I first heard about fasting when my good friend Richard O’Hare started doing it a couple of years ago. Initially I thought it was just an extreme way of losing weight, and Rich did actually lose a lot of weight through doing it, but the thought of skipping meals and “starving” myself sent shivers down my spine. I LOVE food. And I eat a lot of it. What I didn’t realise was the amazing health benefits that fasting provides. Yes, you can use it as a weight-loss tool, but it can also be used as a gut-healing, cell-repairing tool that reverses diabetes, fights cancer and ultimately slows down the ageing process. Sounds good right?
So why isn’t everyone doing it?
It all boils down to a combination of two things: firstly, many people react to the thought of fasting in the way that I initially did - horrified by the thought of starving yourself unnecessarily, and deterred by the worry of feeling hungry all the time. And secondly it’s down to the food industry - if everyone started fasting, it would mean a decrease in the sale of food and therefore a decrease in the profits of big corporates like supermarkets, restaurants and fast food chains. So these brands have used the power of media to brainwash us into thinking that we must eat three meals a day, sometimes even more with the new era of “little and often” being the best method of maintaining a healthy metabolism. I’ll admit that I always feared skipping breakfast because I related it to slowing down the metabolism. In fact, the exact opposite is true, and we are all being misled into overeating on a daily basis.
Snacking has become a huge part of Western culture, with people carrying snacks around at all times in fear of becoming hungry - when as little as 70 years ago snacking wasn’t a thing - everyone simply ate three meals a day. In fact, during World War II, levels of diabetes-related deaths dropped significantly due to the restraints of rationing, which is a pretty big eye-opener into the impact of overeating.
Let’s just take a brief look at the history of fasting. We can go all the way back to Ancient Greece [460 BC] to find the first recordings of fasting for therapeutic and medicinal use. The famous physician Hippocrates recommended an abstinence from food and drink to relieve patients of certain ailments. The method has since been used for medicinal purposes throughout history. When we look at the Roman Empire and many other ancient historic periods, people would celebrate occasions by throwing huge feasts at which everyone in attendance would over-indulge on decadent foods, however they would then follow this feast with a period of fasting to compensate. Going even further back to the Palaeolithic era [Neanderthals], it was very much the norm to go for days and weeks without eating depending on the season and what foods were available.
Fasting has also been used in many different religions for a long time: Muslims, Christians and Buddhists are just some of the faiths that use periods of fasting as a way to spiritually cleanse oneself. Ramadan, Lent and Vinaya all involve different types of fasting, whether it is not eating during daylight hours, or partially fasting for 40 days - not as a harmful punishment, but as something deeply purifying to the human body and spirit.
As you can see, the concept of fasting has been around for a very long time, but what does it actually do for your body that makes it so beneficial? Here’s my (extremely basic) overview. [I’ve listed some great resources at the bottom of this post if you’re interested and want to learn more!]
Fasting has been shown to:
1. Encourage your body to burn visceral fat for energy.
When you fast, your body uses up its supply of glucose, so it turns to stored fat for energy.
2. Promote cell regeneration and detoxification.
During fasting, cells break down proteins and other cell components and use them for energy. This process is called Autophagy and it is essentially your cells destroying viruses and bacteria, while getting rid of any damaged cells in the process.
3. Lower risks of type 2 diabetes, and even reverse existing conditions.
By controlling insulin levels and reducing blood sugar levels through fasting, it is possible for those with diabetes to reduce their insulin treatment and even stop taking it all together.*
4. Improve heart and brain health
5.Reduce risks of cancer
6. Improve immune system and gut health
7. Increase speed of metabolism
These last four points are all linked to the fact that fasting essentially gets rid of excess fat, reduces insulin resistance and encourages the repair/regeneration of damaged cells. I don’t want to get too technical in this post, but if you want to find out the exact sciences behind fasting, please do check out the reference material linked at the bottom of this post.
I’m hoping by now I’ve got you interested in the concept of fasting, so to give a Layman’s overview of what exactly happens when we fast, I’m going to quote Mayo Oshin’s amazing blog post “The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Intermittent Fasting”, as he explains it much better than I would be able to:
“In order to understand how fasting works and how it affects the brain and body, it’s important to learn the differences between the fed state and the fasted state. When we eat food, the body absorbs energy for immediate use and stores excess amounts away in our liver and fat cells through a storage hormone called insulin. Because insulin rises whilst we’re in this “fed state,” the body is unable to burn fat at the same time. Once we stop eating, the insulin levels start to fall, and the body begins to burn the stored energy for up to 24 hours, after which it will begin to burn fat during the fasted state.”
So when we are constantly snacking, we are keeping our body in a fed state, which means it is constantly storing energy [glucose] as fat cells and releasing insulin. It typically takes 12 hours for the body to officially enter a fasted state, which means that a lot of people will rarely give their bodies the chance to burn stored fat supplies. A super easy way to begin fasting is by skipping breakfast, as the body will have already fasted for the duration of your night’s sleep, so by holding off on eating until lunchtime, you are allowing your body more time to start reprogramming what it burns for energy.
Below I’ve listed the different types of fasting you can do, or at least the three main types that provide the most benefit:
This is where you fit all of your eating into a particular window of time each day. I do this version of fasting 5 days a week [weekends I take off], and I stick to 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours of eating each day. I just make sure I’ve eaten my evening meal by 8pm, and then I fast through until 12pm the next day, essentially just skipping breakfast. Most people do this method of fasting without even realising it - but the most beneficial effects happen after 16 hours of fasting or more, so I would say make that your minimum. A lot of people do 18 hours of fasting with 6 hours of eating, and some do 20 hours of fasting with a 4 hour eating window. Whatever works for you.
This can take on several forms but the main two are Alternate-day Fasting [so for instance, fasting for 24 hours every other day], or having a couple of days a week in which you have an extremely low caloric intake [the most well-known one being 5:2 fasting - where you eat whatever you like for 5 days of the week, but then only intake around 500-600 calories per day for the other two].
This typically refers to fasts that last for a minimum of 72 hours, and can be as long as you want them to last [the record is 382 days 😱]. As crazy as that sounds, these have proven to be the most effective types of fasting in terms of health and longevity.
When you do any of the above forms of fasting, you are typically allowed to still consume the following things to help satiate any waves of hunger:
Tea [without milk]
I recently did my first 24 hour fast, which was surprisingly easy - I simply made sure I had eaten my evening meal by 7pm, and then extended my usual lunchtime fast break to the following evening at 7pm, only 7 hours longer than I would usually. In all honesty I felt great - I didn’t have that super sluggish food coma after lunch, I remained energised and focused throughout the day and even did 20 minutes of yoga after work, as well as my usual gym workout on the morning.
I would definitely recommend trying out fasting, even if it’s just the 16:8 method that I do, five days per week. Whether you want to lose weight or not, the benefits on your health and longevity are phenomenal, especially upon long-term implementation. You can have cheat days and weeks for sure, as long as you resume fasting afterwards you shouldn’t see any crazy changes to your body for having a nice holiday or an over-indulgent Christmas. Diet is key, making sure you eat plenty of nutritious meals that are high in protein and healthy fats and low on carbohydrates [stick to whole, natural carbs like sweet potatoes or brown rice] in your eating window will mean that you reap the most benefits of fasting.
All I can say is try it: it’s free, super easy to do, and will save you money in the long run if you do stick with it! Let me know if you have any questions at all, or if you want to share your own experience of fasting - I’d love to hear from you.
*Please note: if you do suffer from any medical conditions such as diabetes or heart conditions, consult with your GP before doing any form of fasting. You can achieve amazing results with these conditions, even reverse them, but you will need the guidance of your GP to do it in the safest way.
The Complete Guide to Fasting - Jimmy Moore & Jason Fung