Updated: Jan 28
Fasting has experienced a comeback in recent years but has been used as a spiritual practice since ancient times. Historically it was seen as a way for the individual to renew or revitalise the self, whereas now it is being used as a means to rebalance or revitalise the metabolic and hormonal processes. Science is quickly backing up what many cultures did intuitively, albeit for different yet similar reasons.
In modern western society people will rarely go more than a few waking hours without food, and increasingly with the wrong types of food. But even the most diligent of eaters among us could benefit from setting down the fork for longer than we’re used to. So what are the potential benefits?
· weight loss
· increased longevity
· improved insulin sensitivity
· stronger resistance to stress
· increased growth hormone production
· increased mental clarity
· breakdown of damaged cells
· improved mitochondrial function for better energy
· improved gut health
It’s not an exhaustive list but it reads well. Who wouldn’t want to give it a try, and how do we go about it? There are no hard and fast rules and I have seen numerous ways to do it, but before we get into them there a few things worth noting. Usually the better your diet is the easier it is to go longer periods without food. If you are somewhat fat adapted (you can use fat stores as general energy) you won’t suffer blood sugar irregularities or get “hangry”. That’s not to say you can’t try it, but you might turn into an irritable a$$hole for a day or two. It is also worth noting that abstaining from food for 12-24 hours doesn’t give you licence to eat whatever you want. The obvious rules apply. So what are the options?
Short eating window: this is a simple and effective way to start. Reported benefits can be seen doing this anywhere from 2 -5 days a week, but many people do it every day. Simply eat all of your meals between a four to ten hour window. You can skip breakfast and have an evening meal or eat breakfast and skip your evening meal. There are further potential benefits to not eating for four or more hours before bed, but that can be kept for another conversation. 16 hours fasting with 8 hours eating is probably the most common approach.
The 5:2 method: eat normally for 5 days and then restrict calories to about 500-600 calories for 2 days every week.
Single 24 hour fast: as easy as it sounds. Don’t eat for a straight 24 hours. Stop eating after dinner at 7p.m and don’t eat until 7p.m the following day.
Alternate day fasts (for 1 week): this is an extension of the 24 hour fast done on alternate days of the week. I wouldn’t recommend this for beginners.
Meal skipping: this is a spontaneous intermittent fast. Don’t eat if you don’t feel like it or if the food options are poor quality. If you are taking a flight you don’t need to eat for the entire trip. This takes the pressure off finding something healthy at the airport.
When you are not eating with any of the above options it is a good idea to drink water and have low calorie drinks like black tea/coffee or herbal teas.
Fasting doesn’t suit everyone and I have heard mixed reports about how suitable it is for women. As always gauge yourself on how you feel doing it. It is worth mentioning again that trying any of these methods will be more effective if you are already making good food choices. It may be a means to get you over a weight loss plateau or improve your energy levels if they are lagging. Whatever your reasons for doing it, don’t go to the extreme in the short term. Take it slowly for a longer period of time to give it a chance.
Remember, food choices and food quality matter most above all else.