A new look at fasting: Could this strategy curb heart disease and diabetes?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Fasting studied for heart, obesity, diabetes benefits.

Fasting is a part of a regular regimen of health maintenance for many people. But could fasting also help prevent diabetes, heart disease and obesity in the general population?

Preliminary research suggests there are genuine benefits for thwarting all three of the aforementioned health conditions. Based on the findings researchers now plan to explore the role of fasting for preventing and reversing diabetes type 2.

No more calorie counting

Findings published in the British Journal of Diabetes and Vascular Disease suggest alternating days of fasting might have the same results for treating obesity and thwarting heart disease and diabetes as bariatric surgery, but without the cost and risks.

The principle is to eat normally on some days and restrict calories on other days. Fasting for better health can be done every other day or two days a week and may have the same benefits as continuous calorie restriction.

Researchers for the study say intermittent fasting to lose weight is much easier than counting calories. Finding ways to fight obesity means lower risk of metabolic syndrome.

Reducing calorie intake on designated days can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, improved amounts of fat and sugars circulating in the blood stream; reduce oxidative stress and improve metabolism, based on studies.

What do studies show?

Studies in lab animals show fasting does lead to weight loss. In mice, limiting calories prevents diabetes, shown in studies that date back to the 1940s.

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But researchers have not been exactly sure how fasting might benefit overall health in humans. More recent studies show fasting might reverse type 2 diabetes, but it does not work for everyone.

Proponents of fasting say it leads to a longer life.

Researchers for the current investigation that was led by James Brown from Aston University thinks there is indeed evidence that intermittent fasting might improve existing heart disease, prevent onset of new cardiovascular events and keep blood pressure and heart rate lower.

Fatty deposits in the pancreas associated with insulin resistance has also been shown to improve when we fast.

Now the researchers are going to find out if the strategy does work. Brown says human clinical trials are forthcoming to find out what impact fasting has on type 2 diabetes specifically.

“Whether intermittent fasting can be used as a tool to prevent diabetes in those individuals at high risk or to prevent progression in those recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes remains a tantalizing notion and we are currently in preparation for clinical trials to assess the effectiveness of this form of lifestyle intervention in various patient groups,” Brown said in a press release.

Fasting can be as simple as skipping a meal one to two days a week. The notion that intermittent fasting could be good for health and lead to a longer lifespan has been around for thousands of years, but solid research is lacking. Calorie restriction as a way of life is also suggested to help thwart disease, but is too difficult for most people.

Based on the analysis, fasting - restricting calories every other day or just two days a week - might be a strategy that can stop escalating rates of heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. The benefits may be the same as bariatric surgery, but much less invasive and safer.

British Journal of Diabetes & Vascular Disease March/April 2013 vol. 13 no. 2 68-72
doi: 10.1177/1474651413486496
James E. Brown, et al.

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