She worked out often. Lifted weights. Took gym classes to stay on top of cardio.

She kept an eye on diet, too, and always managed to stay in shape.

But after Vanessa Braden’s daughter Zaya arrived in 2015, things changed.

“Shortly after I stopped nursing her, I started to gain weight rapidly,” said Braden, now 42. “I’d put on a pair of pants I’d worn two weeks earlier and they wouldn’t fit. I’ve always been pretty in touch with my body, so I knew something was up.”

Doctors quickly diagnosed her with hypothyroidism and prescribed a medication that regulated hormone production.

But it did little to slow her weight gain.

The numbers on the scale kept creeping upward, despite plenty of weight loss attempts and efforts to fight her way back to a regular gym routine.

“I knew I had to try something else and I figured I’d go all in,” she said.

She recalled an email about a medical fasting program offered by Spectrum Health Lifestyle Medicine. It also mentioned a healthy cooking class.

“I signed up for both,” Braden said.

The program—a five-day, at-home supervised fast—is actually a “fast mimic,” said Kristi Artz, MD, medical director of Spectrum Health Lifestyle Medicine and virtual health.

When people hear the word “fast,” they may think about religious observances or dangerous crash diets.

“Many people aren’t aware that our bodies are very well adapted to fasting and it’s been preserved within our evolutionary biology,” Dr. Artz said. “And it’s quite different than starvation.”

Dr. Artz and the health team coached Braden through every part of the process, including measuring weight, blood pressure, glucose levels, body composition and lipids, both before and after.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Braden said. “But I’m so glad I did it. I’ve now gone through two cycles of the fast. Each time, I’ve gotten so much more energy. And I feel like the fast, as well as the coaching that comes with it, sets me up for eating success on my own.”

Why fasting works

Most patients, including Braden, lose between 5 to 8 pounds in the five-day fast, typically regaining 20% in the following week.

But the impact is much greater than knocking off a few extra pounds.

“Fasting is beneficial for people with obesity and metabolic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver disease and high cholesterol,” Dr. Artz said. “But it also helps some of the common autoimmune diseases, too.”

The process reduces inflammation, creating resistance to some cancers, as well as metabolic diseases.

Research on fasting suggests that certain cell mechanisms can be turned on in response to fasting, particularly beyond the second day.

Some facilities help patients fast on an in-patient basis, typically using only water. That means people need to be monitored closely for electrolyte abnormalities and low blood pressure.

The Spectrum Health program is different, designed for more flexibility and freedom.

“We wanted something people could do safely in their own home,” Dr. Artz said.

Patients get a kit containing exact foods to be eaten on each of the five days. All are plant-based and have been rigorously tested.

Braden sipped tea and water throughout each day. She struggled with caffeine and sugar withdrawal.

“You get a small breakfast bar and some soup for lunch and dinner,” Braden said. “Sometimes, there is a kale cracker, a pack of olives or a chocolate bar.”

Because these foods provide at least a small number of calories, Braden found the experience more of a mental challenge than a physical one.

Part of the program includes an app, which connected her to others in her fasting group.

“I found that helpful because I had no idea what to expect,” she said. “So hearing that other members also had a headache, felt foggy or occasionally wanted to quit was reassuring.”

By the third day—the one with the least amount of food—she felt much better.

“At that point, I was like, ‘I can do this,'” she said.

Working out is not recommended during the fast. When she returned to the gym on Day 7, she noticed the difference.

“I felt great,” she said.

Hunger cues

Each phase of the fast is important, but re-entry on the sixth day is especially critical. Patients gradually reintroduce more healthy foods, and by Day 7 they are ready to return to normal eating.

The goal after a week? A new normal.

“We’re working with patients so they can be more intuitive about portion sizes,” Dr. Artz said. “It’s remarkable how many patients comment about being better able to understand their hunger cues. They’re more aware of when they’re eating from stress or habit.”

The road to a healthier appetite is bumpy. Braden, who hopes to lose another 20 pounds, said encouragement from the team has been critical.

When she felt discouraged or was hard on herself for not following her goals perfectly, she found support.

“Dr. Artz always pulled me back to the numbers,” she said. She noticed improved lipids and body fat composition.

And while Braden is building her healthy cooking skills, she still struggles with preparing an evening meal that appeals to kids and husband.

“Dr. Artz has also helped me focus on the meals I can control, which means I eat very nutritious plant-based meals for breakfast and lunch,” Braden said.

She intends to use periodic fasting as part of her approach.

“The best way I can explain it is that I feel like I’m rebooting,” she said. “And resetting the way I’m eating.”

That level of success provides a thrill for Dr. Artz and her team. They’ve gotten used to seeing dramatic improvements in patients’ blood pressure and glucose levels.

“In some cases, people with Type 2 diabetes can use repeated cycles of fasting to reduce the amount of medication they need,” Dr. Artz said.

“We love seeing people truly get healthier, feeling like they have more control and the ability to self-manage these conditions,” she said. “And when they can be put into remission, it’s super exciting for us—almost as much as it is for the person with those chronic diseases.”