The rise of fasting: Nutritional consultant Theresa Cutts explains some of the science behind this growing health trend (that’s been around for thousands of years!)
The rise of fasting
Fasting – the act of abstaining from consuming food for a period of time – is often associated with the long-time traditions and practices of different religions, the best-known examples being Ramadan and Lent.
Nutritional research is increasingly suggesting that fasting is a practice that can bring significant health benefits if done sensibly and as part of a healthy regime. In the West, it is still sometimes perceived by traditional medical authorities as controversial and even risky for people to do it unsupervised, particularly for quick weight loss (and if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, about to undergo surgery, have underlying health conditions, a known eating disorder, or regularly take medication, then you should speak to your health practitioner before undertaking a fast of any sort).
However, we are beginning to see science highlighting the potential benefits of fasting for long-term health.
Fasting has a long and strong connection with the practice of yoga and its adoption of ayurvedic principles. The yoga community has continually embraced it as an aid to improved physical, mental and spiritual health, wellness and development. Devotees have always valued the purifying benefits of fasting, often integrating a fast into their regime.
Short-term fasting has many benefits, from improving one’s willpower to resist unhealthy foods to improving skin, to increasing energy and mental clarity. Many feel a real sense of achievement, building self-confidence and belief that you can do it and feel better too.
Fasting is also becoming widely acknowledged for its ability to improve the body’s resistance to a number of long-term health issues, measured by certain key health markers such as cholesterol, glucose and growth hormone (IGF-1). These markers are ultimately associated with many degenerative diseases and premature ageing. Pioneering research in the USA by Dr Walta Longo at the University of California is leading the way in exploring these benefits.
In 2012, a BBC2 Horizon documentary Eat, Fast & Live Longer presented by acclaimed TV doctor and science journalist, Michael J Mosley, propelled the concept of intermittent fasting into the limelight. The programme highlighted research from medical institutions and experts across the US, which increasingly supports the belief that fasting intermittently can help us stay younger and healthier.
It also suggested that fasting intermittently could help people to make long-term lifestyle changes. “It’s not what we eat but how and when we eat it,” said Mosley. His conclusion of fasting for two days per week – coined the 5:2 diet – has inspired many more people to try fasting for the first time and adopt it long term as part of a healthy lifestyle. Fasting has become an achievable and workable option for many lifestyles.
Types of fasting
Traditionally, fasting requires full abstention from food and drink, with only water taken to prevent dehydration. As our understanding of nutrition has developed, we now know that the traditional way of fasting using water alone does not provide the body with sufficient nutrients and energy during the fasting days. As a result, there are numerous variations on the fasting theme, varying from how you fast and over what time period, to what you do or don’t consume during fasting. These include:
- Full fast: full continuous abstention from solid food for short periods (5-7 days)
- Intermittent fasting: integrating one or two consecutive days of fasting per week into your lifestyle
- The 5:2 method: where, for two non-consecutive days, you restrict calorie intake to 500-600 calories per day
- Juice fasts, consuming vegetable and fruit juices only
- Liquid-only fasts: such as the Lemon Detox, a programme that allows you to rest your digestive system from solid food while supporting your fast with a mineral/nutrient-rich natural drink
Whether it’s a juice or smoothie fast, or a programme such as The Lemon Detox (which mixes up a perfectly balanced drink using the nutrient-rich Madal Bal Natural Tree Syrup, lemon juice, water and cayenne pepper), the idea is one of supporting your body. If you provide the body with essential nutrients, vitamins and energy while you fast, the digestive system rests and makes the fasting process easier and healthier.
Liquid fasts are popular with yogis, as practicing restraint from solid food consumption is a good practice in self-control.
Find the right fast for you
Fasting-based detoxes have become popular choices for both physical and mental cleansing. Short-term fasting diets for weight loss – made popular by the likes of celebrities such as Beyoncé and Gwyneth Paltrow – have raised the profile of fasting generally, prompting a ground-shift in public interest in the concept as a whole.
Having witnessed many people follow a fast, as well as experiencing the process myself, it is clear that everybody is different and every experience is individual. You need to find the right fast for you, and the fast that will fit your life.
Some people are happy fasting for a few days while others prefer 7-10 days to feel the process really go full circle. Some prefer a full fast, abstaining from all solid foods, while others prefer to follow a more moderate version, eating one healthy meal every day.
Some advice, however, is suitable for all methods. Firstly, for those who have never embarked on a fast before, the most basic principle to remember is that it is as much a psychological journey as a physical one. The body can survive on water alone and without food for extended periods of time if it needs to. However, the temptation of food while you fast can be powerful, so aim to be mentally stronger!
Secondly, try weaning yourself off caffeinated drinks and sugary foods – or any other things you may normally find hard to give up – in the days while you are still eating prior to a fast. This eases the transition to a state of fasting. People who suddenly quit coffee, smoking or alcohol often find they suffer from severe headaches in the first few days of a fast; while many believe this is a direct symptom of fasting, it is more likely to be an effect of withdrawal from these substances.
Thirdly, try to plan your fast to fit your life. If you’re doing a full fast over several days, clear your social diary as much as possible. Treat and nurture yourself, having an Epsom salt bath, booking a massage, going to bed early and even picking up a book you’ve been meaning to read for months. Take the opportunity to retreat from your usual hectic routine and truly rest and restore. If you are fasting for just a couple of days, do it when you know you don’t have a string of lunches or parties to attend. You are far more likely to succeed and see real benefits if you plan your fast for a time when you can easily stick to it.
Don’t forget the yoga
Finally, while strenuous exercise is not generally recommended during fasting, keep active. Yoga is an excellent activity to fill the gaps in the day left by meal times and to keep the body stimulated,
and there are some specific yoga exercises to do while fasting.
Gentle yoga supports your fasting, stimulating the circulation and helping speed up the elimination of toxins.
In fact, yoga and fasting together share a great history. It is wonderful to see people now embrace fasting in contemporary ways that fit into our modern lifestyles. There is still so much to learn about the benefits of this age-old tradition and once again, science is showing us that something from the past may well become something beneficial for our future health and wellbeing.
Warning: If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, about to undergo surgery, have underlying health conditions, a known eating disorder, or regularly take medication, speak to your health practitioner before undertaking a fast.