Who would have thought the secret to working more efficiently lies in a practice thousands of years old?
Hailed as a practice that can lead to living longer to curing diabetes; Intermittent Fasting or “IF” has recently gained more popularity as celebrities such as BBCs Mike Mosely and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Phil Libin have espoused the benefits of routinely fasting. Like many Asians, I was brought up constantly praised and encouraged to eat voluminously and frequently – so when I first heard about fasting over 4 years ago I was naturally sceptical.
But I first started experimenting with fasting after reading “Eat Stop Eat” written by Brad Pilon in 2015. Although he presented some interesting body composition data supporting the benefits of fasting it was some fairly simple anecdotes and logic that initially appealed to me. Firstly, fasting is one of the oldest practices followed by many religions suggesting that there is some benefit associated with it.
Secondly, before the age of modern medicine both Hippocrates and Paracelsus, a German-Swiss physician, advocated and prescribed fasting as a way to a healthier life and cure certain illnesses. Thirdly, ‘eating three meals a day’ is a relatively recent phenomenon and even the Romans are understood to have only eaten once a day. That said, the food industry is one of the largest global industries and how we eat is potentially driven more by marketing and the need for growing profits and revenues than human necessity.
Fasting then had a natural appeal to me as there appeared to be very little monetary incentive to promote it. The concept is relatively simple, abstain from eating. This does not require detailed explanations, a special diet or any equipment whatsoever. There was nothing to purchase at all or any medicine or tests to prescribe.
This indeed could be one of fasting’s greatest limitations to widespread adoption – the fact that it is very hard for anyone to make money out of it! Take for example the use of fasting to treat medical disorders – from diabetes to obesity. How willing would you be to pay a doctor to simply tell you that your best medicine would be to abstain from food regularly?
So my journey in fasting began half out of curiosity and half from relishing a challenge of something I had never done before. As someone who ‘lives to eat’ and used to believe that not eating regularly could induce stomach cramps and hunger to the extent of hospitalisation, I was slightly fearful. But surprisingly I got through my first 24 hours from dinner to dinner the next day with relative ease, simply drinking plain water when I felt hungry. I practiced this once a week from 2015 to the end of 2016.
Then in 2017, I decided to step up my practice moving from doing 1 x 24 hour fast a week to 2 – which I generally do every Monday and Thursday. This time I tracked some high-level body weight, composition and size metrics and in the period of 9 months, I lost around 7 kgs, reduced my waist to just under 30 inches and my body fat from 16.0 per cent to around 12 per cent. I did this all while continuing my regular Ironman training clocking in some of the best 70.3 times I have ever done yet with less training.
Experiencing both mental and weight-control benefits I was curious about the medical research that had been done on fasting. So I read a book by Dr. Jason Fung, a Canadian doctor, who had conducted research into the health impact of fasting and uses therapeutic fasting to cure type II diabetes.
The science behind fasting
According to the research regular fasting can have the same impact as caloric restriction which in mice has been shown lead to longer life. In addition IF also has the benefit of inducing a ketogenic state in the body. By allowing the body to run through all of its ready glycogen stores our body switches to stored fat to create energy. In the process of burning fat chemicals ketones are released into the bloodstream. Ketones trigger the release of a molecule BDNF in the brain which can build and strengthen neurones contributing to brain health. Ketones can also reduce inflammation, blood pressure and a hormone known as IGF-1 all of which has been shown to have an association with longer life and less age-related disease.
So how does one do it? There are a variety of approaches such as BBC medical journalist Michael Mosely’s 5:2 approach which includes fasting 2 days with a small <500 calorie meal in between to alternate day fasts and eating within a window of 4-8 hours each day. Personally, I have found fasting every Monday and Thursday, which also happens to be the Muslim fasting routine, from dinner to dinner (a Monday fast would mean not taking any calories from Sunday after dinner until Monday start of dinner) to work best for me.
Beyond the researched health and physiological benefits, I’ve found fasting to also help reinforce a regular discipline in my weekly routine. This includes reinforcing discipline in my exercise (I continue to train during my fast days) as well as my work routine. Finally, after going through several hours of ‘feeling hungry’ on Monday and Thursday I feel immense gratitude when I break my fast. I’ve found fasting to be super flexible (if I have work lunches I simply switch my fast days). It costs nothing and saves time as I can work through meal times on my fast days. For busy entrepreneurs it’s not unusual to end up missing meals now and then but doing it purposefully and benefiting from regular fasting is an additional bonus. In fact, several of our portfolio founders and our team members have taken it up as well.
The hardest part was getting started and overcoming years of habitual eating but for me since starting 4 years ago I’ve not looked back and have found fasting to be as necessary a part of the week as eating.
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