Modern society has an obsession with food and with eating. Everywhere you turn, there are advertisements for different food products and food just seems to be constantly pushed at us. At the same time, food can have a strong impact on our emotions and many of the products in our stores are made and marketed in a way that makes us crave them.
Our obsession with food is incredibly unhealthy and dangerous – but how do we break out of that? After all, we do still need to eat to live.
One interesting idea is that perhaps our eating patterns are wrong. Do we really need to eat three meals (plus snacks) every day? Is being hungry actually something we should be avoiding at all costs? Or, might it be, that hunger is much more important than we typically assume?
Those concepts are why there has been increased interest and research into a biological process called autophagy, along with the implications that an autophagy diet might have for our health and weight.
Autophagy – A Basic Introduction
Autophagy is a process that occurs in our cells. The name comes from two Greek words – ‘auto’ which means self and ‘phagy’ which means eating. So, essentially, autophagy means self-eating. That mightn’t sound especially appealing, but the process is interesting and important.
Autophagy is a normal process within the body that involves the destruction of cells and proteins as well as turnover of various components of cells. The end result is that autophagy is necessary for the creation of new cells.
Typically, autophagy will occur at a low level, but autophagy also responds to changes in the external environment. Specifically, autophagy response to stress and increases as a response to stress. One example of that type of stress is hunger and nutrient deprivation.
By constantly eating, many of us rarely ever enter into a state of hunger and certainly never stay there. This may have dramatic implications for the function of our cells. After all, by doing this we are keeping the process of autophagy at a low level. I’m not going to go into the specific biology of autophagy, because honestly, it can get complicated quickly.
The video below goes through some of the associated biochemistry if you’re interested – but you really don’t need that knowledge for our discussion today.
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The Implications of Autophagy
Turning to autophagy for weight loss, and for health in general, does make a lot of sense.
We live in a society that is constantly surrounded by food and where we often eat out of habit, not out of hunger. For example, most people in our society follow a pattern of three main meals a day plus perhaps three (or more) snacks throughout the day. And that doesn’t even count the times that people eat on impulse, such as they find something especially appealing (chocolate comes to mind).
This pattern is even true for people who are trying to lose weight. In fact, people often focus on just changing the food they eat when they are working on weight loss – rather than focusing on how much they eat or when they eat.
One end result of this is that people rarely go more than a few hours without food (except while they sleep) and many people eat as soon as they are hungry.
Supporters of the grazing concept actually suggest that we eat even more often than this – having smaller meals more frequently throughout the day. That approach is supposed to boost our metabolisms, but there isn’t much science supporting it. In fact, despite popular belief, eating more often doesn’t even seem to decrease appetite (1).
Realistically, most of the benefits that people do find with grazing probably come from unintentional changes in behavior, such as eating fewer calories or changing the time that a person eats.
People often do find that they make unintentional behavioral changes when they start any diet type, which can be desirable or undesirable depending on the specific changes.
In the case of grazing, people often end up eating more than they intend to as eating more frequently tends to be associated with higher overall calorie intake (2).
In contrast, there is a significant amount of research into the concept of autophagy and this continues to be an area that scientists are focusing on with their studies.
Likewise, some autophagy diets can promote positive changes in eating habits, rather than negative ones.
Autophagy and Health
In general, autophagy is an important biological process so it shouldn’t be too surprising that autophagy has the potential to offer health benefits.
Realistically, our levels of autophagy are probably lower than they have been throughout history. After all, we know that throughout history our ancestors often didn’t have reliable and predictable access to food, and this is true for other animal species as well.
To function well, our bodies need to have sufficient autophagy and there is a good chance that modern diets and lifestyles simply don’t promote that level of autophagy.
There are a number of potential benefits that can arise from sufficient autophagy. For example, there has been some interest in the use of autophagy mechanisms for the treatment of alcoholic liver disease (3) as well as evidence that autophagy may play an important role in fighting disease (4,5) and in fighting bacteria and viruses (6,7).
The process of autophagy has also been associated with protecting the brain (8,9). Likewise, impaired autophagy has been connected to the development of motor neuron degeneration (10). Indeed, insufficient autophagy may also play a role in the development of other health issues, like cardiac diseases (11).
The connection between autophagy and weight loss isn’t a direct one. In particular, there isn’t any research suggesting that the biological processes of autophagy can promote weight loss. However, most approaches that promote autophagy are also effective as weight loss tools.
When it comes to dieting, one of the most important concepts is how autophagy can be triggered by hunger. As a result, one good example of an autophagy diet is intermittent fasting.
For example, one intermittent fasting approach involves fasting for 24 hours once or twice a week, while another approach is fasting for 16 hours and having an 8 hour ‘feeding period’ each day.
A third approach is simply having one large meal per day and fasting for the rest (although this variation often allows for snacks).
There are many other approaches as well, such as alternate day fasting (ADF). This strategy involves eating a diet that is very restricted in calories every second day and anything you like on the other days.
Intermittent fasting can be powerful for weight loss on its own and because of autophagy. On its own, the approach works well because it naturally promotes lower calorie consumption. But, at the same time, it is also an autophagy diet. In fact, short-term fasting has been shown to promote autophagy in the brain, which is a desirable outcome (12).
Low calorie and extremely low-calorie diets may also promote autophagy to some degree. This can occur because autophagy responds to stress and low nutrients, which will often happen if you’re eating relatively little in a day. In fact, many people following low-calorie diets do find themselves hungry often and this is one reason why so many people struggle with this approach to dieting.
Another diet type that also falls under the autophagy diet approach is ketosis.
Now, I’ve talked about ketosis elsewhere, so I’m not going to go into detail about the diet itself. However, a ketosis diet certainly has a range of effects on the body, some of which may increase autophagy.
In fact, research has shown that ketosis may help to promote macroautophagy within the brain. This may be a key reason why ketogenic diets help to protect the brain (13).
Does an Autophagy Diet Work for Everyone?
I’m always hesitant about new diet approaches, especially ones that are supposed to be very effective for losing weight. In many cases, the diets are little more than fads (like the 3 day military diet) and contain very little science.
Now, there is a decent amount of science behind the concept of autophagy and I imagine that it would work well as a way to lose weight for many people.
After all, following an autophagy diet can be as simple as using an intermittent fasting approach and that can be a good tool for weight loss. In fact, I even know people who are successfully losing weight following this approach.
But, I do suspect that an autophagy diet wouldn’t work for everyone.
When you’re looking for an effective way to lose weight the diet you follow is really only part of the equation. By all means, you want to be following something that is healthy and has scientific support.
At the same time though, any diet is only going to be effective if you can stick to it. Realistically, this means that at the very least the diet has to be tolerable and ideally it should make you feel good physically and mentally. For many people, an autophagy diet does meet those criteria.
This isn’t the case for everyone though.
For example, some people feel extremely low on energy and are almost unable to function if they miss a meal (such as breakfast). Likewise, going hungry for any period of time can put them in a bad mood, give them physical symptoms like headaches, make it hard to concentrate and can make them crave high-calorie food.
This is actually one reason why people often say that breakfast is so important. For a number of people, skipping breakfast doesn’t help with weight loss at all – because they simply end up eating more at later meals and tend to eat higher calorie food on average when they miss breakfast.
For people in this position, an autophagy diet probably isn’t the best approach. In fact, they may find the protein in breakfast helps them, particularly because it can help people feel full and offer sustained energy.
Likewise, relying on protein shakes can sometimes be an option for weight loss, rather than relying on an autophagy diet.
Sure, you might be able to train your body to be okay with the hunger, but if the diet is little more than torture for you, it probably won’t be very effective in the long run.
All of this sounds like I’m saying that most people shouldn’t follow an autophagy diet – but that isn’t true. In fact, I think most people should, at least, give it a try, as many people don’t find the process challenging at all.
Take intermittent fasting for example.
There are lots of variations to the diet, but one approach suggests is 16:8 split.
According to this split, people only eat during an 8 hour period and fast for the remaining 16. That sounds incredibly difficult if you’ve never tried it, but it actually isn’t.
A common way of approaching that split is to skip breakfast, eat your first meal between noon and 1pm (or so) and eat your second meal somewhere between 6pm and 8pm.
Obviously, the exact timing would depend on your sleeping schedule. For example, you wouldn’t really want to eat dinner at 8pm if you were going to bed at 9pm. But, if you went to bed at midnight, an 8pm dinner does make sense. In fact, timing your eating around your sleeping schedule does make sense in general, regardless of what diet approach you are following.
Taking that general approach means that your fast is split up by your sleep and many people find that they don’t even feel all that hungry until the last few hours of the fast. So, it can work and it can be easy to follow.
In fact, some people who intermittent fast find that they have more energy and are more alert in the morning when they fast compared to when they don’t.
And, if intermittent fasting doesn’t work for you, then you could also look at a different diet approach to promoting autophagy, such as a ketogenic diet.
In some ways, autophagy flies in the face of traditional health and diet advice, but in other ways, it makes complete sense.
In modern society, we often treat hunger as something to be avoided, but perhaps that isn’t true at all.
Instead, it may be something to focus on and embrace so that we can promote our own health as well as our weight loss.
However, it is also important to note that there is still a lot we don’t know about autophagy.
Biological pathways within the body are never simple and there is a lot of interaction between various pathways. In a similar way, different parts of biological pathways may influence health and diseases in different ways. For example, there are many key relationships between autophagy and another cellular process called apoptosis (which is responsible for programmed cell death) (14).
There is also evidence of a relationship between obesity and autophagy, where obesity can act to increase autophagy in some types of cells and decrease it in other types of cells (15).
Additionally, we don’t know specifically what levels of stress promote autophagy or what amount of autophagy is optimal (although this probably differs based on a large range of factors).
As such, it is essentially impossible for a person to optimize their level of autophagy.
Instead, the most effective approach seems to be to follow a diet that is likely to promote autophagy. For many people, intermittent fasting would be an effective option, but for others, a ketogenic diet may be a more appealing alternative.
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Have you ever tried an autophagy diet? Did it work for you?