I was glad to see Valter Longo’s Fasting-Mimicking diet in the news again this week. I have been enthusiastic about Longo’s work ever since he documented altruistic suicide of yeast cells for his PhD thesis in the 1990s. Programmed death in one-celled protists was considered an affront to evolutionary theory at the time, and he had a devil of a time getting his findings into print.
Longo discovered in 2002-2005 that fasting had a powerful benefit for cancer patients, and that in conjunction with either radiation or chemo, it greatly magnified the benefits while mitigating the side effects. Intermittent fasting had benefits, too, for the general population, independent of cancer. It seems to be a way to get the health benefits of caloric restriction and it is easier to stick to for many people than a consistently low calorie diet.
But Longo couldn’t get either doctors or patients interested in the fasting program. Part of the problem was the toxic mix of capitalism with medicine: the US relies on testing and promotion by profit-making companies to push medical technology forward, and fasting isn’t a product that anyone can make money on. There was also an emotional truth: cancer patients feel scared, beleaguered, emotionally drained. So much is dragging them way outside their comfort zone that it takes extraordinary strength not to fall back on food as one of life’s most reliable comforts.
So many medical researchers see their job as finding treatments, and leave the problem of adoption and compliance to someone else. But Longo set himself single-mindedly to the task of bringing the benefits of fasting to a wider swath of the population. The question that led to the Fasting-Mimicking Diet (FMD): What dietary regimen can provide the greater part of the benefits of a water fast while inducing less hunger and minimal disruption to concentration, vitality and the pace of life?
I have done about 9 cycles of the FMD over the past 1½ years, including this week. In my personal experience, 5 days of the FMD is eminently tolerable once I begin, though I still face resistance when I think in advance about disrupting my comforting food routines. (Yoga, swimming and meditation have the same barriers for me–difficult in the anticipation, enjoyable once I begin.) For me, FMD is not a weight loss program. I gain back all the weight I’ve lost within a week after the 5-day program is finished. Others may have different experiences. People have used the 3-meal version of FMD (3 meals at 360 calories) as a medium-term weight-loss program, but the protein content is probably too low for those concerned about maintaining lean mass long term.
In his new study, 100 participants were randomized into two groups. The first group did three rounds of 5 days on FMD over three months. The second group did nothing special for three months, but were given an opportunity to try the same three rounds during the following three months. The average weight loss was 6 pounds for those who completed all three cycles; lean body mass was lost, in the same proportion as fat. Blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides all improved on average, and C-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker) went down as well.
The study included a range of healthy people as well as people who carried more weight and had higher risk factors. It was those with the higher inflammation and blood sugar who realized big benefits from the program, and the already-healthy were averaged in. There is a lot of evidence to indicate that intermittent fasting works, and that the FMD delivers similar benefits. But if you’re already lean and healthy with low blood sugar, then it’s less clear whether there are substantial additional benefits from intermittent fasting.
Notable was a reduction in the hormone IGF-1, which I don’t necessarily regard as a good thing. On the one hand, lower IGF-1 is characteristic of all caloric restriction models, in animals and humans, in which life span is increased. So it is an indication that the FMD was effective. But low IGF-1 has consistently been found to increase risk for all-cause mortality, and heart disease in particular [ref, ref, ref]. Benefits of higher IGF-1 include maintenance of muscle mass and growth of nerves that diminishes with age.
An additional benefit documented in the past is a “reset” of the immune system. The white cell population is pruned during fasting, and the most-needed naive T-cells regrow after eating resumes.
Antidote to Obesity
It’s the (large and increasing) population of unhealthy people that Longo is targeting. There is every reason to expect substantial benefits, but the big issue remainss: how many people can be motivated to take up the practice and stick to it? The question was touched on only peripherally in the current study, without discussion; of 48 subjects selected for the first round, 39 stuck it out for three FMD cycles over three months (81% compliance). That’s encouraging, but what we really want to know is: how many people will actually modify their eating rhythms for years at a time? Will they feel the benefits and will that motivate them to stick with it month after month, five days each month?
And will this translate into long-term weight loss? Sustaining weight loss is notoriously difficult for about 95% of the population. People can stick to a diet for a time, but the Siren song of food is with us everywhere, and sooner or later we succumb. Fortunately, there’s good reason to hope that the FMD discipline offers benefits even if weight loss is not sustained.
How to do it
Longo’s own company, L-Nutra offers a packaged diet, called ProLon, availble through health care professionals. It’s pricey and may be covered by insurance. LifeBox offers a non-prescription alternative that is not as much cheaper as it might be. For my own experimentation, I have preferred to use fresh, whole foods approximating the same macronutrient proportions as the ProLon package. It requires some time and attention in food prep, but it costs less than you’re currently spending on the same meals, and you can fill yourself with satisfying portions of fresh vegetables for the same 360 calories. Here is my page of instructions and advice, with recipes designed by Enid Kassner.
For many of us, our relationship to food is central to our psychology. Shaking up food habits disrupts everything else as well. It’s the main reason that food habits are so hard to change, but for me, it’s also a good thing. I enjoy the challenge and the self-awareness that come from a new frame of reference; fasting changes my perspective, my emotional baseline, and my mental state. For me, the first day is unfocused, low energy, but often a time of creative new ideas; the second day is distracted, obsessive, sometimes headache-y or otherwise uncomfortable, and beginning with the third day there is returning energy, along with a freedom that I didn’t know I missed.
Why is life expectancy in America lagging?
Part of the answer is certainly cultural. Advertising, parties, lunch and dinner meetings often reinforce consumption of food that is designed to be addictive for the sake of corporate profits. In America, we are surrounded by overweight people, but France and Italy have much lower obesity rates, and you can walk all day around the cities of Japan or China without encountering anyone who is seriously overweight. Even in America, the problem has grown way out of proportion only in the last 40 years. This and income disparity are the main reasons that life expectancy in America is at the bottom of the developed world. Our unaffordable, dysfunctional healthcare system provides many additional reasons. Meanwhile, life expectancy in Asia is climbing at an exemplary pace.
Longo’s FMD is designed to address this most accessible factor in the diseases of late life for a large swath of people who find they cannot lose weight. His research is based not just on effectiveness but equally important on tolerability. How many people will adopt it and reap the benefits? This will be an important question for public health going forward. But you are a unique individual, not a statistical median. I encourage you to experiment with FMD, see what you learn about yourself, and decide if it can be a valuable part of your health program in the long term.