the effects of starvation on the human body. Dubious peoples and ignorant peoples use the name to deceive the public into thinking that fasting harms us. The starvation mode has other names, fat adaptation, adaptive thermogenesis, metabolic adaptation, but there is no better way to scare a person than to call it “starvation mode.” This moniker ensures that you will never skip a meal.
In the beginning phases of energy deprivation the body simply adapts and starts to clean itself and get rid of toxins and debris. During fat adaptation or metabolic adaptation, the body finds other ways to fuel its metabolic functions. Initially, the body burns through glucose (the main fuel for the body and brain) and has to find alternate sources of fuel. In the absence of glucose, the body uses fatty acids and amino acids to form glucose and ketones as fuel.
One of these fuels is D-beta-hydroxybutyrate: “Recent studies have shown that D-beta-hydroxybutyrate, the principal “ketone”, is not just a fuel, but a “superfuel” more efficiently producing ATP energy than glucose or fatty acid” (Ketoacids? Good medicine?). In other words, the body starts to work more efficiently. One actually has more energy when fasting.
Myth #2: The body will cannibalize itself if we skip a meal, and within 1-2 weeks of fasting many people will die!!
Within the first 72 hours of energy deprivation, whether fasting or starving, the body turns to adipose tissue (fat cells) for fatty acids and the muscles for amino acids to make glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis (gluco=sugar, neo=new, genesis=make). And the fasting naysayers yell, “So the body is eating its muscles, OMG! Don’t skip a meal, or you will die!” This is absolutely false.
Without getting too scientific, the muscles contain pyruvic acid a molecule, which supplies energy to the cells, and which it uses, in the absence of glucose, to make alinine, an amino acid. The alinine along with glutamine, a free amino acid which the body uses to grow new muscle fiber, go to the liver, are transformed into glucose, through gluconeogenesis, and the newly made glucose goes back to the muscles to supply them with energy. Both pyruvic acid and glutamine sit around in the muscle just waiting to be used, during feast and during famine. This process only lasts for a short time during the first 72 hours.
You see, your body does not begin to cannibalize itself in the beginning stages of fasting or starvation. According to Sarah C. Couch, an Associate Professor of Nutrition at the University of Cincinnati, “As long as water is available, a normal weight person can fast for one month maintaining relatively normal system and immune function.” After four weeks of food deprivation, the human body turns to the consumption of actual muscle fiber to fuel vital systems and keep the person alive. Only people intent on you not fasting and being healthier tell you myth #2, that the body eats its own muscles as soon as you stop eating. Now, you know better. (NOTE #1: Here at Fast and Fit with Mark and Jacie, we do not recommend a long-term fast of longer than three days without coaching by someone who has gone through the process and can help you cope, and we do not recommend a prolonged fast of longer than seven days without the supervision of a medical professional well versed in the practice of fasting.)
If I see a starving person, I will say that his body must be in starvation mode. A person’s body, which belongs to a person who suffers from anorexia nervosa, manorexia, or bulimia, is in starvation mode; however, when I describe my body when I fast, I shall refer to fat adaptation or metabolic adaptation.
Myth #3: We lose cognitive functioning when we go on “starvation diets”!!!
This may happen in the later stages of fasting and starvation; however, Mark Mattson of the National Institute of Health discusses the exact opposite, increased cognitive functioning with intermittent fasting, in his TEDx Talk at John Hopkins University entitled Why Fasting Bolsters Brain Power. He examines the complex chemical reactions in the brain, which happens during calorie restriction and intermittent fasting. I feel better physically while I fast and much clearer mentally. There is absolutely no basis in this myth about cognitive decline during short-term fasting.
If people talk about starving or “starvation diets,” be aware that they have probably never skipped a meal ever in their lives. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing everything they say, just be aware that they may have misconceptions about fasting.
Please do your own research about fasting and starvation, and be aware of the difficulties of fasting and the importance of breaking a fast correctly. (NOTE #2: Fasting if done improperly or for too long can result in starvation and death. Please, use caution.)
In a future post, I will discuss exactly what happens to the body during a fast and during starvation.