Intermittent fasting has recently become a popular topic within the health industry and in the media as a way of both losing weight and improving health. But the idea of fasting has been around for centuries, sometimes because there was no option but to go without food while on other occasions it has been a deliberate decision not to eat for a defined period of time.
Today, many people are quite shocked at the thought of ‘missing a meal’ and so, to go perhaps 1,2, even 3 or more days without eating is a particularly difficult idea for them to contemplate.
Remember, fasting isn’t dieting, it’s simply a change in the regularity of your eating. Unless you particularly want to, outside of the fast, it doesn’t require any change to your eating, just, for the period of the fast, you stop eating. As a consequence you may find yourself wanting to eat different things when you have broken your fast, but that’s part of the interest and fun of trying this out, quite besides the many potential benefits it brings. I’ve never ‘dieted’ but fasting is much more appealing to me because I’m not having to worry about whether I can or can’t eat this that or the other, I just don’t eat anything for 1-3 days. Simple!
How do you fast?
There are no strict rules and you may have to adapt to your circumstances. You may want a ‘water only’ fast or you may include intake of something like coffee or lemon water. I usually have coffee to stimulate my liver which helps with detoxification, and I have lemon water to stave off any hunger pangs. But I’m also not averse to a water-only fast from time to time….but be wary of the headaches if you are a coffee addict like me – same for tea as well – coming off those ‘drugs’ can be a struggle for the first day or so. A water fast is the most challenging for your body as it has no calorific intake, but potentially the most beneficial, particularly for weight loss.
Also bear in mind your lifestyle. I am lucky in that I can usually set aside 2-3 days of low activity at home but if you live a busy life, looking after a family, going food shopping, stressful job etc. then cut yourself some slack and perhaps just do a day at a time, or perhaps a weekend. Food shopping can be the worst! But that’s where the psychological challenge of the fast comes in (see below) – you may come to see that eating 3 times a day at regular times is almost an addiction rather than a necessity – we don’t stop to consider whether we really will ‘pass out’ if we don’t eat so frequently and whether it’s actually healthy to miss a meal occasionally. Fasting will show you it’s very unlikely that you will pass out – unless you have some kind of physical condition that would make it inadvisable to fast (check the link for a list of conditions that may apply to). But of course, if you have any doubts you should always consult your Doctor.
If you do go ahead, another thing that you will notice, once you are comfortable with fasting, is how much extra time you have, because you come to realise how much time buying, preparing and eating food takes up in a day. So another challenge is – what do you do with all the extra time while fasting?
Why do Intermittent Fasting?
There can be many reasons why you might want to fast so let’s look at a few, starting with the one most people do it for, and then find other benefits come as a bonus.
Consider this story, recorded in a medical journal: A 27 year old man weighing 456lb (207kg) went to his Doctor because of health problems associated with his obesity. After consultation with his Doctor he chose to fast continuously for what eventually became 382 days, with only vitamin supplements for nutritional intake, alongside water. In that time his weight fell to 180lb (82kg) and 5 years later it had not gone back above 196lb (89kg). So with some level of nutritional support, it is clearly possible to lose weight by fasting. In some ways it would seem the most obvious and the most simple way of doing so instead of the many complex ‘buy our special dieting books and products’ diets that have existed in the past.
Once the body has run out of carbohydrates to burn for energy, which it gets from our food intake, it starts to burn fats through a process called Ketosis. This is where a fast can have the greatest impact on our weight and shape as our body starts to use the fat that has been deposited in places such as our hips, buttocks, tops of thighs and our tummy for energy rather than its usual intake of carbohydrates from food.
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Physical Health benefits
There are so many claims about the benefits of fasting, many of which have research to back them up. The main thinking about fasting is that once we stop providing a ready supply of food to our body it has to draw upon the ‘reserves’ and deposits in the body that are not helping it to operate as it should. So it digests stored fat, damaged cells, even tumours and abscesses, and maintains the organs and important processes in the body above all else. More specific claims will be the subject of other articles but here are some examples of benefits backed up by research:
Fasting improves insulin efficiency
Fasting helps you to tolerate carbohydrates (sugar) better than if you didn’t fast. This research found that after periods of fasting, insulin became more effective in causing cells to take up glucose from blood.
Intermittent fasting gives your digestive system a holiday and it comes back refreshed!
Intermittent fasts help to regulate your digestion and promote healthy bowel function, thus improving your metabolic function.
Intermittent fasting improves brain function
An important process for the maintenance of healthy brain function is ‘ neuronal autophagy’ which is the process by which dead cells are removed and repair is then carried out. This research found that fasting has a noticeable effect on the effectiveness of neuronal autophagy which may also explain why fasting can also lead to a sense of ‘freshness’ in our moods and clarity of thinking.
Fasting Improves Your Immune System
This research at the University of Southern California found that fasting can cause the body to eliminate old or damaged cells, and rebuild a new immune system, which is particularly useful for people who have had treatments such as chemotherapy where a lot of cell damage has occurred and the patient is needing to recover as efficiently and quickly as possible.
Fasting helps to have a healthy skin
Ok, I can’t find actual scientific research on this but it sorta makes sense that if our liver and kidneys are being given a gentler time there is less reliance on our skin to have to excrete toxins to help them out. As a result less infection, blemishes, acne etc. will arise within the skin. I know I find my own skin looks and feels much better while I’m fasting and for a period beyond that.
Psychological health benefits
I’d say you will have to find these out for yourself as I don’t think anyone can pre-define them for you. But I know from my own experience and those of others I have read about, talked about, they include the following:
- Fasting helps you listen to your body and hear when it is genuinely hungry and not eating out of habit.
- Self-awareness – you come to realise a lot of things about your daily routine when you are not distracted by the thought of ‘Find-food-now!’
- Self-awareness – again – your daily aches and pains may be made worse or even better by fasting and so while it is going on you can become particularly aware of your state of health and what you might need to do if you want to improve it.
- Letting go of the ‘habit’ of eating shows you that it’s possible to make changes in your life. Fasting is an immense challenge for most people but once you have ‘taken the plunge’ a lot of other things start to look more possible to achieve.
- You may come to realise that your life has very much revolved around food and that making plans that risk ‘missing a meal’ (shock, horror) may not be so impossible after all.
- As a parent you may find yourself projecting on to your child (even if they are now 30!) that if they miss a meal they will need medical care immediately. Perhaps that’s one you can start to question and see what other possibilities open up in your thinking when you can let go of that wish to control their eating habits.
For a far more comprehensive breakdown of different reasons why it is beneficial to fast, visit this website by Mark Sissons
And here’s a video by Dr Vikkie Petersen – Can Intermittent Fasting be the Answer to Your Health Problems?
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