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Scientists uncover how cells respond to fasting and promote weight loss

Fasting has made a resurgence in the world of dieting in the past decade. However, intermittent fasting, such as 16:8 fasting (8-hour window when eating is allowed and avoiding food, or fasting, for the remaining 16 hours each day) isn’t some diet fad.

There is good scientific evidence that it not only promotes weight loss, but also improves health by reducing the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases.

In a new study, researchers at the University of Warwick zoomed in on the cellular mechanisms that may be responsible for the weight-loss effects of fasting.

Cells on the clock

There is scientific evidence backing the idea that the body responds to intermittent fasting, alternate-day fasting, and other forms of periodic caloric restriction by using autophagy, a cellular self-recycling process.

The team led by Professor Ioannis Nezis from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick dived deep into the science of intermittent fasting and managed to discover how cells activate autophagy genes during fasting.

Their research, which took six years of investigations to complete, showed that three proteins called Sequoia, YL-1 and Sir2, interact with the cytoplasmic autophagy-related protein Atg8a. “It was a long journey with a lot of experiments,” Nezis recounted.

It is during these interactions that the Arg8a protein is recruited in the nucleus of the cell to control the transcription of autophagy genes, promoting the burning of fat.

“This is the first study that uncovers a nuclear role of the cytoplasmic protein Atg8a. We did this research because we wanted to understand the role of Atg8a protein in the nucleus,” Nezis told ZME Science in an e-mail.

Having a better grasp of how autophagy is triggered in the body can have important implications for dieting and nutritional science.

The rise of obesity across the world due to modern lifestyle choices and high-calorie diets is accelerating. In fact, it’s been spreading so fast that some have likened obesity to an epidemic.

For instance, a previous study performed by researchers at the Harvard Chan School’s Center for Health Decision Science found that half of all Americans might be classed as obese by 2030. The UK isn’t far behind, having the highest incidence of obesity in Western Europe. It is estimated that more than half of the British population could be obese by 2050.

“We continue our research on how cells respond to fasting. Obesity is a significant risk factor for increased morbidity and mortality. Fasting, has been a trend in recent years to maintain a healthy weight, the body responds to fasting using autophagy, a cellular self-recycling process,” Nezis said.

The findings appeared in the journal Cell Reports.

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