Is It Good to Starve Yourself Once in a While?

ghandiGhandi went without food for 21 straight days and survived, and there are substantiated reports of individuals going without food for as long as 40 days and surviving.

Starvation, of course, is what happens when your body is denied the food it needs for an extended period, to the point where it is dangerous to your health.  Since all living, multi-cellular organisms are in a constant state of regeneration and degradation (old, dead cells being replaced by newer cells), material is needed to serve as building blocks (proteins, fats); a source of energy is needed to keep this going and to drive the organism’s life processes (carbohydrates, fats and protein); micronutrients are needed to catalyze and support the metabolic pathways and a myriad of other functions in the body (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients); and of course, water is needed to maintain osmotic pressure in the cells which is essential in order for proper cell physiological processes to occur.   A well-balanced diet supplies all of these requirements.

In the event food is not available, the body has energy storage in the form of glycogen (stored glucose) in the liver and skeletal muscles; and of course its own protein and fat composition.

But are there times when you should purposefully starve yourself temporarily (but continue to stay hydrated) in order to lose weight?

The answer is no; it’s not worth the risk.  Starvation, while it can force the body to burn fat stores, increases the risk of heart attack and organ failure.

But that doesn’t mean the idea of going without food is bad in itself.   After all, when you metabolize food, harmful byproducts called free radicals (reactive oxygen species) are created that, some researchers believe, are the source of aging (animals with high metabolism such as mice have short lifespans, while animals with slower metabolism have longer lifespans).   Free radical generation from “burning calories” contained in food is somewhat analogous to generating carbon monoxide by burning gasoline in a car engine.

While your body has natural defenses like glutathione, peroxidases and polyphenols to neutralize reactive oxygen species, not all are neutralized.  Free radicals “rip” electrons from cells and can cause a chain reaction, adversely altering their structure and therefore function.   The accumulation of free radical damage is called oxidative stress, which is basically what happens when metals exposed to air turn into rust.   Yes, your body can rust in its own way!

Lab results show that drastically cutting food intake can nearly double longevity (lifespan) in rodents, worms, and flies; and a massive 20-year study on rhesus monkeys, a species closely related to humans, found that the benefits of the diet seem to be universal: a resistance to cancer, heart disease, and age-related cognitive decline.

The key is to find that “sweet spot” where you are eating an amount to keep your body healthy while minimizing free radical generation.   Frequently munching on snacks throughout the day and eating big, over-sized portions comprised of high-calorie foods (standard American diet) are two good ways to generate a lot of free radicals inside your body and will put you on a fast track to aging.

The way to eat well and minimize free radical generation is to fast occasionally (about once a month for 1-2 full days), and frequently engage in intermittent fasting, where you don’t eat for up to 18 hours.  For the two day fasts, you can choose to do vegetable juice fasts or clear broth fasts instead (no solid food, no added sugar) if you are not up to doing the real thing.

For intermittent fasting, since it is a shorter time interval, make it a complete (no food whatsoever) fast (except water).

Fasting has the following benefits:

1.  Increases your insulin receptor sensitivity, which means your pancreas do not have to produce as much after a meal and as a result there is less circulating insulin.  Insulin’s main function is to enable glucose to enter the cell for energy extraction.  Persistently high levels of insulin, which is common in Type 2 diabetics, prevent the body from burning fat.

2.  Promotes weight loss in the overweight and obese.   Calorie deprivation kick start the metabolic pathway of ketogenesis where your body burns fat stores and produces energy molecules called ketones for energy.

3.  Increases the production of human growth hormone (HGH) and as a result,

4.  Promotes muscle mass (leaner body)

5.  Improves cognition, guards against cognitive decline (Alzheimer’s, dementia)

6.  Protects against heart disease; atherosclerosis

7.  Protects against cancer by denying potential cancer cells glucose, their preferred fuel source

So, the bottom line is don’t “starve” yourself; instead make fasting/ intermittent fasting a normal part of your routine.

If you don’t like the idea of doing a full fast, you can at least do intermittent fasting.  A popular method of intermittent fasting is to have your last meal of the day at 6 or 7 PM, sleep through the night, skip breakfast (don’t worry; it’s not as important as they say!) and have your first meal of the day around noontime.  That’s about an 18 hour fast.

By late morning, especially if you exercise, you should have burned through most of your glucose from the previous day and glycogen stores, and be in a state of ketogenesis where you are now burning body fat for fuel.   Another way to view this approach is to eat only between the hours of 12 noon to 6:00 PM each day.  It makes things a lot easier.

If you are in need of burning fat and losing weight and have not had any success to this point, see the Optimal Body System Weight Loss Program, which incorporates intermittent fasting.

 For more information on calorie restriction, check out The Calorie Restriction (CR) Society.

Posted in Nutrition.