Public health officials concerned about the epidemic of diabetes and pre-diabetes have focused on weight loss through exercise and healthy eating. A new study suggests that routine water-only fasting one day a week can pull cholesterol out of the fat cells.
How Could Intermittent Fasting Help?
There have been several studies of alternate-day fasting as a way of achieving weight loss or blood sugar control (Metabolism, Jan., 2013; Nutrition Journal, Nov. 12, 2013; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nov., 2009). In most of these studies, people eat dramatically less (but still something) on the fast day. The body’s adaptation to fasting seems to be beneficial in many respects.
Researchers at the Intermountain Heart Institute had observed that people who regularly fasted had a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease. As a result, they enrolled healthy subjects and people with prediabetes and metabolic syndrome in this clinical trial.
During the 24 hours of the zero-calorie fast, blood cholesterol levels rise. But with periodic water-only fasting once weekly over six weeks, cholesterol levels actually fell slightly. The individuals with pre-diabetes also lowered their insulin resistance. The study volunteers included both obese and normal-weight people. They lost an average of three pounds during the study.
The scientists presented their findings at the American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions, in San Francisco on June 14, 2014. They don’t appear to have published them in the intervening two years.
Instead, they published a comprehensive review trying to determine whether therapeutic fasting regimens have clinical benefits for patients (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Aug., 2015). They concluded that more high-quality research is needed before fasting (intermittent or otherwise) can be recommended as a health intervention.
The People’s Pharmacy Perspective:
Water-only fasting once a week sounds like an interesting tactic to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of progressing from pre-diabetes to diabetes. Other scientists have shown that intermittent energy restriction changes insulin responses and the way the body handles lipids following a meal (British Journal of Nutrition, March 28, 2016). This might explain the results that the Utah researchers found.
If you think about human evolution, it makes sense that periodic fasting would be tolerable if not actually beneficial. Over the course of millennia, our forebears often encountered periods when they would have little or nothing to eat for a day or two.
In pre-diabetes, blood sugar is elevated, but still falls below the cut-off for a diagnosis of diabetes. We discuss other ways to ward off diabetes or reduce the likelihood of complications in our Guide to Managing Diabetes. You will also find a number of methods to reduce blood fats in our Guide to Cholesterol Control and Heart Health.