Intermittent fasting: A path to changing life and fighting cancer

Photo at top: Chicago suburb resident and intermittent fasting enthusiast, Dimitra Zafiriadis, has lost 60lbs in eight months after using an extended fasting regiment. (Annie Krall/MEDILL)

By Annie Krall
Medill Reports

Growling. Roaring. Grumbling.

Something not quite in the distance draws even closer. 

In the pit of your stomach you feel it growing. What is that? Where did it come from? What does it want?

When the sound reaches a crescendo that is when you realize…

“Today is another fast day.”

That rumbling is simply your stomach — bored and on empty for your second day of fasting. At least, that is the case for Dimitra Zafiriadis on her courageous journey to do the bare minimum when it comes to caloric intake. 

This is her story.

Time and energy. For most of us living in 2020, we can never have enough of either. But as Zafiriadis, a skincare specialist, bounds around her home in Park Ridge you would think this new decade had breathed life back into her body.

“I’ve reorganized every closet, every drawer. I’m busy and I want to do this stuff,” Zafiriadis said on a warmer-than-average day during one of the warmest Chicago Januarys on record. Things are heating up just as much on the inside with self revelations and a desire for change.

Zafiriadis sits down after a full day of work to discuss why her life has changed so drastically in only eight months. The short answer she gives is “intermittent fasting.”

Before changing her eating schedule to fit fasting guidelines, Zafiriadis would normally wanted to come home and chill — not doing any of her household responsibilities. Feeling lethargic and rundown was common. “That was my past normal — not my new normal.”

Zafiriadis is part of a congregation of converted eaters. In the fall of 2019, intermittent fasting sent a shock wave through media outlets like a Los Angeles earthquake might and began shaking up the dieting landscape many West Coast gurus are known for constructing.

Intermittent fasting has no set medical definition. But it definitely has the medical world talking. An intermittent fasting pattern can vary in a number of ways, according to

Here are the core four intermittent fasting schedules:

  1. The 16/8 Method means not eating for about 14-16 hours and “feeding” for only 8-10 hours of the day. In practice, this looks like skipping breakfast and not eating until noon. Then, not snacking past 9 p.m.
  2. The 5:2 diet looks like eating normally for five days in a week and then calorie counting for two days. It’s recommended that on those two days of the week, maybe Monday and Thursday, women eat 500 calories and men eat 600 calories. Recommended: have two small meals of 250 calories and 300 calories respectively.
  3. Eat-stop-eat is conveniently named to describe a 24-hour fast that occurs once or twice a week. It can be done as a full day by eating dinner one day and not eating till dinner the next. But you can fast from breakfast to breakfast or lunch to lunch!
  4. Alternate day fasting means fasting every other day. This is a bit extreme and is not recommended for people just starting out on fasting because every other day of the week would mean maybe fasting on Monday, eating on Tuesday, not eating Wednesday and so forth till the next week where you eat normally. Then the cycle repeats. Some studies have shown it can be very beneficial.

With each of these methods, you can eat pretty much whatever you want during your “feeding window.” Zafiriadis has found that flexibility to be one of the reasons intermittent fasting actually works. 

“I cannot diet. Diets just … I love to eat. I love food,” Zafiriadis said. 

As a woman who hasn’t even hit 50 yet, she has dealt with decades of food restrictive practices. Talking about intermittent fasting doesn’t show lines of frustration on her face the way dieting did.

“I’ve dieted all my life. Diets never work. You lose all this weight and then you gain it all back and that was the case with me,” she explained.

Then last May, everything changed. 

Zafiriadis embarked on a journey to lower her blood pressure and lose weight after being overweight for years. Her doctor asked her, “‘have you thought about intermittent fasting?’” From then on, she does a version of intermittent fasting that is more extreme than most.

She fasts for at least 24 hours once a week. That allows her body to get into a depleted storage state. Then, she will break the fast depending on her schedule. Being a mother to a high school boy, life always seems to just happen funnily enough. 

But sometimes Zafiriadis will fast for eight days. She calls it an “extended fast.” This means no protein drinks or other sustenance beyond water and coffee. In eight months, Zafiriadis has lost 60 pounds but she said she has gained much more in exchange.

Dimitra Zafiriadis’s weekly eating schedule can involve three days of fasting, represented above, with eating normally the other days of the week. Plus, lots of water everyday. She fasts every week at least one day sometimes up to eight days. (Annie Krall/MEDILL)

Consult your doctor, though, before undertaking an intermittent fasting or an extreme fasting regiment. They may have guidelines you should be following for your specific age and body type. 

But Zafiriadis swears by the extreme fast.

“I’m much more alive!”

“I have much more clarity!”

Fasting almost sounds like a spiritual experience for Zafiriadis. Considering the practice has been a part of religious teachings for centuries, that’s not a dramatic comparison. Being Greek Orthodox, Zafiriadis is no stranger to purposeful fasting. And while the changes thanks to fasting may be more than skin deep, let’s be a little shallow for a moment.

On the surface, Zafiriadis is bright and cheerful. Her bubbly personality sparks a glowing smile which highlights her skin. Her face looks hydrated and in her own words, “younger.” 

As a skin care specialist, her entire profession involves optimizing natural oils and hydration to beautify the largest organ in the human body — the skin. 

When Zafiriadis fasts, she drinks tons of water and black coffee. If she is feeling a little “peckish” she will opt for some plain carbonated water. Beyond a serious amount of liquids, her fasting period is void of any other nutrition. 

This may sound potentially dangerous but Zafiriadis has no qualms about what she is doing. To her, there are no side effects and no down sides to how she eats.

Yet, Chicago clinical psychologist Maria Rago, who specializes in eating disorders, isn’t quite as big a fan of intermittent fasting as Zafiriadis.

“I wouldn’t recommend intermittent fasting to anybody,” Rago declared.

She has been an expert on Good Morning America and spoken across the country about cultivating healthy relationships with food. “The thing about intermittent fasting if you think about your brain is that it is a very rigid [practice],” Rago explained. “It takes a lot of thought. It takes a lot of willpower. It takes a lot of effort.” 

She implored anyone thinking about intermittent fasting to consider more than just the potential benefits. Rago referenced how “maybe there is some budding information that says you can add a year or two to your life but what about the quality of your life?” 

“Do you really want to spend your whole day not eating?” Rago asked. “And then people say during that time that they’re not eating. … They become very preoccupied with food and very hungry.”

Rago did reference a number of researchers who have seen benefits to intermittent fasting. And while some medical professionals like Rago would warn against intermittent fasting, it apparently could help fight cancer.

Mark Mattson, a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, discussed how the future of oncology could involve intermittent fasting.

“There are many trials going on in cancer patients,”  Mattson said while discussing the benefits of fasting. He co-authored the recent New England Journal of Medicine article titled “Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Health, Aging, and Disease.”

In his study, setting mice and rats on an alternate fasting diet where they ate every other day not only inspired weight loss but lead to cells aging slower. To understand why, Mattson analyzed on a cellular level how all of our cells mostly use two energy sources: glucose (starch) and ketones (fats). 

That is why eating high-carb and high-fat foods usually leads to more energy than just lettuce. There are more calories and nutrients in a piece of bread or salmon. When cancer forms and tumor cells are present in the body, chemotherapy and radiation are deployed to try and stop those cells from growing.

So how exactly does intermittent fasting help fight those cancer cells?

A number of trials are being conducted which puts cancer patients on an intermittent fasting regiment, according to Mattson. “The idea there is that because most cancer cells use glucose as their main energy source and, in many cases, can’t use ketones, if you hit them with chemotherapy or radiation while the person is on intermittent fasting or in a ketogenic state then, first, it’s easier to kill the tumor cells and, second, the intermittent fasting may protect the normal cells from the chemotherapy drugs and radiation,” Mattson explained. 

“Adaptive cellular stress response” was also a topic of conversation relating to Mattson’s experiments during our interview. Our cells are able to grow and thrive when we eat because of “cell plasticity.” Yet, when there is a stress response in the body, for example no food in the stomach, “the cells ‘upregulate’ production of antioxidant enzymes and brain cells. Neurotropic factors are upregulated,” Mattson explained. This means the cells are getting better at responding to the lack of food or stress in general.

“At the same time autophagy is increased and overall protein synthesis goes way down during the fasting period,”  Mattson found. Autophagy is the cell cleaning out any damaged pieces in the body to make room for new parts. During intermittent fasting, “the cell is kind of in a stress resistant, don’t grow mode.”

It’s like when you exercise. Your muscle cells don’t grow stronger during the exercise. It’s when you’re resting that they build back up again, but this time stronger and usually with more muscle cells. It’s the same concept with intermittent fasting. Your cells will be better at handling stress if you expose them to more stressful situations. 

According to Mattson, half a dozen studies are now testing this theory of helping cancer patients through intermittent fasting. 

Most importantly, he said, “This is not a diet, it’s an eating pattern.” That is one of the reasons Zafiriadis has found it so different from her previous weight loss programs.

Zafiriadis hopes to continue intermittent fasting. She has dropped her blood pressure and has earned a whole new outlook on life. Being around for the rest of her son’s life was one of the reasons Zafiriadis wanted to start fasting in the first place. 

If you want to try it out yourself, it may not be easy. You may be hungry, tired, or frustrated by some of the restrictions. But, as Zafiriadis said, you can “fit it into your lifestyle.” 

“I wish people would find their own philosophy of eating that really works for them,” Rago advised.

Will intermittent fasting be an adventurous part of your new decade?

Photo at top: Suburban skin care specialist and intermittent fasting enthusiast Dimitra Zafiriadis has lost 60 lbs in eight months after using an extended fasting regiment. (Annie Krall/MEDILL)