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Fasting: The Cure All?

in Nutrition Academy August 27, 2020

Fasting? As in no food? Why would anyone want to do that?! I heard that isn’t good for you, in fact it sounds dangerous! 

The typical reaction of most people when they first hear about fasting is more or less what I described above. Time to bust some myths! Although context is important as always, for the vast majority of people, fasting is a very safe and powerful health practice. In fact early physicians often referred to fasting as a “cure all” and many current health experts would agree. In this article we are going to discuss why one would want to fast as well as some different ways to implement fasting into your life. 

The Fasting Fad

 

With a recent increase in popularity of fasting practices (intermittent, alternate day, bone broth, fruit, water, dry fasting you name it!), it’s tempting to think that this is just another diet fad that kinda works for some people but in the end is unsustainable and will fizzle out like most diet trends. Besides the Local Seasonal Diet, fasting is one of the oldest dietary practices in existence. Of course, this is partly due to the fact that during times of food scarcity our hunter gatherer ancestors were forced into periods of fasting whether they wanted to or not. Interestingly, nearly every traditional culture and religion incorporates some form of intentional  fasting practice on a regular basis either for physical health, mental discipline, or spiritual reasons. Are they on to something? Let’s find out…

What is Fasting? 

 

There are several definitions of fasting and arguments over what is a TRUE fast. The truth is, fasting is going to look different for everyone based on their individual needs and goals. Some would say water fasting (consuming only water) is the only true form of fasting where others might say that giving up meat for a month is also a type of fasting. For the purposes of this article I’m going to refer to fasting as any practice that involves significant restriction (or complete elimination) of food consumption for a prolonged period of time (>24 hours). 

 

Why Fast?

 

Fasting is often referred to as a “cure all” because it allows the body to tap into its innate healing ability. In Naturopathic philosophy (as well as any other alternative health philosophies), the body has an incredible intelligence and ability to heal, which means our goal is to remove the obstacles preventing the body from doing its job. One of those major obstacles in today’s society is food consumption. Not only do we consume foods that are incompatible with our biology, but we also over-consume them. From the time we wake up to the time we go to bed most of us have access to food all day every day (check out our article on Time Restricted Eating). We never give our digestive system a break from food. Most people are unaware that digestion is an extremely energy-intensive process. The mechanical act of mastication (chewing), production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes, intestinal motility, liver processing, transport of food into the cells etc all require significant amounts of energy for our body to digest, absorb and utilize food.

 

What happens to all that energy when we don’t need it for digestion?

 

Suddenly our body has all this extra energy to “clean house” and heal whatever needs some extra love. During prolonged fasts, people often report that nagging injuries or health concerns disappear because their bodies are finally given a chance to repair and regenerate. After roughly 24 hours of fasting (there is some debate about this number in humans), a process called autophagy (auto= self, phagy= eat) kicks in where the body starts to clean out damaged and dysfunctional cells and recycle them. This paves the way for new healthy cells to replace the old. Autophagy is often referred to as the “fountain of youth” and this is why current research points to fasting as the most likely intervention we have to extend human lifespan!

How To Fast Safely and Effectively

First off, fasting is NOT for everyone. Secondly, the longer one fasts, the more important it is to have medical supervision. Whether you plan on doing a short or long fast, consult a physician (one who is familiar with fasting!) to help guide you. 

1. Choose an appropriate length of time for you. If you are completely new to fasting, it would be wise to start with the implementation of time-restricted eating to get your body adjusted to burning fat. After that, start with a 24 hour fast. If you are experienced with fasting or are under strict medical supervision you can experiment with longer fasts. If you really want to challenge yourself (but not actually), the longest recorded fast is 382 days! 

2. Don’t plan your fast during a time where you will be very busy or have to do anything stressful. Your body will respond best if it is in a parasympathetic (relaxed) state where it can properly heal.

3. Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water- minimum amount you should aim for is your weight in pounds divided by 2= ounces of water you should drink daily. Example: 175 lbs= ~88oz = 11cups. May sure you add electrolytes such as fresh lemon juice, apple cider vinegar and celtic sea salt/redmond real salt. As you shift into fat burning your body loses water and electrolytes which often leads to symptoms such as headaches, frequent urination and fatigue. Stay on top of this by drinking more water than you think you need to. Herbal teas are fine and can help support the detoxification process. If you’re addicted to coffee you can include small amounts of coffee, otherwise I would try to avoid it.

4. If water fasting is too daunting or difficult, choose a food that you will eat in small amounts when you are experiencing actual hunger (not mental hunger). I like to choose them based on seasonality, for example bone broth in the winter, watermelon or coconut oil in the summer, apples in the fall, greens powder in the spring etc. Play around and see what works for you!

5. DON’T BINGE! This is one of the most important rules- don’t break your fast by bingeing. Choose something that is simple and easy to digest like fruit, low sugar vegetable juices, bone broth or steamed vegetables. The longer you fast, the more important this becomes. Your body is going to use whatever you feed it to rebuild new and healthy cells so choose wisely!

6. Don’t fast too often. For some individuals (particularly those who have excess weight), regular fasting may be okay. For others this is something that can be detrimental if done too often. Many people feel amazing during/after a fast and assume that more must be better but this is not the case. 

Summary

Fasting is an excellent practice that almost everyone can benefit from. Whenever we give our body a chance to take care of itself, good things happen! Fasting can be intimidating at first, but in my experience most people who try it are surprised at how easy it is and how good they feel both during and after. The benefits of fasting go far beyond the physical and I have only scratched the surface in this article. I would encourage you to do your own research and if you feel called to try fasting, get some guidance from a health professional and go for it!


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