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Diet that breaks rules may be good for some people

Published February 06. 2010 09:00AM

When I first became interested in cycling, my previous athletic experiences helped. After more than five years of playing basketball every chance I got passing up the prom, for instance, to shoot jumpers by streetlight I averaged running 50 miles per week for the next five while competing in dozens of races, including five marathons.

Such a well-developed aerobic base allowed me to have immediate success racing bicycles at the beginner's level, especially if the course was particularly hilly or otherwise demanding.

At the intermediate level, however, my previous athletic experiences hurt me in one way. Both my basketball and cross-country coaches had used a style of training where a hard workout was followed by an easy one.

The hard-easy theory seemed effective, made sense to me, so I structured my cycling workouts that way.

But if you have good form and select your gears appropriately, cycling 80 miles does not have to beat up the body like a 20-mile run; therefore, two, three or even four hard cycling workouts can be done in succession before an easy day or two is needed. The concept is called block training, and I didn't see how it could be superior to alternating hard and easy workouts until I trained with riders far more accomplished than I who developed razor-sharp racing fitness by doing so.

My athletic failure here was not from a lack of motivation or a fear of intensity, but from something just as debilitating: a failure to remain open to possibilities that contradict prior experience.

Because of this, the story is a suitable intro for today's topic: the feast-and-famine diet. It's a concept that's kicked around for a couple of years but made news again because of a U.S. government-funded study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The name of the diet says it all. Dieters alternate "famine" days where they consume about 25 percent of their needed caloric intake with "feast" days where they eat as much as they please.

(For weight maintenance, the percentage of food ingested on a "famine" day increases to 50 percent.)

In the aforementioned study, the average weight loss was impressive, 1.5 pounds per week, a loss that remained constant during both the weeks where the researchers controlled the food choices and when they did not. The researchers also found that body fat percentage as well as cholesterol and blood pressure levels dropped during the eight-week diet.

While the study was criticized for its length (10 weeks total) and size (16 subjects), most experts had greater reservations about what might be called the rebound effect. Connie Diekman, director of nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, put it this way in an article: "The bottom line is when we go too long without eating . . . that instinct to eat kicks in, and we don't have as much control over what we eat as we would like to."

But in an article by Jerome Burns for The TimesOnline in the United Kingdom, Krista Varady, an assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the publisher of the study in question challenges that. She says, "It takes about two weeks to adjust to the diet and, after that, people don't feel hungry on the fast days."

Additionally, the TimesOnline article cites other health benefits to the diet besides weight loss. In another study, obese asthmatics not only lost weight, but also had less inflammation in their lungs and breathed easier after eight weeks on the diet. Furthermore, they had lower levels of free radicals in their bodies, a major source of the damage that causes aging, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

These results are consistent with the findings of the seminal study performed on rats and published in 2003 by NIH National Institute of Aging Scientist Mark Mattson. In the original press release, it was noted that "fasting every other day can help fend off diabetes and protect brain neurons as well or better than either vigorous exercise or caloric restriction. The findings also suggest that reduced meal frequency can produce these beneficial effects even if the animals gorged when they did eat."

Clearly, the feast-and-famine diet contradicts my prior experience. I have been eating six to eight smaller meals a day (and urging others to do the same) for about 25 years.

Yet I have to admit I'm intrigued by this radical concept, primarily for two reasons: the way my body has handled fasting and what might be called a desperate-times-calls-for-desperate-measures mentality.

I have found my strongest urges for food usually come from 90 minutes to three hours after eating (usually something "bad" that adversely affected my blood sugar level). But after that, my hunger generally diminishes to the point where it's no more than background music in a dentist's office.

I have found this to be true during long fasts necessitated by hospital procedures, some as long as 18 hours.

Because I can get used to the fasting state in a number of hours, I believe Varady when she claims eventually most subjects get accustomed to the diet's fasting days in two weeks.

Furthermore, let's consider the way society is now set up. Food, most of it unhealthy, is available to us all day, every day, and the temptation is too great for most dieters over the long term.

This diet has no long term. You simply have to avoid the bad stuff for a day and then you get to eat some of it again.

While it does contradict my prior experience, the feast-and-famine diet may be the salvation for someone always overweight because he or she can't give up eating fattening foods.

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