“When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do.” – Herman Hesse, Siddhartha.
I like that quote. It’s making (non-caloric) lemonade out of lemons, and for all the transcendental insights contained in Hesse’s book, this line strikes me as a really cool, no-nonsense way to make the best out of a bad situation. No doubt about that. But how useful is it, really, to today’s readers? Very few of us ever have “nothing to eat.” On the contrary, food is ever at our beck and call, with very little effort required to obtain it. Actually, that’s not completely true. Processed junk and fast food is readily available, while the good stuff – fresh meat and veggies, actual, you know, food – requires prep work, cooking, time, and the doing of dishes. But the main point stands: we rarely go without.
That doesn’t mean the quote is useless. In fact, with a few slight modifications, it becomes extremely effective weight loss advice. Check out my version:
“When a person has had too much to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do.” – Mark Sisson, Mark’s Daily Apple.
If that sounds harsh or even unrealistic, consider the story of the Scotsman. Back in 1965, an obese Scotsman of 27 years and 456 pounds came to the Department of Medicine in Dundee, Scotland, with a problem. He needed to lose weight. A (1/8 of a) ton of it. The doctors suggested maybe not eating for a few days could help. It was just an offhand recommendation, but our Scotsman (known only as “AB”) really took to it. He stayed at the hospital for several days, taking only water and vitamin pills while undergoing observation to ensure nothing went wrong. When his time was up, he continued the fast back at home, returning to the hospital only for regular monitoring. After a week, he was down five pounds and feeling good. His vitals checked out, blood pressure was normal, and though he had lower blood sugar than most men, he didn’t seem particularly impaired by it. The experiment continued… for 382 days.
Yes, AB fasted for 382 days, drinking only water and taking vitamin, potassium, and sodium supplements. All told, he lost 276 pounds, reaching his target weight of 180 pounds and maintaining the bulk of his weight loss. Over the five following years of observation, AB regained just sixteen pounds, putting him in excellent, but underpopulated territory (at least 80% of dieters eventually regain all the lost weight). Other doctors paid attention. Maybe it was the fact that it was the 60s, and all sorts of crazy stuff was going on – rebellion in the air, good music being made, a war in Vietnam, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters blazing across the U.S. in a beat-up school bus, spreading the good weird word, Kevin Arnold and a young Marilyn Manson coming of age in Anytown, USA – but for whatever reason, placing obese patients on extended and short-term fasts became relatively common practice.
But could this work for the average person looking to lose weight without submitting to constant medical observation?
Absolutely. Study after study shows that whatever you want to call the protocol – intermittent fasting, fasting, alternate day fasting, or alternate day caloric restriction – it works very well for weight loss. A few recent ones:
So, yes: it works. But does fasting work solely through caloric restriction, or is it doing something special?
That’s the real question. There’s no question that fasting causes weight loss through caloric restriction. Obviously, when you don’t eat anything, your body turns to its own stored energy reserves, reserves that take up physical space and have mass. Depletion of those energy stores reduces mass and thus weight. Total and absolute caloric restriction. That’s elementary stuff and the studies from the 1960s show that.
To dig a bit deeper, let’s look at how weight loss occurs during a fast. I’ll stick to research involving humans only (sorry, rodent personal trainers).
Fasting decreases fasting insulin levels. The presence of insulin inhibits lipolysis, the release of stored triglycerides (body fat). Without lipolysis actually releasing stored body fat, it’s rather difficult to, well, burn that body fat for energy. During a fast, fasting insulin decreases and lipolysis increases. This insulin-blunting aspect of fasting quite literally allows the fast to be successful, because without the ability to access stored body fat for energy, making it through a period of zero caloric intake will be nigh impossible.
Fasting improves insulin sensitivity. 20-hour fasts were enough to improve insulin sensitivity in men.
Fasting increases the catecholamines, both adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine). Both catecholamines increase resting energy expenditure during a fast, and guess where your fasting body finds the energy to expend? From body fat. Catecholamines activate hormone sensitive lipase present in adipose tissue, spurring the release of said fat. This makes intuitive sense, doesn’t it? If you’re hungry in the wild, you need to hunt (or gather, or fish, or somehow procure food) and you need energy to do it. The catecholamines help provide some of that energy while burning fat in the process.
Hmm, notice anything? All those mechanisms dealt with fat burning specifically. While there may be some weirdo out there who’s interested in reducing bone mineral density and muscle mass while maintaining fat tissue, I would wager that what most people mean by “weight loss” is “fat mass loss.” From the stuff I just linked, it looks like fasting burns fat, rather than just weight. But what about Conventional Wisdom which claims that fasting increases muscle wasting – maybe because your body will totally recognize the lethal nature of all that arterycloggingsaturated animal fat and choose to break down muscle instead? Is it true?
Let’s go to the research:
In one study, normal weight subjects ate just once a day without reducing overall caloric intake. Weight didn’t change, which isn’t really surprising, but body composition did change – and for the better. Body fat decreased and lean weight increased (in addition to a bunch of other beneficial changes) without an overall reduction in calories.
A recent review of the relevant literature found that while fasting and caloric restriction are “equally as effective in decreasing body weight and fat mass,” fasting is “more effective for the retention of lean mass.”
It appears that fasting “works” in several different ways:
1. It decreases caloric intake. In order to lose weight, you need a caloric deficit. That really isn’t in contention here, folks.
2. It increases fat oxidation while sparing lean mass. Since what we’re trying to do is lose fat (rather than just “weight”), the fact that fasting increases hormones that preferentially burn fat and decreases hormones that inhibit fat burning is extremely desirable.
3. It improves adherence. In most of the studies surveyed, participants found fasting to be an extremely tolerable way to diet, especially when compared to outright caloric restriction. Even AB, the fasting Scotsman, reported very little difficulty throughout his 382 day fast. If fasting is easier for you than trying to laboriously count calories, fasting is going to be the more effective weight – er, fat – loss method.
All in all, fasting is an effective way to lose body fat. It’s not the only way, and it isn’t “required” for Primal weight loss, but many in the community have found it to be very helpful and the literature backs them up. If you’re looking to jumpstart your fat loss, fasting may be just the ticket. To get some ideas, be sure to check out my post on various fasting methods.
In subsequent installments, I’ll highlight some of the other benefits of fasting. There are a ton, and new research is being released all the time, so I expect I’ll have a lot to discuss. Until then, I’d like to hear about your experiences with fasting for fat loss. Has it worked? Has it failed you? Let us know in the comment section!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.