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Posted on: Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

Categories: Diet, Exercise, Fitness, Nutrition

Imagine if you could stay young and fit and live a longer life with no extra cost, pills or    surgery? According to recent research this is not only possible, but easy as most of the time you can eat exactly what you would like. The answer is fasting and we are not talking about eating nothing for 40 days and 40 nights. Just reducing your calorie intake to 25% of what you would normally consume for 2 days a week and eating exactly what you like the rest of the time (and that includes burgers and cream cakes!) is enough to get great results.

Genes play a part in longevity and obviously, there’s nothing we can do about that, but lifestyle accounts for up to 70% in determining how long we live for. There are plenty of people who stay young and fit beyond the average lifespan and most achieve this through the traditional methods of eating healthily and exercising regularly. These two lifestyle habits are highly recommended by Personal Trainers because the benefits are enormous in terms of health, so we are not condoning eating junk food constantly or turning into a couch potato.  However, from recent research it does seem that you don’t need to continually restrict your diet or spend hours in the gym to lose weight, maintain a healthy weight and protect yourself from obesity related health conditions such as cardio-respiratory diseases, diabetes and certain types of cancer in order to live longer.

Scientists all over the world have been studying ageing and life expectancy for decades and some surprising statistics have triggered some fascinating theories. Over 8 decades ago, research at Cornell University in the USA found that if you severely restrict the amount animals eat, they live longer. Could this be true of humans? The great depression of the 1930’s meant that a vast number of people didn’t have enough to eat as food was so scarce in the dust bowl of the USA. With such hard physical times surely life expectancy would have been lower? Surprisingly from 1929-1933 people lived an average of 6 years longer than they would have done in more bountiful times.

Professor Luigi Fontana, the associate director of the Longevity Research Program at Washington University is investigating this theory. He notes that men who consume a highly nutritious diet with less than 1900 calories a day are much healthier in various ways than their gorging counterparts.  These CRONies as they are fondly called (Calorie Restriction Optimal Nutrition) have superior balance and a faster reaction time than those with a higher calorie intake.  Furthermore, the CRONies only have 11% body fat which is equivalent to that of athletes.  With such a low percentage of body fat Professor Fontana maintains that there is only a million to one chance of developing strokes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.  40% of deaths in the UK and the USA are due to these fat related health conditions, so keeping the proportion of body fat to a minimum is certainly worth working towards.

One of the world’s leading experts on ageing, Professor Valter Longo has investigated fasting as an effective way of decreasing the proportion of body fat as well as reducing the production of insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) which is also linked with longevity. It seems that people with exceptionally low levels of this hormone which is similar to insulin, are protected against cancer, cardio-vascular diseases and diabetes. Too much of this chemical sends the body into what Professor Longo terms ‘go go’ mode where our cells are urged to grow, so don’t have enough time to repair themselves resulting in DNA damage. If we cut calories and protein intake our glucose and IGF-1 levels are lower and this occurs in just 24 hours through fasting.

Professor Longo advocates a four day fast, but obviously this could be very dangerous and is not recommended without supervision by a GP or the guidance of a personal training consultant. Positive long term effects can only be achieved if the general diet followed is a lower protein, plant based one with a four day fast every couple of months.

Further research has investigated more manageable ways of achieving the same results since a four day fast probably isn’t what most people would want to do. Subjects consumed just 25% of what they normally ate (400-500 calories for women and 500-600 for men) twice a week and ate whatever they liked the rest of time. Surprisingly, they did not want to gorge themselves on 175% of their normal calorie intake on non-fast days, so their LDL cholesterol and triglycerides decreased over a 6 month trial period. Interestingly, this alternative day fasting group (ADF) had better results than people who simply ate fewer calories regularly.

Fasting doesn’t just help with weight control and the protection against certain diseases it also has cognitive advantages and limits neurodegeneration. Fasting puts off the onset of Alzheimer’s and Mark Maxim in Baltimore found that sporadic bouts of hunger generated the growth of new brain cells. It seems that fasting has the same positive effect on the brain as exercising has on the body. If we examine our distant past and think about our hunting gathering ancestors, food would not be consistently abundant as it is for most people in the West today.  There would have been many periods of time when food would have been scarce and it would have been essential for the mind to be sharp enough to remember where the best food sources were and how to go about locating new ones. Physical health would need to match this functioning in order to catch or pick food. With this evolutional development serving as an advantage in survival it makes sense that a period without food will still have a positive effect on modern humans. Research certainly suggests this is the case and intermittent fasting with regular exercise could be the health revolution needed to prevent the obesity related time-bomb from exploding worldwide and costing nations billions in unnecessary health care.