If hunger pangs are the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of fasting, you may want to read on to put your gut reaction a bit in perspective. First of all, let’s clear up a common misconception that fasting and starving are somehow related or even the same thing. They’re not! Fasting is the voluntary abstention from ingesting food and, sometimes, beverages; starving is a result of food deprivation or certain illnesses.
Fasting has been a foundational practice in almost every spiritual or religious practice since time immemorial. The reasons for this are manifold. They may include a spiritual cleansing or deepening contemplation, purification and simplification of daily habits to move closer to the divine, abstaining from comfort to demonstrate submission to a higher power, etc. Many people around the world continue to engage in these practices of fasting and hold them in high esteem.
But fasting as a spiritual practice is not the same as using this approach to improve your health. Here, you have a wide range of fasting options depending on your health concerns and goals, as well as your life circumstances. Fasting may be the missing piece in your quest to manage a healthy weight or address other chronic health imbalances such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or even cancer.
The conventional approach often doesn’t work
If you struggle with overweight, you’ve probably already tried many different diets and programs only to find yourself back at square one in a few weeks, months or the following year. No matter how healthy and wholesome the diet is you’ve chosen, your body’s metabolism tends to adjust to the reduced availability of calories and so the weight will probably come back sooner or later, often with a vengeance. Scour the medical research literature and you will soon find out that there’s plenty of evidence that caloric restriction, the old “calories in, calories out” approach, is not working well for most individuals. The main reason for this is your body’s regulation of insulin and other hormones.
Learning from our ancestors
Without going more deeply into the physiology of metabolism, there are some steps most of us could take right away to allow insulin to reach healthy levels again. The first has nothing to do with fasting but entails shifting proportions of macronutrients in your meals from carbohydrates to fats and moderate amounts of proteins. The standard American diet includes much higher amounts of carbs, especially refined carbs, than our ancestors were eating. This shift alone can work well for many because you will feel more satiated for longer after your meals.
Which brings us to the second step: snacking. Many people notice that when their meals contain more fat, they won’t get hungry again as quickly and reach for snacks between meals. This is actually a good thing for most of us. Not snacking between meals allows your insulin production a bit of rest. Try these strategies for several days to see how it makes you feel.
Easing into fasting
Next up is what’s generally referred to as intermittent fasting, or IM for short. Again, for most people this is not such a big leap since most of us don’t get up every few hours during the night to head to the kitchen for a snack. So, you’re probably already experiencing a window of 8-10 hours of overnight fasting. The next step would be to expand this time to 12-14 hours by having early dinner and late (or no) breakfast. Some people thrive having a solid breakfast, others don’t have an appetite first thing in the morning. Either way, it’s generally a good idea to have your dinner at least 3-4 hours before bedtime. With enough fat in your dinner you won’t get hungry again before you go to sleep.
Longer overnight fasting provides numerous benefits, among them time for your digestive system to fully process the last meal and allowing more complete detoxification and regeneration of your tissues, especially your brain.
With this kind of intermittent fasting, you’re usually not eating less but shrinking your feeding window. Most people can get used to this if they find that it makes them feel better.
Taking it further
If reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is your main goal, though, you may need to take fasting a bit further. This can also be helpful with prevention and management of other chronic conditions, but if you have one or are concerned about your risk, you should clearly commence a more advanced fasting schedule only in consultation with an appropriate and experienced healthcare provider.
More committing fasting schedules include alternate-day fasting and several consecutive days (sometimes weeks) of fasting. I don’t recommend jumping in at the deep end if you have serious health concerns or are unable to work with a provider who can monitor your health. Most people will feel quite well while fasting, even more so than during times of habitual eating. But, anytime you’re not feeling well while fasting, it’s a sign that you need to reconsider. This could, for example, happen when you encounter stress and disruptions during your fast that you didn’t anticipate. When you’re breaking an extended fast, it is also recommended to gradually ease back into eating instead of gorging yourself.
Don’t sweat the basics
Lastly, if you’re interested in integrating some form of fasting in your health and wellness approach, remember that this won’t let you off the hook eating healthful and nutritious foods. Processed foods are out and natural foods are in. Cook your own meals whenever you can, eat the rainbow, buy organic and local if you have access, and ensure that what you’re eating makes you happy and satisfied.
© 2022 Christiane Siebert