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On a fast track


Intermittent fasting is the latest fad diet but while ongoing scientific research in the West indicates possible benefits, experts in India warn of adverse impact on health.

Anvita Joshi is unlikely to ever advocate fasting as a route to a slimmer figure. The 28-year-old HR executive is still paying for starving herself intermittently while in college. Her body rebelled badly against the regimen, leaving her with damaged hair, vertical ridges on fingernails and, till a couple of years ago, a stomach ulcer.

"I was overweight by 10 kilos and there was so much pressure to look thin in college, " recalls Joshi. "For 2-3 days at a stretch I would just survive on a glass of milk, and maybe some biscuits or a fruit. " She ended up with acute vitamin deficiencies that left her looking visibly ill. "While I did manage to drop a few kilos, I regret doing this to my body, " says Joshi.

Fasting, whatever its frequency, is a widely used weight-loss technique. The fads include fasting once a week, fasting on alternate days, or even fasting over a couple of days of the week. It is propelled by the theory that if eating leads to obesity, then fasting will lead to weight loss. Schoolgirls, college goers and models often resort to these extreme measure.

While current scientific wisdom on fasting says that it is harmful there have been some studies that hint at possible benefits of fasting. Dr Krista Varady of the University of Illinois at Chicago has carried out experiments to study the effects of alternate day fasting - eating what you want one day and then restricting your calorie intake to less than 600 the next day. She ran an eight-week trial comparing two groups of overweight patients on ADF. She found that those who were sticking to their fast days did not exhibit any harmful effects of consuming a high-fat diet on the feed days. British journalist Michael Mosley underwent an improvised version of ADF wherein he fasted for two days and consumed his normal diet on the other five. His tryst with fasting was telecast on the BBC show Eat, Fast and Live Longer. On his fast days Mosley limited his food intake to scrambled eggs, a thin slice of ham and plenty of black tea for breakfast;for rest of the day he survived on cups and cups of herbal tea and topped it with an austere dinner of grilled fish and vegetables. After five weeks of fasting and feasting Mosley lost nearly 6 kg and his blood markers, like glucose and cholesterol, improved. In the show Mosley says: "If I can sustain that, it will greatly reduce my risk of contracting agerelated diseases like cancer and diabetes. " In a 2007 study, research cardiologists at Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in the US revealed an association between fasting and reduced risk of coronary heart disease. Expanding on this study in 2011 the researchers also reported that fasting reduces cardiac risk factors, like triglycerides, weight and blood sugar levels. Dr Benjamin D Horne, principal investigator of the study, explained that fasting prompts the body to burn fat for fuel. "This is important because the fewer fat cells a body has, the less likely it will experience insulin resistance, or diabetes, " Horne told a science news website. While such results are startling, many more studies are needed to validate these outcomes.

Doctors and nutritionist in India strongly advise against fasting as a weight-loss method. "Intermittent fasting or restricting your diet to 600 calories a day or less than that are very harmful for the body, " says Dr Anoop Misra, director and head of department of diabetes and metabolic disease at Fortis hospital in Delhi. He says days of fasting followed by days of eating your normal diet or gorging on carbs in compensation will hardly make any difference to the body's weight.

What exactly happens when you fast? Under normal circumstances the body derives glucose - fuel for body - by breaking down carbs. Glucose is used up chiefly by the brain and for other bodily processes. But when you are fasting, the body is not getting its supply of carbohydrates, so it breaks down glycogen stored in liver for synthesis of glucose. This roughly lasts for 12 hours. If the body is still denied carbs, it attacks stored fat to generate glucose. This leads to loss of body fat. The body will run on stored fat till the stocks last. Then, it attacks muscle mass to create glucose. At this point body enters the dreaded starvation zone.

Pooja Makhija, well-known nutritionist and author of Eat. Delete, insists that people should fast only for religious reasons if at all. "Because there's no other scientific benefit of willingly depriving your body of food, " says Makhija who has counselled Bollywood actors like Vidya Balan, Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone. "You should never keep your body without food for any more than two hours. Following 400-600 calorie diets is a drastic measure and taken up by those for whom weight loss is much more important than good health, " says Makhija.

Unfortunately, there are many who do put looks before health. Fashion models for instance are known for following dangerous weight-loss methods. Adriana Lima, one of the 'Angels' for Victoria's Secret, reportedly, shuns solids and takes only protein shakes nine days before the brand's famous annual catwalk which roughly is watched by 80 lakh people. Two days before the show, she stops having these shakes and survives on copious amounts of water. And 12 hours before she steps out on the runway, she goes completely 'dry'. "When you take no liquids you dry out and sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that, " she tells a news website. The 30-year-old model also follows an intense workout regimen.

Lima's flawless body may justify these extreme measures to a small extent. But unless you too plan to walk the ramp clad in a pair of angel wings and skimpy lingerie it may be best to feed than fast.

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