By Ashby Strauch
After leaving the Marines in 1993, Dr. Bert Herring began working for the National Institutes of Health. His days were busier than ever as he balanced childcare and a full-time job.
One day, he accidentally skipped breakfast because he was running late. He ended up working through lunch as well. To his surprise, he didn’t feel nearly as hungry as he did when he ate breakfast.
The only thing he really felt was that he was doing something wrong because he had been socialized into believing eating three meals a day at certain intervals were necessary to be considered healthy.
Because his appetite was so low, he decided to continue skipping breakfast and lunch as an experiment.
He noticed within a few weeks he was losing weight. For 20 weeks, he fasted, and he lost about one pound a week. He wanted to share his success with the world, so he wrote a book and put it online with free access. Now, parts of the book can still be accessed for free.
Fasting has been a practice for humans for thousands of years, but recently the controversial practice of fasting as a means to lose weight has gained some popularity and acceptance.
There are several different ways to fast as a diet.
Intermittent fasting, also known as the “fast-5” diet, calls for only eating within a 4 to 6 hour window every day while avoiding food for the rest of the day. The fast-5 diet works to correct appetite through a consistent, restricted eating period.
“If appetite weren’t corrected, then people would be hungry all of the time and would have to call on willpower to maintain the fast,” says Dr. Judi Herring, who is Dr. Bert’s wife and also practices and advocates for the fast-5 diet. “Willpower always loses to appetite eventually. Because fast-5 corrects appetite, willpower is not essential. The body’s appetite center does the job it’s supposed to do, so a person doesn’t have to call on willpower.”
While the fast-5 calls for for appetite correction, most modern dieticians and nutritionists suggest to eat small meals throughout the day.
Lisa Shaker-Buyer, a diet coach at Shake It Off!, believes that appetite correction is not the problem, but rather people failing to stay ahead of their hunger by eating small meals or snacks throughout the day.
“Snacking can prevent overeating by curbing appetite rather than correcting it,” says Shaker-Buyer.
But Dr. Bert believes that the frequency humans eat is a recent trend, and the results of this are grim. He attributes this to food corporation’s influence on government-issued health suggestions and studies.
For instance, when the government issued “MyPlate,” a guide for how much fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins a day a person should consume, nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health released the “Healthy Eating Plate” with quite different suggestions. There is a general consensus among nutrition experts that the government is in fact influenced by food corporations through its “healthy” suggestions.
Regardless, other dietitians aren’t convinced that skipping meals leads to healthy eating or weight loss.
“People who skip breakfast are usually the same people who rely on caffeine for energy and are constantly reaching for coffee, energy drinks or sodas just to keep them awake,” says Dr. Megan Shea, a dietician in Orlando, Florida. “If you skip meals, your body is going to crave sugar because it is the quickest form of energy. Skipping meals to cut calories is only going to backfire later in the day. Your body will always win that battle.”
Dr. Bert also cites our ancestors who certainly didn’t consume three meals a day as evidence that a three-meal-a-day lifestyle isn’t healthy.
Dr. Shea also questions why advocates for the fast-5 diet are so ready to cite our ancestors as proof that this diet exists.
“Didn’t a cavemen have an average lifespan of 20 years? Returning to a paleolithic-era diet is nearly impossible for the average person today,” Shea says. “No, the cavemen did not have grass-fed cattle roaming the feeds to make a burger from. Our ancestors mostly ate small mammals–think birds and rodents–and forage that no longer exists today. The broccoli of our ancestors is nothing like the broccoli we eat today, so I think that point is moot.”
But recent studies have discovered health benefits from fasting. One study found that occasional fasting can improve health and even counteract disease processes.
What is the fast-5 diet like?
The fast-5 diet takes about three weeks of dieting in order to see results because the fat gets redistributed into the muscle, but after that, a person who sticks to the diet typically loses about one pound a week, Dr. Bert says.
Dr. Bert generally recommends fasting later in the day because it is easiest for most people, but you can fast for whatever 4 to 6 hour window that you choose. Some people who have fasted during altering times of day still receive the same results.
In order to be fasting, it is necessary to not consume any calories. For people who are avid coffee drinkers, this may pose a slight issue. Sugar and cream in coffee contains calories, so Dr. Bert advises that it is best to use an artificial sweetener to transition to black coffee. Some people, though, are able to drink cream with their coffee in the morning and still fast during the day and lose weight.
The allure of this diet is you can eat what you want during the 4 to 6-hour window because your appetite will be corrected. Other diets require elimination of certain foods, which normally increases people’s desire to eat junk food, Dr. Bert explains.
Dr. Bert believes that even athletes can do the fast diet, but Shaker-Buyer is skeptical.
“I think an athlete needs fuel for his or her body before working out,” Shaker-Buyer says.
When someone expends too much energy without having the proper fuel, Gluconeogenesis occurs, which causes the body to take the muscle for fuel, Shaker-Buyer adds.
“I personally wouldn’t try the diet. I feel that a 4-6 hour window of eating isn’t enough time to get the right amount of calories I need for the exercise I get,” says Megan Paluba. “I run 3 or more miles every day, so I need to have enough calories to keep my body going. Because my diet consists mostly of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and gluten-free products, I would be so worried that I wasn’t eating a right amount for me.”
Although fasting as a means to diet has recently gained popularity, dieticians are still divided on how healthy it really is.
Every person is different, so what works for one person may not work at all for another person. The fast-5 has seen its share of success, but many people are still not able to make the markedly difficult lifestyle shift to fasting.
The fast-5 diet could be suitable for people who can exercise in the evening or for people who are busy with work or school during the morning and afternoon. But for people who live extremely active lives, it would probably be best to avoid skipping meals.
Remember to consult your primary care physician before making any major dietary changes.