Most of us start and end our days with a meal. But British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world, does it a little differently: From 5 p.m. on Sundays until 5 a.m. on Tuesdays, Sunak reportedly does not eat.
“I tend to try and do some fasting at the beginning of every week as part of a general balanced lifestyle,” Sunak told the BBC after the Sunday Times reported, citing his friends, that Sunak fasts for a 36 hour-period each week.
Details of Sunak’s eating habits have sparked intense media and public attention — especially after he revealed that his restraint doesn’t extend as fully to the rest of the week. He told the BBC he has “a weakness for sugary things” and once described himself as addicted to Coca-Cola.
Sunak, 43, told the BBC that fasting is an exercise in “discipline” for him and a health habit, and told ITV’s “This Morning” that he tries to eat “not totally nothing, but largely nothing” after “an indulgent weekend.” Fasting is also an important practice in Hinduism, though it is not clear if Sunak, who is a practicing Hindu, fasts for religious reasons.
But what do we know about intermittent fasting, the catchall term that means restricting food intake for periods of time? And how could it affect a world leader with an unusually demanding schedule — who may have to make decisions on the economy, immigration and foreign policy on an empty stomach?
A 36-hour fast “is within the realm of something our bodies can handle,” Leonie Heilbronn, leader of the Obesity and Metabolism laboratory at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But “I wouldn’t want to go too much longer,” she said. “You start to have some negative effects as well.”
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Studies suggest that intermittent fasting is associated with lower risk of hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease in overweight adults, and can lead to loss of fat and body weight. But when we don’t eat for long stretches, our blood sugar level goes down, which can trigger the release of certain hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, leading to feelings of irritability. Hunger can also cause drowsiness, low energy, difficulty concentrating and other symptoms.
On social media, some people focused on the negative effects they feel when they don’t eat for long periods of time: Cranky. Sluggish. Distracted. Is it wise, they asked, for the leader of a nation to expose himself to decision-making-by-hanger?
“I don’t think it’s good for a leader of a G7 nuclear power to starve himself from 5pm Sunday to 5am Tuesday every single week,” tweeted Tom Harwood, a presenter for the conservative GB News station. “It leads to mad decisions.”
But fasting affects everyone differently, and while some people find that it “does make them quite grumpy and irritable,” others “find that fasting suits them,” Heilbronn said. Fasting can also get easier over time, she said.
“We all have to work out for our bodies what is the best way of getting a balanced and nutritious diet,” said Priya Tew, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association and founder of the Dietitian UK clinic, who added that she discourages “this kind of feast-and-famine approach.”
The public attention on his fasting habits seemed to have caught Sunak off guard. “I didn’t think we’d ever be talking about this,” he told ITV’s “This Morning.” But it may also serve as a distraction from a news cycle that was previously dominated by news of pessimistic polling results and turmoil in his Conservative Party.
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As The Washington Post previously reported, experts believe that intermittent fasting can be beneficial by triggering a process called metabolic switching, “which is when the body goes into a fasting state” and starts to burn fat instead of glucose for energy.
But the evidence around the benefits and risks of intermittent fasting is “inconclusive,” said Tew, because many studies are conducted on small groups of people and do not track long-term outcomes.
How sensible intermittent fasting can keep you healthy
There are different ways of fasting: Some eat normally five days a week and drastically cut the number of calories they consume the other two days of the week, for example. Others fast for 12 hours a day or eat every other day.
The key, according to Tew, is not to overindulge outside of the fasting periods. Intermittent fasting is not meant to be “an all-or-nothing approach where you don’t eat anything and then you binge on the sweeter foods. It’s meant to be more of an approach where you do your fasting, and then you eat a balanced and nutritious diet the rest of the time,” she said.
That may be bad news for Sunak, who told the BBC that fasting “means that I can then indulge myself in all the sugary treats I like for the rest of the week.”