The benefits and risks of intermittent fasting

The expert in experimental medicine, Noemí García, studies its effects on circadian cycles and cardiovascular diseases.
illustration of a clock on a plate
The expert answers if it helps to lose weight. (Illustration: Getty Images)

Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern which alternates between eating and not eating. It’s a practice that has undergone a boom recently due to the benefits it generates when it’s done healthily, under medical supervision.

Noemí García, a researcher at the Institute for Obesity Research, says that one of the most common lies surrounding “intermittent fasting” is that it helps people lose weight; in fact, the opposite may be true.

Intermittent fasting for weight loss

Intermittent fasting doesn’t help you lose weight, and it should be performed only for short periods of time (between 1 and 2 months). If it’s done constantly, the body responds to what it sees as a dangerous situation and, far from losing weight, it actually begins to go up,” she explains.

When the body gets used to not having enough food, it prepares itself for this situation and starts to increase its reserve of fatty acids.

What is intermittent fasting?

While there are many benefits of intermittent fasting, the researcher focuses on two: anti-aging and diabetes control. In the first example, mechanisms that protect the body against oxidants activate themselves to protect the body against free radicals that cause cell damage and accelerate aging.

This can also be beneficial for people suffering from Type 2 diabetes, as the progressive damage caused by the disease is delayed. “It helps increase insulin sensitivity, meaning that it allows insulin to work at the cellular level,” says the Tec de Monterrey researcher at Institute for Obesity Research, while emphasizing that intermittent fasting is a practice that must be carried out under medical supervision.

García’s current laboratory research is looking at the benefits that intermittent fasting may have for sufferers of certain types of cardiovascular diseases. The hypothesis behind this research is that ketone bodies are released during fasting, which in balanced amounts could provide a beneficial energy substrate for damaged hearts.

“However, it’s important to control the increase in ketone body production. There is a threshold, and there are negative effects if we exceed it. If we don’t go above the limit, those bodies may also be able to activate useful cellular responses. We’re interested in finding out what that limit is,” explains the specialist.

By undertaking a literature review of the subject, García has come across studies which indicate that fasting also benefits circadian rhythms (the cycle of changes that the body goes through during the day), thereby contributing to better sleep.

There are many different intermittent fasting plans, including those that range from 16 hours of fasting with 8 hours off to 24 hours of fasting followed by 24 hours off. The specialist is clear to emphasize that it’s best to do intermittent fasting under medical supervision, keeping in mind that it won’t help you lose weight. Finally, it must be accompanied by a balanced diet.

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