Fasting has been practiced for centuries, but can it help you to be healthier?

Fasting is an ancient concept and people fast for many different reasons. It is an integral part of many religions from Christianity to Judaism to Islam, and sometimes it is used as a way to make a peaceful protest to fight for a certain cause. Gandhi utilized this method of peaceful, “non-violent” protest very effectively in fighting for India’s independence. Fasting is also the world’s most ancient and natural cleansing mechanism. Many people today use fasting as a way to burn calories or to detox their system.

When properly done, fasting is a safe and effective means of maximizing the body’s self-healing capacities. The body rids itself of the toxins that have built up in our fat stores throughout the years. In some circles it is believed that the body heals itself and repairs damaged organs during a fast, and ultimately contributes to a longer life span.

There are also many different ways of fasting, with the most common form being a 24-hour water fast once a week, once every few days or even once a month. There are also hard-core fasting methods involving multiple consecutive days consuming only water or liquids. Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a “modern” fasting technique, which is gaining a great deal of popularity. It involves intervals of alternating fasting periods with an eating window.

The proponents of IF believe that we are evolutionarily wired to go without food intermittently. Indigenous people did not eat three meals a day plus snacks, nor did they take supplements. Their food supply came directly from nature with much higher nutritional density than modern farmed foods. Our genes seem to be geared to not only being able to cope with periods of no food, but to thrive.

Fasting aligns us biologically with our evolutionary history. Over the 250,000 years that Homo sapiens have been around on the planet, the food supply was variable. Our bodies evolved to take advantage of this fact, building muscle and fatty tissue during times of abundance, and then paring it back during lean ones.

General health advice used to consist of eating three meals a day. Now, health professionals are advocating eating five to six small meals per day. The usual justification for eating smaller meals more frequently is that it keeps the metabolism “revved up” and functioning more efficiently. However, there is not a whole lot of hard evidence to support that. In fact, in practice these extra meals usually aren’t home cooked, wholesome and healthy ones. In our busy lives, they are likely to be some kind of convenient snack mixes, or worse.

Intermittent fasting challenges the status quo and supports the practice of allowing lengths of time to pass between meals. There are many variations. Some proponents skip breakfast; others, dinner. Others fast all day every 3rd day or once a week.

Proponents believe the IF method works because it aligns with our evolutionary history. We evolved to take advantage of building muscle and fatty tissue during times of abundance and paring it back during scarcity. Fasting periods accelerate the clearing of waste left by dead cells, and ultimately to a healthier body.

The Pros

Occasional fasting helps to speed up the clearing-out of toxins from our bodies and boost the activity in certain cells, especially neurons, which appears to be an evolutionary trait developed over thousands of years. In 1946, a study conducted by the University of Chicago found that when rats were denied food every third day, their lifespans increased by an extra 20 percent in males, and 15 percent in females.

In 2007, researchers at the University of California, Berkley, reviewed the original study and concluded that alternate-day fasting:

  • May reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer
  • May lower the risk of developing diabetes
  • Might protect against some of the effects of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease
  • Can help improve overall cognitive function

Another benefit would be that the body loses fat quicker than if eating on a regular basis, and intermittent fasting can actually provide you with more energy because the digestive system has been put on stand-by, therefore releasing more energy for you to use.

In addition to the health benefits, there is also the aesthetic benefit of a slimmer body as a result of losing stored fat.

The Cons

Despite its potential benefits, fasting remains a controversial topic. There are many ways it can also damage your health. Although the metabolism has more energy diverted away from the digestive system, it is also likely to cause the body to try and conserve energy. Without a regular intake of carbohydrates, your body may feel that it is starving and will work harder to store fat. It is a mechanism based on pure survival. When you fast, you are also at risk of low blood sugar levels and lower blood pressure than normal, causing you to feel lethargic or dizzy.

Fasting allows the organs, tissues and cells to rest, however, the body needs the nourishment provided by food to function after it has used its stores. Malnourished people should definitely not fast nor should some overweight people who are undernourished. Others who should not fast include people with fatigue resulting from nutrient deficiency, those with chronic degenerative disease of the muscles or bones, those who are underweight, pregnant or lactating women, people who have weak hearts as well as those with reduced immunity.