There’s no escaping the cruel, foremost rule of weight loss: You must eat less, or move more.
This archaic, unforgiving reality is shaped by the laws of thermodynamics themselves, and in an age where food is plentiful, along with lifestyles that require far less activity, this rule has become the bane of dieters everywhere in the current generation.
At least, it was, until it somehow became trendy to effectively starve yourself.
To be fair, that’s a bit of a hyperbole when it comes to fasting for weight loss, the most popular methods of which include intermittent fasting or alternate day fasting (where periods of low/no food intake are followed by periods of the dieter proceeding to gorge themselves), but it should already be somewhat obvious that such an approach has some prominent, potentially devastating pitfalls.
In the simplest of terms, and from the perspective of the exceedingly popular intermittent fasting schedule, these diets consist of a minimum of 16 hours of fasting followed by a sort of feasting phase. Simple, yet effective for weight loss, but is this due to any sort of magic? No, the simple fact of the matter is that it is much easier to eat over three thousand calories during the course of an entire day (and night, for those with the dreaded habit of sleep-snacking!) than it is to consume even two thousand calories during a period of four hours.
First, to get my bias out of the way, along with some of my background, I am looking at this from the perspective of someone who’s spent a lot of time spent researching both nutrition and clinical psychology. I have followed such approaches myself during the height of their resurgence, spending a full two years on an intermittent fasting style diet with two meals consumed in a four-hour window, so I have a fair amount of experience to go along with the information that I have gathered on the subject, and the summation of my experiences has led me to one single conclusion: This type of diet is an effective tool for some, but potentially disastrous for others, and highly unsustainable for most.
Those are strong words, indeed, but the promoters of such diets typically make some extremely radical claims. From the seemingly obvious conclusion of dramatic weight loss, to some who would even go so far as to claim that such a lifestyle can cure or prevent chronic illnesses such as cancer or diabetes, it’s important to point out the other side, which poses some very real dangers.
The first risk that needs addressing is that this type of diet, which is haphazardly recommended to just about anybody nowadays as if it were some sort of holy grail or fountain of youth, is that those with predisposition toward unhealthy eating patterns or mental illnesses should steer clear of such drastic approaches in general. Throughout my experiences working with those who have struggled with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, following such a diet can quickly turn into a scapegoat, just one of many excuses to cover up a relapse, or the replacement of one disordered eating pattern with another.
The other real risk here affects even those with no predisposition or history for either mental illness, or disordered eating patterns (though it could certainly be argued that willing to embark on such a drastic change in diet can be considered being predisposed to disordered eating patterns) and that is the risk of the dieter falling off the wagon, so to speak.
Simply put, eating massive amounts of food in a single sitting while completely abstaining at all other points throughout the day is not socially acceptable, and I would argue that such a practice should never become acceptable, as it would essentially be normalizing a very precarious binging and purging cycle that has already taken the lives and happiness of so many across the globe.
Social norms and stigmas aside, it goes against human nature itself to force back hunger pangs all day when food is so plentiful, and there is no real reason why the pendulum needs to swing so far from eating too much, too far too little. It takes a hefty amount of willpower to follow such a schedule, and those who are able to fast for specific purposes such as religious activities are highly deserving of our respect for this reason among many others, but to expect this cycle of self-sacrifice to be sustainable for the average dieter is unrealistic.
What’s worse is the fact that, while such a diet may indeed prove to be extremely effective for the period of time that it is used, it teaches the dieter absolutely nothing about making nutritious food choices supportive of their desired healthy lifestyle, and it teaches them nothing about the most essential aspect of long-term weight maintenance—portion control.
Does fasting have its benefits? Certainly. There is some preliminary evidence that shows periods of fasting to be highly beneficial for our bodies by mimicking the longevity benefits seen with research on caloric restriction over the long term, along with the fact that so many of those who fast find the experience itself to be both spiritual and energizing in nature.
Those benefits aside, however, the risks and sacrifice necessary to make what was meant to be a short-term experience into a full-blown lifestyle far outweigh the rewards, which can be achieved through a simple, healthy diet composed of whole, unprocessed foods.
In summation, the fasting craze is not entirely undeserving of its spot in prime-time television and magazines, but in the end, it’s just that—the latest craze where what’s old is suddenly “new” again.
In a world full of people looking for quick fixes, these drastic approaches have a tendency to seem like the holy grail, but the unfortunate truth of the matter is that when it comes to true health and wellness, both physically and mentally over the long term, there are no quick fixes.
Fast if you wish, but keep this as food for thought. You’ll need it when the magic finally vanishes.