.Fast and Curious

You’ve probably heard the advice to eat “multiple small meals for better digestion,”  the grab-and-go mantra food stores today thrive on. After all, why not graze your way through the day, staying never too hungry, never too full and always just right?

This logic made sense to me too, because who has time for sit-down meals anymore? I blamed any digestive issues on stress, anxiety or both. Then I studied the basics of Ayurveda, an ancient holistic healing system designed to balance mind, body and spirit through natural remedies and lifestyle practices.

I learned that our digestive system prefers to fully process one meal before starting another. Candidly speaking, if your elimination patterns are all over the place, it’s likely your digestion is too. So I ditched my grazing ways and began spacing out snacks and meals by four or more hours.

The results? A noticeable improvement in my digestion. That was four years ago and the practice is a new norm, and not just for me. According to one recent source, 10% of American adults regularly practice intermittent fasting.

A comprehensive review of intermittent fasting science from the New England Journal of Medicine finds fasting is deeply rooted in our evolutionary biology.

Researchers analyzed dozens of studies demonstrating how fasting can improve digestion, boost metabolism, reduce blood sugar levels, support weight loss and decrease inflammation…the list of benefits goes on.

But, before you set the timer to schedule your next meal, here’s some essential advice from three local experts.

I first met Rebecca Hazelton over 15 years ago, when she was a fitness instructor at a gym in downtown Santa Cruz. Now she is a licensed nutritionist and the founder of Choosing Health Now. I found her profile while researching this column and was impressed by everything she’s accomplished since then.

When we reconnected for this interview she told me, “I define intermittent fasting differently—the popular model is 16 hours. But it doesn’t have to be 16; it can range from 12 to 16. Our microbiome needs at least 12 hours for the bacteria to do a proper fermentation. It also helps reduce overeating.”

In general, she says, people tend to eat too frequently and take in too much food. There’s no time for the digestive tract to rest. Rather than following rigid guidelines, it’s better to listen to your body. Though rules or guidelines help some people, we need to pay attention to our bodies as well.

“It takes time to acclimate to a change in eating habits, but you can take it one step at a time, maybe stretching the window by 30 minutes or an hour to start, then see how you feel after a few weeks,” she suggests. “Always listen to your body and decide if it’s working for you.”

Pushing too hard can create unhelpful stress, she notes. “Everyone is different. Some clients feel better right away; others feel bad at first and then end up feeling better. So don’t take a cookie-cutter approach. Ultimately, listen to your body.”

Beau Jansen, a nutrition counselor at Santa Cruz Core, offers a slightly different perspective. He says, “You can think about fasting as something we all do every day—in the course of 24 hours we don’t eat while we’re sleeping, so from the last time we eat at night until we eat in the morning, we’re fasting.”

He explains, “Intermittent fasting has been shown in research to have health benefits. It’s gained a lot of popularity in the last 10 years—but I hear people talking about it a lot more recently. I’d say the faddishness has increased.

“That said, I’m not a huge fan of a one-size-fits-all approach. I’m more into adapting to whatever that individual needs.”

On the other hand, he says, “Let’s say someone goes to the city and has a wild weekend full of alcohol and cheeseburgers; it’s true they may feel better if they skip a day of eating after going 10 rounds with Jose Cuervo.”

Jansen says therein lies the challenge; it can become a kind of a binge-and-starve pattern, adding that some people think if they fast, they can eat anything they want. It’s a common misinterpretation, so the quality of nutrition overall goes downhill.

He points out that humans are predisposed to crave fat, sugar and salt—hence the allure of over-processed food. He says an unbalanced diet can create cravings that are hard to ignore.

Another challenge he sees with intermittent fasting is the possibility of losing muscle mass and bone density, explaining, “They’ll technically be losing weight, but they’re becoming skinny fat, because they’re not building their metabolism.”

But for some people, he says, “it can be great, super helpful, do great things, but it’s on a case-by-case basis.”

Jansen agrees with the other nutritionists about the benefits of giving the system a rest, but then adds, “I remind people to recognize when there’s a nutrition fad and be cautious about jumping in. The best thing to do is track how your body responds, both subjectively and objectively. Get the metrics, be a scientist; do an experiment, track it and see if it works.”

On the flip side of the fad coin, Manish Chandra, an Ayurvedic doctor and the founder of Santa Cruz Ayurveda, describes intermittent fasting as a time-tested tradition practiced every 15 days to rid the body of impurities or Āma, stored in fat cells.

Chandra explains, “Fat has to burn for energy. When we stop eating, fat is burning—along with the [physical and emotional] toxins.”

Chandra says that when Āma is stored in fat cells and intestinal lining, it leads to weight gain: “All emotions and traumas are stored in fat cells—we release these impurities by fasting. I recommend eating a good breakfast and lunch, and skipping dinner to rest the digestive system.”

He explains, “Our body moves with nature’s biorhythm between the hours of 12 and 2 around the energy of the sun. This is when our metabolic strength is strongest—not at 7pm, when the sun is setting. Our digestive fire isn’t strong then. If we do it daily, we turn around the issue of not metabolizing properly.”

Although the traditional style of fasting may not work for most people, it makes sense to give our digestive system a break. Instead of eating frequently throughout the day, wait at least four hours to eat between meals.

Chandra also suggests a full day of fasting during the new moon and full moon, recommending water only for people whose doctors allow it.

Our experts agree that while intermittent fasting is not a one-size-fits-all solution, it can be a valuable wellness tool. As with any dietary change, it’s critical to do your research, listen to your body and go slow on the Cuervo and cheeseburgers.


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