When most people pick a diet, they’re hoping they can trim a few inches off their waistlines.
But there’s at least one diet out there that may be able to transform your health in different and more permanent ways.
There’s evidence, at least a bit of it, that drastically cutting calories and eating a specific way five days out of the month may actually slow the effects of aging and make people less likely to suffer from illnesses like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
While most of what we know about the long-term effects of such eating plans comes from animal studies, researchers think that this diet — called the fasting mimicking diet (FMD) — could transform the body.
Peter Bowes, who participated in a study of FMD, explains in a story written for Mosaic that instead of thinking of it as just a “diet,” researchers studying it “prefer to see it as an investment in the future. It could, they say, start a regenerative process that will lead to improved health and longer life. If the theory stands, I could enjoy a lower risk of cancer, a strengthened immune system, improved cognitive ability and little to no chance of contracting diabetes.”
(People do lose weight on the diet too, but that’s less important than these other factors.)
The diet itself is remarkably simple.
For five consecutive days each month, participants drastically limit their caloric intake (hence, “fasting mimicking”) by up to two-thirds. The first day they’d consume 1,090 calories (10% protein, 56% fat, 34% carbohydrate), and for days two through five they’d consume just 725 calories (9% protein, 44% fat, 47% carbohydrate). Most of those carbohydrates came in the form of vegetables.
That’s not easy. Bowes writes that many participants experienced profound headaches and dehydration. Mentally, he says he alternated between exhaustion and an alert sense of clear-mindedness.
But for the remaining 25 days of the month, study participants ate whatever they normally would.
Researchers have long been fascinated by the health benefits associated with temporary fasting — the idea behind this diet is to get those benefits without having to do something quite so drastic.
In the study, participants followed the regimen for three months straight. Valter Longo, a professor of gerontology and biological science and the director of the USC Longevity Institute, told Bowes that he and the other researchers behind the study believe most people would reap its benefits by doing the diet three or four times a year.
And the initial benefits reported by the study were pretty remarkable. The number of people on the diet was small — only 19 — but the effects were significant. Participants experienced a drop in a growth hormone that made their bodies more sensitive to insulin and better able to control blood sugar. This persisted after the study. Weight loss was maintained too.
Researchers have studied people who naturally have low levels of this growth hormone (but who have a form of dwarfism) and have found that they have shockingly low rates of cancer and diabetes, even if they are overweight or obese. The idea behind the FMD is to lower levels of this hormone in otherwise healthy people.
Lowering the same growth hormone in mice created the longest-lived lab mice in the world, according to Bowes. And other more extensive studies in mice related to this diet showed changes that led to improved cognitive performance, a stronger immune system, and lower cancer risks. There were no negative side effects.
Much more research is needed, especially in large groups of humans who are followed over many years. Without that, it’s impossible to make any real conclusions about how exactly this diet affects aging.
Yet a diet that might provide the health benefits of fasting while still letting you eat something — and letting you eat normally 25 days a month — is pretty intriguing. And the promising research so far suggests that it’s worth studying further.
Learn more about Bowes’ experience and the fascinating way researchers discovered the diet at Mosaic.
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