Fasting is getting a lot of press these days. But it’s nothing new. Fasting was a normal practice even as long as 2000 years ago. There are many stories in the Bible of people (including Jesus) fasting for forty days or longer.
According to gold ‘ol Websters (now a website and not a book), the definition of a “fast” is to
1. to abstain from all food.
2. to eat only sparingly or of certain kinds of food, especially as a religious observance.
So why would anyone want to eat sparingly or abstain from food all together? Doesn’t the human body need food to survive?
To answer that question, you have to take a look at the science behind fasting. You need to know how fasting benefits your body, and what meal frequency allows you to take maximum advantage of that.
Science has found the following benefits to fasting:
- Increases insulin and leptin sensitivity – reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
- Increases ghrelin levels, which reduce overeating
- Increases your ability to become fat adapted, which allows your body to burn stored fat for energy.
- Decreases triglyceride levels, which lowers your risk of heart disease
- Decreases inflammation in the body and damage caused by free radicals
- Decreases weight gain and metabolic disease risks
The practice of fasting essentially gets rid of the old mitochondria and at the same time stimulates new growth. This process of renewing your mitochondria may play a huge role in the prevention of many of the diseases we currently have no acceptable treatment for, diseases of excess growth.
There are several types of fasts. The extreme is obviously going for days or even weeks on just water. A more manageable approach is known as Intermittent Fasting. Let's take a brief look at some of the most notable Intermittent Fasting (IF) regimens.
- Alternate day fasting. This is a form of Intermittent Fasting where you do not eat for 24 hours, then eat as you normally would for the next 24 hours. Alternating eating and not eating.
- Once a week or twice a week fasting. Both once or twice a week seem to be easier to follow than the alternate day fasting, but really doesn’t offer much benefit as you are likely to splurge on your non-fasting days.
- Skipping dinner. This one is tough for lots of reasons and it’s likely to lead to sleep disorders and similar side effects as the alternate day fasting diet, only that skipping dinner is less effective than the alternate day fasting due to its shorter fasting time.
- Skipping breakfast. Skipping breakfast is certainly a better idea than skipping dinner. I’ve implemented this IF strategy for years, especially on days that I do not do a morning workout.
Advocates of skipping dinner argue that breakfast is an important meal and should not be skipped. Despite hearing this our entire lives, the science clearly indicates the opposite. There is growing evidence that the typical breakfast is the most harmful meal of the day. A recent study indicated that the typical breakfast caused major adverse effects in the short and long terms. The typical breakfast composition in the study: 12% of calories from protein, 25% from fat and 63% from carbohydrates.
Other reports indicate that eating a high carbohydrate breakfast (oatmeal, toast, bagels, cereal, fruit juice, etc.), leads to a significant higher food consumption for the whole day. Furthermore, a big breakfast has shown to yield only a limited satiety effect which lasts merely 2 hours after breakfast. Overall, science confirms that the typical high carbohydrate breakfast tends to increase fat storage, increase body weight, and increase the risk for cardiovascular disease and long term health.
It’s worth noting that eating a meal in the morning is a fairly new phenomenon. There isn't a single mention of breakfast in the new testament; supper was the main meal of the day. The ancient Greeks and Romans were also very particular about eating their main meal at night.
- The One Meal Per Day Plan. The one meal per day yields 14-16 hours of net fasting time after you factor in digestion. The most effective way to implement this IF plan is to eat your main meal at night to accommodate your circadian clock.
I recently tried out this one meal a day plan. For two weeks, I did not eat breakfast or lunch. What I found was that while I did lose a few pounds, and had plenty of energy during the day, I ended up over eating at dinner. Unlike the water fast I've done in the past, I knew that I would get to eventually eat each day, so skipping breakfast and lunch was pretty easy to stomach (see what I did there?). However, I found myself eating a lot more at dinner, and after dinner, than I normally would. So overall, I don’t think my total daily caloric intake was that much lower than if I would have eaten a breakfast, lunch and a normal sized dinner.
The key to any of these Intermittent Fasting approaches is to not only omit food, but to also omit anything with calories or caffeine. The goal is to give your digestive system a break and even caffeine has to be digested. So stick with water or caffeine free tea.
I’ve also read about “The Fasting Mimicking Diet”. This involves restricting your calories to 800 to 1,100 calories per day for five days each month, opposed to no-calorie fasting. It was primarily developed to improve compliance, as many find a five-day water-only fast to be too difficult. The low-calorie strategy also helps reduce the likelihood of adverse side effects, while retaining most of the benefits.
People are always shocked when I talk about my fasting, whether it’s a week-long water fast or going two weeks on just one meal a day. They wonder how I’m not just lying in bed completely out of energy. But think about the math. A pound of fat is around 3,500 calories. It takes close to two full days of fasting to burn a single pound of fat. If you're trying to lose 100 pounds, you could theoretically go 200 days of fasting just to burn all that fat. So trust me, you will be fine going a day without eating!
While the majority of the population would likely benefit from some form of fasting, there are several groups of people that should not consider fasting. If you are underweight, malnourished, under the age of 18, pregnant and/or breastfeeding, or on medication prescribed by a doctor, I would not recommend fasting.
If you're overweight or struggle with chronic illness, I highly recommend getting "The Complete Guide to Fasting," written by Dr. Jason Fung. It will walk you through the entire process and answer all of your questions. I truly believe that most diseases we face as a society are related to or can be changed by diet. Fasting, in it’s many forms, may be the key to healing the human race.
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Wishing you optimal health and peak performance,