Fasting is all the rage in the wellness world, its proponents touting benefits that range from better blood sugar control, to weight loss and metabolic flexibility, to chronic disease prevention and a longer life span. And fasting isn't just gaining traction in the wellness industry; the scientific and medical communities are also experimenting with its potential healing and disease-prevention properties.
Now researchers are designing programs that harness the healing powers of fasting. Dr. Valter Longo—a biochemist at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Longevity Institute—designed the ProLon (ProLon stands for pro-longevity) Fasting Mimicking Diet, which is a kit with five days of pre-prepared food and instructions that guide you through the fast. The specific combination of nutrients in the diet is designed to make the body think it's been totally without food, but you don't feel as deprived because you eat pre-prepared foods during the day. It's been shown to improve a wide range of biological markers like cholesterol, inflammation, and fasting glucose and is completely made of plant-based, whole foods. The program was developed after many years of preclinical and clinical studies at the Longevity Institute and the Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute at USC (all funded by the National Institutes of Health).
I'm a fan of intermittent fasting—which I've used in the past to improve my blood sugar control, cravings, and brain fog—so I was curious to see how the packaged fasting mimicking program would compare. I gave ProLon a try and here's how it went:
1. My food reflexes were really put to the test.
The biggest hurdle in the first two days of this program was the fact that every time food is in front of me—whether that be a free sample at the store or a box of flaxseed crackers on the counter at work—I instinctively reach for it. I found myself lunging for food over and over (and over) again the entire first day only to be hit with the realization that I couldn't have it. I kept thinking, "Do I really do this all day?" This whole thing made me feel slightly depressed, like a whole joyous part of my daily life was suddenly cut out. I was also having major FOMO when our office got a delivery of Erin McKenna's vegan doughnuts. So sad!
2. My flight-or-flight response was majorly triggered.
The ProLon program comes in a big white box with five smaller white boxes inside it, one corresponding to each day. I won't lie: As soon as I realized this, I immediately felt panicked. "All I get to eat for the whole day is inside this tiny box?" I thought. I felt quite literally "boxed in." The symbolism was too real. I found myself trying to hoard my food during the day so I didn't feel like I was running low.
I spent the first two days in a groggy stupor, hoping that by day three I would start to feel better. But sadly, relief never came. I was headachy, cranky, and dead tired for a full five days—walking around with my tiny white box and clutching the electrolyte drink I was told to sip on throughout the day. Each box contained a combination of a nut bar, dried soups that you heat up on the stove, kale crackers, olives, and a chocolate bar for dessert, and I was very impressed by how tasty the food was‚ but not all days had all of these items. This was a real test of my willpower and ability to be mindful, and it also made me realize how much I use my favorite snacks and food as a crutch to regulate my stress levels.
3. I contemplated the real meaning of a calorie (a lot).
During the program I stopped thinking about calories in terms of weight loss or something you should count, and started thinking about them in terms of basic energy production. I was so fatigued and groggy that I was convinced just one almond would make me feel like a new person. This was really interesting to me, because on a normal day I would pop five almonds into my mouth at any time and barely consider it a snack. It forced me to reconnect with the true purpose of food, which is to fuel you so you can tackle your day and have the energy to think and function at optimal capacity. It also helped me connect with hunger, and determine the difference between emotional food cravings and real, physiological hunger. For weeks after the program I was more mindful about my portion sizes and way more in touch with how much food I needed to eat each day and when.
4. My hormones continued to thank me after the fast ended.
Despite the fact that I thought I was majorly triggering my adrenal glands doing this diet, I think it actually had a good influence on my hormones. Normally, my monthly cycle is a little bit unpredictable, and I get at least a small hormonally-induced breakout on my face. But this month (and the month after!) I had no breakout or uncomfortable symptoms before my period. In fact, it totally snuck up on me! At first I thought it might be a coincidence, but then I asked Joseph Antoun, M.D., M.S., M.P., and CEO of L-Nutra, about this unexpected symptom, and he explained that "Many hormonal imbalances in women are due to metabolic and stress imbalances. For example, what was called polycystic ovary syndrome is now called metabolic syndrome of women, as it is correlated with waist-circumference fat. We plan to test ProLon for this indication, as we are getting many positive anecdotal responses from health care practitioners and consumers." Interesting; it might not have been a coincidence after all.
5. I slept like a rock.
I slept like a baby—sometimes eight hours a night and sometimes as many as 10. My sleep was uninterrupted (except for a few stomach growls that were audible enough to wake me), and I was so thankful for the fact that I hadn't scheduled anything this week. I went from work straight home and back to work the next morning. If you decide to try it out, I would also suggest getting into a great book or wellness podcast to help you pass the time. The improvements in my sleep lasted long after the program was over—an unexpected but totally welcome benefit.
Researchers all around the world are working to improve our knowledge of the therapeutic effects of fasting and so far, the evidence is extremely promising. Always talk to your doctor before you make any drastic lifestyle or dietary changes, but if you're struggling at all with your health, experimenting with intermittent fasting or a fasting mimicking diet could help some of the puzzle pieces fall into place.