Intermittent fasting is all the rage now — it involves the dieter going without food for long periods with the aim of losing unwanted weight fast.
A number of Kenyans, especially women, swear by the diet, and have flaunted their eye-popping results on social media after just a few weeks of starting the diet.
So popular is the regimen that several Facebook groups dedicated to it have been created, attracting thousands of followers.
Carolyne Muturi, who first tried the diet last year, says that she saw a dramatic change in her weight after just a few weeks. She was so pleased, she even documented her journey on her Facebook page, showing her before and after photos.
She would also post photos of her meals and give blow by blow accounts of all the things she had eaten and drank. In less than two months, Ms Muturi, who had been 99kg, had lost 17kg. She also incorporated a ketogenic diet, which involves one eating a high fat, moderate protein and low carbohydrate diet.
To lose the weight, Ms Muturi would avoid meals for 23 hours, surviving on water and herbal teas before her next meal. When she would break her fast, she would eat high fat and protein meals with some vegetables. Her typical meals featured meats, eggs, salads made from raw vegetables, avocado and cucumber.
Despite the seemingly positive results in such a short time, the diet has some hidden dangers, especially to those who try it without proper guidance from a nutritionist.
Henry Ng’ethe, chairperson of the Nutritionists Association of Kenya, says one may not get all the nutrients they need due to intake of limited meals. This kind of dieting, he said, may affect fertility, making conception harder in future.
“Our bodies convert fats and proteins from the food we eat into hormones. You might want to conceive in the future and you find that there are some challenges, because the micronutrients needed for the process are not available,” he says.
Women who go on the fasting diet while breastfeeding also undermine their children’s health. “There are vitamins that you must take into your body every day, and if they are not provided, it might result in a certain deficiency,” Mr Ng’ethe warns. Lack of these nutrients in a growing baby’s diet could affect their brain development, leading to lower cognitive function.
Children get other micronutrients like zinc, selenium, sodium and potassium, to help them develop physically, from their mother’s milk, he explains.
“Mothers give their children what they eat through breastfeeding. If they are fasting, then the body starts breaking down fat which is used as energy. This fat is what goes to the child. Where will the children get the micronutrients? If you have a baby boy, and you lack selenium in your diet, it will affect his reproductive organs, for example,” Mr Ng’ethe cautions.
He blames the rise of fad diets to laziness and reluctance of Kenyans to seek expert opinion from professional nutritionists before they start on their weight-loss journey.
“Intermittent fasting is not the easiest way to lose weight. A nutritionist can draw up a plan and add a little bit of exercise and that can solve your problems,” he says.
He admits that some studies have shown that fasting helps in some cases: it speeds up generation of new cells and metabolism.
“It’s good because we need to boost our immune system, but we need to know at what point we need to fast,” he says.
However, “those suffering from any illness — like tuberculosis — and you are eating normally, you will still lose weight and possibly become underweight. What if you add fasting on top of that?”
“If fasting has to be done, it has to be under the guidance of a nutritionist. That way, even if someone is taking only one or two meals a day, we can ensure that the daily dietary allowance is met. If you are able to meet that daily, it is okay,” he said.
Mr Ng’ethe warns though, that information such as one’s family medical history has to be taken into account before the radical diet is allowed.
It is also difficult to sustain weight lost in a short time.
Ms Muturi, for instance, was unable to sustain the diet and eventually regained the weight she had lost — she is now 94kg, five kilos shy of her original weight.
To maintain healthy weight, the nutritionist advises, aim to eat plenty of vegetables, moderate amounts of food, avoid sugary beverages, exercise and above all, be disciplined in your eating.
This story was first published in the Daily Nation.