When it comes to living a healthier lifestyle, conventional wisdom tells us proper nutrition and sufficient exercise are key–but what if this is only part of the picture?
Harkening back to our ancestors’ lifestyle, there is new research on metabolism that suggests it’s not only what we eat, but when.
Fasting in History and Religion
The popularity of fasting diets has skyrocketed in recent years, but fasting is much more than just a fad. It has been a part of religious, spiritual and health practices for millenia. Hippocrates recommended fasting to heal certain physical ailments as early as the 5th century BCE, and the Abrahamic religious holidays of Ramadan, Yom Kippur and Lent all contain elements of fasting or abstaining from eating across religions.
Scientists believe our hunter-gatherer past bestowed our bodies with fasting tools, such as the ability to use our own body’s resources and cleanse ourselves on a cellular level when access to food was more scarce. Fasting benefits include weight management and increased mental clarity, by simply changing our eating schedule.
Fasting can help your body remove cellular waste, lower your risk of disease and improve memory. Intermittent fasting—a pattern that cycles between fasting and eating—works with your body’s natural processes to aid in metabolism, jump start fat loss and even improve your overall mood.
What is Fasting?
Fasting is technically the act of abstaining from food consumption for at least eight hours. That’s why the first meal of the day is called “break fast.”
The idea behind intermittent fasting is to eat all the food your body needs in a short period of time than our society’s typical all-day graze. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to intermittent fasting. There are many different diets, though they all typically involve a prolonged period of food abstinence, followed by a shorter window wherein one does all of one’s eating for the day.
The most common type of intermittent fasting involves restricting food consumption to a six to eight-hour window, thereby opting to fast during the remaining 16 to 18 hours. The beauty of this approach is that it allows for variance in structure and schedule, providing differing options so you can find the one that best fits your schedule.
Sometimes this means limiting your eating window to a certain number of hours a day, like with intermittent fasting (IMF). The important part is finding a routine that works with your lifestyle, something you can stick with. Part of what makes traditional dieting ineffective is that we tend to only stick with it for a short time, only to rebound to less healthy habits.
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Not everyone should try fasting. Pregnant women or women trying to conceive should avoid it. It is not recommended for children, or individuals taking diabetes medication. If you have a history with eating disorders, prolonged calorie restriction runs the risk of a relapse into these dangerous habits.
Before making big changes to your diet or eating habits, it’s best to consult a trusted healthcare professional. If you do choose to start a fasting diet, be aware that it’s common to experience cravings for food and mood swings during the early stages, and to feel lethargic as your body adjusts.
General Fasting Rules
We’ve all felt frustration and mood swings when we’re straddling the line between peckish and hangry. Limiting our carb consumption and eating a hearty serving of healthy fats will help you avoid the blood sugar crashes and mood swings that come during fasting periods.
Drinking lots of water is essential. Consume more water than you would normally, as fasting will trigger the body’s natural cellular detoxification, called autophagy. Autophagy is a process that cleans out damaged cells and regenerates new ones. It can also be enhanced by a regular exercise regimen, especially at the end of the fasting period.
When you do eat, eat well! Make sure you are putting healthy and nutritious food in your body. While there are no specific rules or limitations on what kinds of food you can eat, the best foods for fasting diets are whole foods, with plenty of vegetables, healthy fats and protein to maximize your nutritional intake and sustain yourself through fasting periods.
I have personally found it helpful to drink teas and coffee sans sweeteners and creams to get through fasting days with more comfort. Carry healthy snacks that are low in sugars and high in fats to help curb hunger.
IMF catalyzes a change in metabolism that can lead to weight management and fat reduction. Our busy schedules and hectic workdays encourage snacking or eating on the go, which may lead us to eat more calories than we actually need.
Limiting the hours of the day we eat can reduce our overall caloric intake. When we fast, our body produces more adrenaline and noradrenaline, hormones that aid in utilizing stored energy for food. This causes a boost in metabolism that helps our body burn calories throughout the day, even when we rest.
IMF also has been found to lower inflammation, which may boost our longevity and reduce the risk of serious illness.
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Stages of Fasting
During the first four hours of the fast, our bodies are still processing the nutrients from our last meal. Around four to 12 hours into the fast, our blood sugar continues to drop, and we enter the catabolic zone where stored nutrients including fat and glycogen are used.
After about 16 hours, we enter the fat-burning stage where our body mobilizes our fat stores for energy. Fasting will also jump start ketosis, where our body burns through it’s glucose (carbohydrate) reserves and begins to burn dietary fat and body fat for energy.
Our bodies have evolved to utilize its own resources when access to food was more scarce. It is a way our body can maximize the energy of the food we eat. Fasting carries many health benefits, from mental clarity to increased metabolism, reduced inflammation, and removal of cellular waste.
If you find yourself in an otherwise healthy position to experiment with your food intake, we highly recommend you give intermittent fasting a try. Just be sure to listen to your body and see a doctor regularly.