How to eat well: Is fasting the key to a longer life?

By Ian Marber, October 11, 2012

Trends in nutrition and dieting come and go as quickly as those in fashion, and thanks to tweets and messages I receive online, I can get a clear idea of what people are talking about, and what’s coming soon in the world of nutrition (Twitter affords me the equivalent of a front-row seat at a Burberry show).

Since BBC’s Horizon documentary, Eat, Fast and Live Longer,was aired in August, the questions about fasting have come in thick and fast. In case you missed it, the programme showed that intermittent fasting could aid management of levels of cholesterol and other blood fats, as well as glucose, and help weight control.

It has long been known that rodents can live for as much as 40 per cent longer when their feed is manipulated in this way, something that could be extended to human beings. It seems that regular fasting can reduce levels of the IGF-1, a hormone that encourages the proliferation of cancer cells.

Furthermore, the Gerontology Research Centre in Baltimore suggests that intermittent fasting can protect the brain from the ravages of both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. The idea is that for two consecutive days a week, you eat very little, only 500 calories or so, and then eat normally for the other five (hence it being called the 5:2 plan).

I know of a few people who have been trying this out, but as they work for glossy magazines, I suspect their motivation lies far more in weight loss than averting disease. I also suspect that as sure as black is the new black, they will be onto something else by next Fashion Week.

While we acknowledge that changing our diet has far-reaching benefits, it’s hard to stick to a plan without some sort of demonstrable proof that it’s working. Obviously, weight loss is something that we can see and feel and is always going to be a barometer of some kind, but eating well (whether it’s the 5:2 or a plan than doesn’t require fasting) reduces the chances of major illness later in life.

But we have to be adult about this and understand that the rewards may not be tangible for years to come, and so a healthy diet now is akin to a sensible pension plan. There are no guarantees of course, but preparing your body to live a longer and healthier life has to be a worthwhile investment.

Ian Marber is one of the UK’s most highly regarded nutrition experts and the author of 11 books.

Last updated: 10:12am, October 11 2012