In the past few years, the practice of Kenyans missing food to lose weight has become so common that in some circles, it feels unusual to say you eat three meals a day.
The number of people doing intermittent fasting (IF), a health practice that involves extending the periods between eating, keeps growing.
They have formed small tribes on social media where they passionately compare fasting durations.
Some squeeze their meals into an eight-hour window a day, a method known as time-restricted eating that has emerged as the most popular form of intermittent fasting.
Others just eat one meal a day. Others have stopped eating during the day while others fast for 24 or 36 hours.
What is intermittent fasting and does it really work?
Kepha Nyanumba, a nutrition consultant says there are two common types which include time-restricted eating and the 5:2 method of intermittent fasting.
The first one, Mr Nyanumba says, involves setting fasting and eating windows which can be repeated for a given number of days per week.
An example of time-restricted eating is the 6/18 method where eating is allowed between 10 am to 6pm.
“The 5:2 method of intermittent fasting encourages a total intake of 500 calories for two days a week. The aim is to facilitate weight loss by reducing total calorie intake,” Mr Nyanumba says.
With almost 100 studies on humans — and many more on rodents — scientists say there are still a lot of unanswered questions but those on weight loss journeys swear by it.
A quick search through Facebook and you find hundreds of intermittent fasting groups with thousands of members. One of those ardent followers of the programme is Lydia Ekessa.
When she founded an intermittent fasting support group on Facebook in 2019, her aim was to educate Kenyans and others about the benefits as a beneficiary.
“I struggled with hormonal imbalance and I was overweight for many years. When I started, I did a combination of protocols both long and short fasts. I also combined cardio exercises, running, and walking. Within three months I had reduced from 80kg to 63kg and I no longer struggled with hormonal imbalance. I founded the group to encourage people to keep at it despite what the naysayers may say,” she tells the BDLife, adding “people ought to stop attributing being slim to poverty and being big to being wealthy.”
When she started, she says people were apprehensive about joining or following the recommendations in the group. However, with time and as more awareness was created they began believing in her course.
Her intermittent fasting programme is a combination of both long and short fasts.
156 hours of fasting
“I can do a maximum of 156 hours of fasting. During the fast, I drink water or sugarless black tea or coffee. On the 72-hour mark, you are allowed to take bone broth till the end of the time. I take one or two cups of bone broth per day,” she says.
Currently, weighing 72kg, (after backsliding) Ms Ekessa says her target weight is 65kg and intends to continue doing intermittent fasting even after attaining her goal.
“Last year, I backslid when I lost my mom. I sunk into depression and following the fasting protocols was a challenge. Once I reach maintenance, my body will already be adapted to fasting so I can never go back to doing more than two meals. It's either one meal or two meals a day,” she says.
Deriving motivation and encouragement from her 13-year-old son, she says that she is well on track to reaching her ideal weight.
She, however, cautions that once you start intermittent fasting, if you go back to eating three or more meals a day or unhealthy eating or binge eating, you stand to gain all the weight that you had lost. One has to maintain a healthy eating lifestyle all through.
Gloria Ngure is a beneficiary of Ms Ekessa’s Facebook group. She started intermittent fasting to silence her tormentors.
“Everyone around me would complain about how big and heavy I was. That was the first greeting every time we'd meet,” Ms Ngure tells the BDLife.
Her transformation journey was however not an easy one.
“I started in 2020 and it has not been easy. The number of times I have started a fast and not completed is more than the number of times I have started and completed.”
Having lost 30kg, Ms Ngure now weighs 75kg.
“When I started I did the five weeks programme and lost 14kg. From there, I’m now freestyle. I am mostly doing 42 hours, 48 hours, or 72 hours of fasting. When I am not doing any of these I do OMAD (One Meal a Day),” she says.
Starting intermittent fasting was not all rosy for her.
“The first few days I experienced headaches. One should make sure they don't jump right into the long fasts. Start with short fasts and later do the longer ones. Long fasts promote autophagy [the body's process of cleaning out damaged cells, to regenerate newer, healthier cells] hence no sagging skin.”
She says that control is all in the mind and that what you believe is what you can achieve. “At the beginning of this year, I did 21 days of water fasting, though for spiritual purposes.”
Apart from weight loss, Ms Ngure says that her skin is much smoother and her back aches ended as well. She also sleeps better and does not snore like before. She had plantar fasciitis (heel pain) which also ended when she started doing intermittent fasting.
To keep up with her weight loss journey, Ms Ngure has had to avoid sugary foods. “My plate usually has more proteins and vegetables than carbs.”
Intermittent fasting is now a lifestyle for her. “Anyone who is struggling with weight should know that two meals a day are enough whether you are fasting or not. There is no day that I will eat more than twice,” she says adding, “Water is very important in this journey. I recommend taking three litres of water every day.”
Unlike Ms Ekessa, Ms Ngure says she had to be her own cheerleader in her fitness journey.
“I want to live healthier, look well and wear all the well-fitting clothes that I want. Whenever I see a kilo is down, I become more motivated.”
She recommends mixing up the fasting schedules to keep one excited.
“One schedule gets boring and your body gets used to it. Fasting for too long can also cause fasting burnout. Mix up. Freestyle fasting is the best. Don't let your body know what is coming,” she advises.
However, Ms Ngure cautions people with medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension to seek doctors’ guidance before embarking on the intermittent fasting journey.
Shedding 15kgs in two weeks
Millie Rita, another faithful follower of intermittent fasting tells BDLife she has seen a transformation since starting her weight loss journey in January this year.
“I have lost 18kgs so far. I started with 105 kg this January, I was doing one meal a day fast, 20 hours, and 18 hours fast, and also going to the gym. I lost 2.5 kgs in one and a half months. I quit the gym and started extended fasting and in two weeks and two days, I lost 15.5 kgs. Now I do the 60 or 42 or the 156 hours fast. Currently, I am on the 48 hours fast,” she says.
Breaking the fast
For her diet, Ms Rita had to cut off sugar, rice, wheat and other carbohydrates.
“Right now I eat low-carb veggies and low-carb proteins. I take half a lemon and a tablespoon of coffee in a glass of warm water first thing when I get up, then take water or black coffee/green tea during the day and before going to bed, I take a tablespoon of vinegar in 3/4 glass of water. I break my fasts with chia seeds soaked in plain yoghurt or just plain yoghurt then eat 30 minutes later,” she says.
Having decided to also embrace intermittent fasting as a lifestyle, Ms Rita says that she has seen the benefits. “These days I have increased energy and reduced craving for junk food,” she says.
Not everyone sees its potential. Mr Nyanumba cautions against picking up intermittent fasting as a weight loss programme.
He says that it focuses more on the quantity rather than the quality of the food which should be the most critical aspect of a person’s life, resulting in a slowed metabolism.
He also warns that intermittent fasting can worsen digestive disorders such as acidity, heartburn, and acid reflux.
“Intermittent fasting only helps you lose muscles and not body fat hence the fast weight gain in case someone stops the intermittent fasting programme. You lose only the muscles because when you are fasting the body breaks muscles to conserve energy. Intermittent fasting can also cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar),” he says.
Instead, he recommends that a person looking to lose weight should get a meal plan that will include three meals a day and some snacks in between for some people. He also recommends getting rid of unhealthy foods from the diet.
In a recent study published in Immunity Journal, intermittent fasting was found to cause cancer and heart complications.
The study says that missing breakfast negatively impacts the immune system, making it difficult for the body to fight off infection.
The study showed that whenever one failed to take breakfast white blood cells dropped by 90 percent.
“Immune cells are important to [fighting] diseases such as cancer or heart diseases. It is critical to understand how their functionality is controlled,” explains Dr Filip Swirski, the lead researcher in the study.
40 years without breakfast
Some experts argue that one cannot treat an eating disorder with fasting. That if someone overeats or eats the wrong foods, for one reason or another, then fasting and resuming eating large amounts of food, is not healthy.
Some people stick to intermittent fasting for the short term, but they get quite hungry in the long term.
However, a past study by Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist who has not eaten breakfast in 40 years and wrote a book, The Intermittent Fasting Revolution, says after the 12-hour fasting mark, your body runs out of glucose so starts turning fat into energy. This ketosis process of “reducing bad fat” is one of the most compelling benefits.”