Can you fast your way to wellness?
Is it possible to run marathons on empty? A new cookbook author says you can supercharge your body by fasting
The idea of intermittent fasting has been very much on the radar the past few years, but one could make the case that it's never been off it. Dr Michael Mosley's 'Fast Diet' may have popularised the 5:2 way of eating (you consume 500 kcal on two days of the week and eat normally the other five), but the practice of fasting - whether through necessity or choice - and its purported health and spiritual benefits, dates back to primitive times.
As well as weight loss, advocates of intermittent fasting claim other advantages including better-balanced blood sugars and a feeling of mental clarity on fast days. A recent study at the University of South California found that fasting for five days a month reduced inflammation levels, cardiovascular risk factors and total body fat, but not muscle mass, all of which are indicators for increased longevity.
Of course 5:2 isn't the only way to fast. Another approach is 16:8, with a 16-hours gap between fasting and eating where much of the fast time is spent sleeping, which means a dinner at 7pm and breakfasting the next day at 11am.
The two common fears for anyone considering intermittent fasting is that they'll be ravenous on fast days, and that they'll have to eat uninspired, limited low-cal foods. Lee Holmes, Australian author of a new book called Fast Your Way to Wellness says this doesn't have to be the case. The certified holistic health coach, yoga teacher and wholefoods chef, who is behind the best-selling Supercharged Food book series, has written a manual and cookbook which is based around real ingredients and unprocessed food, and makes 5:2 accessible and delicious.
Her own wellness journey began when she was diagnosed at the age of 42 with the autoimmune disease fibromyalgia, which causes widespread pain and fatigue. Tweaking her diet to help repair her gut improved her symptoms dramatically and she now manages the condition through diet and lifestyle, with no medication.
When she became menopausal - Holmes turns 50 later this year - she started putting on weight, despite not doing anything differently in terms of food and maintaining her normal amount of exercise.
Not wanting to go down the fad diet route, she researched intermittent fasting but found that many of the recipes for fast days included ingredients she would never use, like artificial sugars.
"I started out creating whole food fasting recipes so it's still intermittent fasting where you're having 500kcal for women and 600kcal for men, but you're doing it with foods that really satiate you so you don't get all the craving that you traditionally get when you do intermittent fasting," she explains.
"I included more good fats like avocados and lots of good protein-rich sources and, obviously, lots of veggies, as well as herbs and spices to make things taste really good. The recipes are very simple and easy because I like simple and easy recipes."
The book contains an ingredient calorie guide, meal plans, and recipes. Certainly dishes like steak with caramelised onions (269 kcal) and baked apple pancake (83 kcal) sound like no hardship, whether you're fasting or not. It also has suggestions on dealing with cravings by using acupressure or adding a small sweet potato or parsnip to meals if you're longing for starchy carbs, as well as advice on portion control.
"As a culture, we're very geared towards snacking. When you're snacking constantly and told you have to eat every two hours to keep your blood sugar levels stable, your body is never allowed to get into fat-burning mode, regenerate your body, or get back into balance," she says.
Holmes has been doing intermittent fasting for four years now and reels off the benefits she's experienced. "I notice that after a fast day, I fell like my brain is really on fire. I can do a week's worth of work in a day and I feel really switched on mentally. Obviously I've lost those five extra kilos I put on during menopause and that was a good thing. It also gives the gut a rest and that's what I really love about it."
Mondays and Thursdays are when she fasts and she likes to look upon these as self-care days. "Many of us don't really look after ourselves properly so going to bed early and having a bath is a great way to survive the day," she says. "The other good thing is that you can change the days you fast and it's not set in stone. If you do have a social event on, you can change your fasting day to the next day." For non-fasting days she recommends lots of plants, good quality protein and high quality fats.
She does warn, however, that beginners may find it tough, at least initially.
"I'll be honest, the first two weeks are really hard when you first start fasting, but once you incorporate it into your life and not make it a diet but a lifestyle thing, it becomes really easy. You just need to get your body into that fat-burning mode. Once you do, you feel so good on a fast that you just want to continue it. I look forward to fasting each week."
Exercise isn't out of the question on fast days. While Holmes prefers to stick to gentler forms like walking and yoga, she knows people who can literally run on empty and do marathons. For anyone considering intermittent fasting but feeling unsure, she suggests starting slowly by delaying breakfast and having dinner at 6pm, one day a week.
"You will notice the benefits even from that. It doesn't have to all be done in one go, it's not something that you have to take up and get religious about. You can just do it on your own time when you feel like it."
Fast Your Way to Wellness by Lee Holmes (Murdoch Books, €21) is out now
Lee's sample fasting menus
Lee's sample workday fasting menu for women: 494 kcal
Breakfast: Mexican scrambled eggs (180 kcal)
Lunch: Tomato-stuffed courgette canoe with avocado tahini dressing
Dinner: Moroccan quinoa chicken
Lee's sample workday fasting menu for men: 590 kcal
Breakfast: Veggie-rich egg muffin (89 kcal)
Lunch: Tuna lettuce wrap (203 kcal)
Dinner: Garlicky veggie pasta