Fasting has been an integral part of many different cultures around the world for as long as there has been civilisation, often practiced in connections with religious ceremonies, such as during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the Christian season of Lent, or the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. In recent years fasting has also been scientifically proven to have have profound health benefits.
In modern society, with food being plentiful 24/7, we’ve been conditioned to think that we need to eat regularly throughout the day or we simply won’t have enough fuel to pull through. In actual fact, this is not the case at all.
Our ancestors would likely have had periods where food was scarce or perhaps not available at all and our bodies are built to cope with this. This is why we store fat in our bodies which we can feed off during times when there is limited food supply. This would have been the normal state of affairs during the colder months of the year, when food supplies were scarce.
People often force themselves to eat something, even when they are not hungry, as they believe that fuel in the form of food is required to stay awake and alert.
Insulin is the main hormone that informs your body whether to burn energy or store it. When you eat, insulin levels rise, signalling your body to store energy. When insulin falls, it tells your body to release energy. When you develop insulin resistance through chronically elevated levels of insulin, your body is put in constant fat-storing mode.
Without the signal to burn stored energy, you end up feeling tired and sluggish. You have plenty of fuel available, but it's all locked up in your fat cells, remaining inaccessible until the insulin levels in your body drops. This is why it becomes very difficult to lose weight when you have developed insulin resistance.
The key to breaking this cycle is to have sustained low insulin for a lengthy period of time. This is why fasting can be so beneficial. Fasting lowers insulin more powerfully than any other strategy, which allows the energy stored as body fat to be used.
When you start being able to access your fat stores, you stop feeling lethargic and hungry because you are in fact eating up your own fat.
Dispelling the myths about fasting
Starvation? A worry that people have is that fasting is the same as starvation. This is not the case. Starvation is involuntary and fasting is voluntary. You have complete control. Many also think that when fasting they are telling their body to go into starvation mode, slowing the metabolism so that the body holds on to fat rather than burning it.
Starvation mode actually happens if you just try to cut calories without paying attention to what type of calories you are continuing to consume. This doesn’t happen when fasting. Why? After an initial period where your body is adapting to burning fat instead of glucose (your body uses glucose if it is available, making the fat stores inaccessible) the basal metabolic rate will on average become ten per cent higher than when you started the fast. The body has switched fuel sources from burning food to burning body fat. This is also why fasting usually has the effect of increasing energy instead of leaving you feeling tired and lethargic. Fasting gives your body the golden opportunity to access the body’s own energy stores, which you previously had no access to, giving you a much greater supply of energy than if you were relying on stored glucose.
Loss of Muscle Mass? Many believe that fasting will result in the loss of muscle mass. In fact, when fasting, the body down-regulates protein catabolism and up-regulates growth hormone production.
Think about it this way. A kilogram of fat is approximately 7,000 calories. If you eat about 1,800 calories a day, it would take four days of fasting to burn a kilogram of fat. If you would like to lose 20 kilos, it would take 80 days to burn that fat. This means that you could at least in theory quite happily fast for this length of time!
Fasting also has many other beneficial effects on your body’s biochemistry, the sum total of which is that it profoundly supports your quest towards optimal health!