Fasting is indeed not a new concept and has been around for centuries, practised both religiously as well as from a practical sense since food was not always as available as it is now. One of the most significant issues that I see with a number of my clients is their constant struggle with the availability and convenience of food. Most of my clients literally have something in their mouths, other than water every 1-2 hours. That sounds like a lot, but when you think of high sugar drinks and snacks between meals you can see how this is easily the case.
From an evolutionary point of view, it doesn’t make sense to eat 5-6 times a day. In the past, we didn’t have an adequate food supply to support such eating habits. We weren’t designed to eat this way. Instead, we have evolved to fasting and then feasting. The human body also has the capacity to turn to stored fat as a source of fuel. This only occurs when you fast long enough or reduce your carbohydrate and sugar intake drastically which causes your body to switch to using stored fat as a supply of fuel. This process is called Ketosis, and it has been used therapeutically to fight certain cancers and treat childhood epilepsy. Recently, this has also been used to elicit fat loss and improve both brain focus and nourishment for bodies. This is possible because the fat-based fuel called ketones produced, as a result, allows for increased focus and concentration for our bodies.
At my practice, The Nutrition Clinic based in Singapore, I have helped hundreds of clients tap into their true hunger cycles. A lot of our decisions around food are being driven by habit, a chemical response to sugar, as well as marketing and social pressures. Once you start to work on your blood sugar levels, it becomes easier to change habits and listen to your true hunger.
Fundamentally, fasting is the absence of food. In other words, whenever you are not eating, you are basically fasting. Fasting allows the body to burn off excess fat. When one does not eat for a while, their body starts to burn off stored fat, a process known as autophagy, a Greek word which literally translates as ‘self-eating’. Most people experiment with fasting as a way to lose weight but Yoshinori Ohsumi, who won the Nobel Prize for the Study of ‘Self-Eating’, published a paper describing how our cells recycle their content. During a period of fasting, cells break down proteins and non-essential components and end up reusing them for energy. Cells also use this time to destroy viruses, bacteria and get rid of any damaged structures. This is why fasting can be useful as a dietary intervention, as long as it is done right.
Some of the benefits we have seen would include the reversal of Type 2 diabetes, increasing energy gain, weight-loss, improvements in brain function and definitely the reduction of sugar cravings. Furthermore, for people with immune system issues such as auto-immune conditions, fasting can also be a way of “resetting” the immune system.
It is beneficial to understand the mechanics of fasting. When we eat, our bodies are unable to fully utilise all of the energy that is produced, so it gets stored for future use. Insulin is the key hormone involved in the storage of food energy. Since there is a rise in Type 2 diabetes in Asia, it is essential to understand how this hormone works. Insulin levels in our bodies rise when we eat to help our bodies store the energy from food in two different ways. Firstly, sugars get linked into long chains called glycogen and then get stored in the liver. The liver can only store so much glycogen, and once it reaches full capacity, it starts to turn the excess glucose into fat. Some of this fat gets stored in the liver, but the majority ends up as stored fat deposits in the body. Essentially, energy from food is stored in two ways whereby one is easily accessible in limited amounts as glycogen and the other as body fat which is harder to access but has an unlimited storage space.
Now picture this in reverse when you don’t eat anything. Insulin does not get released, and this results in the body burning stored energy from fat. Blood glucose levels will also drop as the body starts to use the stored energy. To put it simply, our bodies are either feeding (storing food energy) or fasting (burning stored energy). That is why it is imperative to connect with our true hunger since we have developed a culture of constantly snacking.
Once you start fasting, your body starts to enter into Ketosis, but you will come out of Ketosis the moment you start eating foods that contain carbs. Medium-Chain Triglycerides (MCT) oil, which can be added to coffee, helps get your body into Ketosis faster. This is great for your brain, and even when you eat some carbohydrates after a fasting period, MCT can help keep you in Ketosis.
MCTs are basically a form of saturated fatty acids that have many health benefits. Some of which include improving cognitive functions, aiding in weight-loss as they bypass the metabolic burden of processing in the liver and they are quickly converted into energy in our brain and muscles.
MCT oils are quite complex, and it really is vital to understand the science and labelling behind them to know what you are purchasing before you jump on the hype. Although coconut oil is technically considered an MCT oil and is allowed to be labelled so, it is predominantly made up of lauric acid, which has numerous health benefits but biochemically doesn’t act like an MCT oil in the body as it needs to be converted by the liver first. The other types of fatty acids found in coconut oil actually act as MCTs in your body, but they are in much smaller amounts: caproic, caprylic and capric acid. These don’t need to be processed by the liver and are usually extracted into MCT oil. In order to create some MCT oils, manufacturers use chemical refining that utilises chemicals such as hexane. This is certainly not something you want to pay a premium to consume.
In summary, don’t waste your money on MCT marketed oils unless you are sure of what you are buying. If you don’t fully understand the ingredients, their manufacturing process and how these oils would be processed in the body, I suggest that you should stick to high-quality coconut oil. Also, if you have severe gut issues or gallbladder problems, I don’t recommend you to consume MCT oils because you might find it difficult to cope with MCT (and other) fats. For anyone with a history of cholesterol issues, it is best to work with a practitioner as your cholesterol levels will need to be tracked.
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CEO & Functional Medicine Nutritionist
The Nutrition Clinic