It is often said that you are what you eat – and this is often the harsh truth. Eat healthily and you will generally be a healthy being. Eat bad, and the opposite is true. But here’s a curveball for you – what if you eat nothing? In this article, I am going to take a closer look at fasting, a fascinating approach to health and wellbeing that is greatly overlooked in the western world.
What is Fasting?
Fasting, for the purposes of this article, may be defined as the willing abstinence or reduction from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. This can range from 24 hours to a number of days at a time depending on the exact nature of fasting you wish to undertake. One form of fasting is commonly known as water fasting, in which only water may be consumed.
It is important to note that whilst some diets or lifestyle plans may include fasting periods of less than 24 hours, true fasting requires at least 8-12 hours without food, although metabolic changes can typically be observed after 3-5 hours have elapsed.
Fasting in different faiths
For some religions, fasting is an important practice that is observed regularly. In Buddhism, for example, monks and nuns following the Vinaya rules commonly do not eat each day after the noon meal. It is worth noting that technically this is not considered a fast but rather a disciplined regimen aiding in meditation and good health.
Fasting is also is a very integral part of the Hindu religion, with individuals observing different kinds of fasts based on personal beliefs and local customs. Some Hindus fast on certain days of the month such as Ekadasi, Pradosha, or Purnima, whilst certain days of the week are also set aside for fasting depending on personal belief and favorite deity. For example, devotees of Shiva tend to fast on Mondays, while devotees of Vishnu tend to fast on Thursdays and devotees of Ayyappa tend to fast on Saturdays.
In Islam, fasting is obligatory for every Muslim one month in the year, during Ramadhan. Each day, the fast begins at sun-rise and ends at sunset. It is believed to bring them closer to God and also helps to give the digestive system a break. There are also non-obligatory fasts two days a week as well as the middle of the month, as recommended by the Prophet Muhammad.
Although fasting also appears in the Christian religion – particularly at Lent, the reality is that the practice is rarely observed today.
What are the benefits of fasting?
One of the first things people associate with fasting is weight loss. However, whilst it can be an important result, the benefits for both health and wellbeing reach far beyond this alone. Here are just some of the benefits of fasting:
Optimised weight loss
According to a study by the University of Southern California, even irregular fasting can result in a loss of total body fat without sacrificing muscle mass. If you want to lose weight and lose belly fat, fasting could be the key. This can be of great benefit even to athletes.
Helps to prevent chronic illness
By normalising levels of several important substances and the way our bodies react, fasting can help to prevent or offset a range of chronic illnesses and conditions including type-2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure. Studies also indicate that fasting can be highly effective in cancer treatment and recovery, although caution is advised. Prolonged fasting also supports the regeneration of immune cells to help fight disease.
May offset ageing
Both modern studies and observance of cultures with a strong tradition in fasting suggest that fasting is likely to have a direct effect in increasing longevity. This can be accounted for by the physiological and cognitive benefits.
According to Dr. Razeen Mahroof, of the University of Oxford in the UK, fasting causes a detoxification process to occur, as toxins stored in the body’s fat are dissolved and removed from the body. This results in improved appearance of the skin.
In the same report, it is noted that after a few days of fasting, higher levels of endorphins – “feel-good” hormones – are produced in the blood, which can have a positive impact on mental well-being. As well as improving our sense of wellbeing, it can also help to prevent depression and improve our reaction to stress.
To learn more about the benefits of fasting, I would recommend watching ‘The Science of Fasting’ (2016), a fascinating documentary by Sylvie Gilman and Thierry de Lestrade
A word of caution
Before beginning any type of fasting, you should consult with a healthcare professional to ensure that it is suitable for you and that a safe approach is followed. This is particularly important for high risk groups including the pregnant, those with diabetes, those with cancers or cancer treatments that are known to cause weight loss and people who have recently undergone surgery. It is generally recommended that fasting is done under medical supervision.