Changing to a healthier diet? Fasting beforehand boosts health benefits

Five days of fasting gives a metabolic boost before starting a Mediterranean-style diet.

Five days of fasting gives a metabolic boost before starting a Mediterranean-style diet. Photo: Getty

Feeling a little tired of your chubby, slow-moving self? Who isn’t?

Perhaps, you’re thinking it’s time to swap the sausages for salmon, the chips for extra salad, and maybe even spring for a packet of healthy-fat almonds as a snack.

In other words, you’ve decided to switch to a healthier diet for the sake of your heart and liver. That’s great.

But new research finds that if you fast before starting the new diet, the positive effects on your blood pressure, metabolism and gut bacteria are intensified and longer lasting.

Here’s the catch. Fasting, in this instance, means five days without solid food. Which means sticking to soup.

Are you kidding me?

It’s five lousy days. And get this, it will help dig you out of metabolic syndrome.

This is a collection of conditions that often occur together and increase your risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

These include high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides, low levels of HDL cholesterol and insulin resistance.

It’s a first-world problem, often requiring medication.

There’s plenty of evidence that poor nutrition plays havoc with your heart, but the effects of a good diet on gut health and the immune system – at a cellular level – remain unclear.

A group of German researchers (at least one of four Germans are hitting the strudel hard) decided to investigate.

How did they go about it?

According to a statement from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association:

  • Researchers recruited 71 volunteers with metabolic syndrome and raised systolic blood pressure. The researchers divided them into two groups at random
  • Both groups followed the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet for three months, which is designed to combat high blood pressure
  • This Mediterranean-style diet includes lots of fruit and vegetables, wholemeal products, nuts and pulses, fish and lean white meat
  • One of the two groups did not consume any solid food at all for five days before starting the DASH diet.

What did they find?

Using a test called immunophenotyping, the scientists observed how the immune cells of the volunteers changed when they altered their diet.

Notably, the number of pro-inflammatory T cells dropped, while regulatory T cells multiplied. Regulatory T cells secrete anti-inflammatory cytokines to regulate immune function.

An examination of stool samples found that the composition of the gut bacteria ecosystem changed drastically during fasting. Health-promoting bacteria that help to reduce blood pressure multiplied.

Some of these changes remained even after resumption of food intake.

They found that some strains of bacteria metabolised dietary fibre “into anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids that benefit the immune system”.

And here’s the really good news

Body mass index, blood pressure and the need for antihypertensive medication remained lower over the long term among volunteers who started the healthy diet with a five-day fast.

As the researchers note: Blood pressure normally shoots back up again when even one antihypertensive tablet is forgotten.

But among the participants who ate soup for five days, blood pressure remained lower over the long term – even three months after fasting.

“Fasting acts as a catalyst for protective microorganisms in the gut. Health clearly improves very quickly and patients can cut back on their medication or even often stop taking tablets altogether,” the researchers said.

“This could motivate people to stick to a healthy lifestyle in the long term.”

That means you.

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