Fasting is a voluntary withholding of food for periods of time. These periods can be for several hours or several days. In extreme fasting cases this can last weeks at a time. Fasting is not starvation, but merely the controlled absence of eating [a practice not recommended for those who are underweight]. Starvation is the process that occurs when food is withheld for prolonged periods of time outside of the control of the individual; starvation is neither deliberate nor controlled.
The practice of fasting has been on record since the beginning of human history, but has been almost all but forgotten in our modern day way of living; outside the practices of fasting that are currently a part of several religions. Fasting is also practiced for other spiritual reasons, for health and healing. As the length of a fast can vary, shorter terms of fasting can be referred to as intermittent fasting; a pattern of eating that cycles between fasting and eating, typically during each 24 hour day. Some of us may not realize that we are already practicing intermittent fasting in our daily lives. For example, if you refrain from eating between the hours of 6pm through 10am the following morning, you are engaging in an intermittent fasting period. It is during this time that your body is in ‘repair’ mode; going hand in hand with the necessity and benefits of sleep. A common type of fast is the 16/8 split, where the individual consumes food during an 8 hour period only and refrains from eating during the remaining 16 hours of the day. The term ‘breakfast’ actually refers to breaking of the ‘fast’ that occurs, for many people, through the night. It could be argued that, by our very design, intermittent fasting is more natural than eating several meals each day, throughout a 12 (or more) hour period. Humans are able to function without food for extended periods of time. Have you ever asked yourself why you're eating 3 meals every single day? In our busy lives today, just the thought of having to plan and prepare a minimum of 3 meals for ourselves, and families, can cause overwhelming stress and a negative perspective towards eating.
In history, some very influential individuals agreed, practiced, and taught that fasting was the most powerful natural healing solution. All cultures of the world have practiced fasting in one form or another. In fact, the body’s natural response to illness is to refrain from food; and the reason we don’t feel like eating when we are sick.
Hippocrates, who is known as the father of modern medicine stated, “…to eat when you are sick, is to feed your sickness.” Benjamin Franklin, an intellect and proponent to fasting, said “…the best of all medicine is resting and fasting, better than all other forms of ‘medicine.’” Fasting has a purification effect in the body, through a process referred to as ‘autophagy.’ Our bodies are designed for a ‘store and release’ process. Mahatma Gandhi, another advocate to fasting, said ‘…that a genuine fast cleanses the body mind and soul.” Jesus, who also fasted himself, said “this kind can come out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” – Mark 9:29; referring to satan and his plagues’ stronghold on an individual. The bible itself has dozens of references prescribing fasting of varying intent, specification and length. Groups of Buddhist monks engage in regular intermittent fasting by abstaining from food each day from noon, through until sunrise the following day. Muslims, of Islamic faith, practice intermittent fasting during their holy month of Ramadan, and is regarded as one of the five pillars of Islam. The fasting of Ramadan lasts each day from dawn until sunset, for 30 days.
What happens to your body when fasting?
On a cellular and molecular level, fasting increases the opportunity for your body to adjust hormone levels, to make stored fat more accessible. During periods of fasting your cells initiate important repair processes and change expression of genes. Some effects that occur in your body during periods of fasting include:
Insulin is the key hormone involved in storage of food energy. Eating increases insulin, which is then stored in two separate ways. First, carbohydrates are broken down into individual glucose (sugar) units, which can be linked into long chains to form glycogen; stored in liver or muscles. There is limited storage space for carbs, so once that limit is reached the liver starts to turn excess glucose into fat by the process called 'de-novo lipogenesis.' Some of this new fat is stored in the liver, but much is transported to create deposits of fat in other parts of the body; with almost no limit to how much fat can be created.
When we fast, the process is reversed; insulin levels drop, which signal the body to start burning stored energy. When blood glucose falls (is used up), the body takes glucose out of stores to burn for energy - glycogen, being easier to access is broken down first into glucose molecules providing energy for the body’s other cells. If glucose levels, through carbohydrate consumption, are not replaced, the body’s glucose stores are used up, providing energy for up to 24-36 hours. Once used up, the body diverts to breaking down stored fats for energy. This is where ketosis comes in. This is the process of burning stored fat for energy, and part of the equation to the effectiveness of rapid weight loss, as experienced by so many people who practice a ketogenic lifestyle, for its benefits in weight loss and overall health improvement. Simplistically, the living body only exists in two states, the fed state (high insulin) and the fasted state (low insulin). We are either storing energy or burning energy. A balance in this process should cause very minimal, to no, weight fluctuations.
In addition to weight loss and insulin sensitivity there are other noted health benefits, such as the reduction of inflammation; a key factor in many chronic diseases. Fasting promotes heart health in that it may reduce bad ‘LDL’ cholesterol, blood triglycerides, inflammatory markers, blood sugar and insulin resistance; all precursors to heart disease. Studies also show that fasting may help prevent cancer, in addition to some cases, where it may help reverse some cancer growths. Fasting also has benefits to brain health. In addition to clearing ‘brain fog’ and increasing ability to focus, fasting may increase the brain hormone BDNF, and may aid in the growth of new nerve cells. There are numerous studies indicating that regular and periodic fasting have age defying effects that promote anti-aging. Fasting, and in particular, daily intermittent fasting, has the ability to simplify one's lifestyle. Focusing on 1-2 quality meals per day, as opposed to several, saves time, increases body repair time, saves money, reduces stress and aids in overall wellbeing.
Fasting gets a bad reputation in today’s society, as a partially forgotten practice. Even more cunningly though, in a commercial society that is obsessed with spending, consumption and over indulgence, we are quite literally programmed to be always thinking about food; in a way that has become so unhealthy and unnatural to our design. Eating should be a pleasure, not a burden or a chore, and certainly not an influence on unhealthy habits and poor ideals of ourselves. When we dare mention fasting nowadays, we generally get eye rolls or concerned looks. The truth is, that of the 1000’s of cultures that have practiced fasting, along with the 100’s of millions who continue to practice for religion and other spiritual based faith, over the course of time, fasting in some form or other, has been practiced by billions.
Intermittent fasting, at its core, allows the body to use its stored energy (fat) in a physical way, and rid the excess body fat we carry. In a spiritual way [for those that follow], the bad energies and oppressions we carry can also be purged away. Life is about balance, and the practice of fasting allows that balance to take hold, in our physical (and mental) real estate. Fasting is the balance to food consumption.
When looking at the keto process, in relation to its effects in weight loss, we see how it’s possible to achieve this ‘fat store’ burning process through extreme reductions in our carbohydrate intake. This should ideally be a temporary process that allows our body to become fat adapted; meaning fat burning adapted. This typically occurs by the 5 – 6 week mark, once being in ketosis. It would be somewhere at this point that we could make the decision to continue with rapid weight loss through severe reductions in carbohydrate consumption, or for the ‘good news,' folks - we can slowly start to incorporate more carbohydrate foods back into our diet. This would however, depend on the individual and their personal goals. Some, who are on keto, are trying to lose larger amounts of weight than others. Intermittent fasting can be a complementary practice to eating keto. If you typically eat every 2 - 3 hours, your body will be in a constant state of using incoming food as energy first and may not reach the point of using up stores of fat; the reason why dieting can often times be a huge challenge. With the higher fat consumption of a keto diet, you tend to experience little, to no, dire cravings; another advantage of a keto diet. All in all, it's up to the individual to decide what their goals are and to design a plan that works best for them. It’s ok to try something and realize it doesn’t work for you, then try a different approach; don’t be discouraged with your process or progress. And as always, do your own research as well. Nothing is more valuable to your progress than knowledge.
Disclaimer: Please remember that every ‘body’ is different and will have different experiences and different outcomes. Always research for yourself the risk and benefit to any major lifestyle change, including fasting. The intention of this article is not to diagnose, validate for, or advise any individual. It is strictly for information purposes and to provide awareness. Fasting can be a danger to some people, for certain medical reasons. Always speak to your own health care team before venturing into something you are unsure of.
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Thank you for reading!
Tanya is a classically trained, Red Seal Chef, and former restauranteur and caterer, with additional studies in Holistic Nutrition and business. Having food as her foundation she continues to build on her interests and knowledge base in the study of the body, mind and brain connection. She now spends her time as a Mom of twins, researcher and writer, while continuing to participate digitally in the culinary world with her company, Artisan Food Co.