Fasting: What You Should Know

A fast usually lasts from 12 to 24 hours, but some types continue for days at a time. Photo: Getty Images.

It’s was recently the Jewish Holiday of Yom Kippur, and tradition dictates a 24-hour fasting. Most people I know that practice this tradition eat a big meal on Tuesday, sleep all day on Wednesday and then “break the fast” by pigging out on Wednesday night.

What’s a fast, anyway? I consulted WebMD. Simply put, it means you stop eating completely, or almost completely, for a certain stretch of time. A fast usually lasts from 12 to 24 hours, but some types continue for days at a time. In some cases, you may be allowed water, tea and coffee or even a small amount of food during the “fasting period.” (But not during Yom Kippur.)

Fasting is common to just about every major religious tradition, like Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates believed it helped the body heal itself. During Ramadan, many Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, every day for a month. This has provided scientists with quite a bit of information about what happens to your body when you fast, and the news is mostly good.

Besides religious practice, there are a number of health benefits. First, as you might guess, is weight loss. There’s also research showing that certain types of fasting may help improve your cholesterol, blood pressure, glucose levels, insulin sensitivity and other health issues.

I am now on a fairly simple cleansing diet (different than fasting) for a month, which includes yummy protein shakes and gross-tasting green powder made from veggies. To get that sucker down, I put a little water in a shot glass, mix in the powder and down it, holding my nose. 

Other cleansing supplies include a special tea that tastes a little like grass, a fruit-flavored energy fizzy (I put it in the tea to mask the grass-like flavor) a probiotic, (that goes in the tea as well) and a cleansing formula. You can also have one meal and two small snacks. I don’t feel hungry at all on this. After this experience, I’ll be ready to try a 12-hour fast.

With any fast, you’ll probably feel hunger, at least at the beginning. But after a few days, it usually gets better. Fasting is different from dieting in that it’s not about trimming calories or a certain type of food — it’s not eating at all, or severely cutting back, for a certain amount of time.

Brief fasting isn’t likely to hurt you if you’re a healthy adult, whether your weight is normal or you’re heavier. If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or you have a history of eating disorders, you should avoid fasting of any kind. Kids and teens shouldn’t fast either.

When you’re not fasting, you can eat the food you normally would. Of course, you shouldn’t load up on lots of French fries. I love French fries. Why are they so bad for you? They are a vegetable. OK, a fried vegetable with a high carb count. But studies seem to show that your health changes for the better when you fast, even if your diet does not. (That’s the first time I’ve ever heard this; now fasting is really attractive to me if I can have fries!)

But alas, Wed MD says you should try to eat a healthy amount of food and not stuff yourself after a fast. Quality still counts. But even among people who eat the same number of calories, those who fast tend to have lower blood pressure, higher insulin sensitivity, more appetite control and easier weight loss. Woo hoo! I get to eat those fries. Ok, just a few. 

Web MD also discusses intermittent fasting; an off-and-on type of fasting. There are three main types that doctors have studied and people have used for weight loss and improved health:

Time-Restricted Feeding

This means you do all your eating in a certain stretch of the day, often around 8-12 hours. One easy way to do this is to skip one meal. If you finish dinner by 8 p.m., you’ve already achieved 12 hours of your fast if you don’t eat anything until 8 a.m. Since I am usually sleeping from 9p-7a, this is my fasting choice. 

Alternate-Day Fasting

It’s sometimes called “complete” alternate day fasting because the time when you don’t eat lasts a full 24 hours. You follow that with one or more “feast” days when you can eat as much as you want. Even though the studies are very limited, the results suggest that alternate-day fasting can lead to weight loss and improve health. But it may be pretty hard to stick to it over the long term. Really, you think? Please, I get mean when I don’t get to eat after 12 hours!

Modified Fasting

This type allows you to eat around 20percent to 25percent of your normal daily energy needs on scheduled fast days. One popular version, the 5:2 diet, requires 2 days a week (not in a row) of 24-hour “fasting” except for a very light meal. On the other 5 days of the week, you can eat whatever you want. This could work for me as well!

Studies show that fasting might help people with diabetes or pre-diabetes control blood sugar, improve insulin sensitivity, and lose weight. If you have either of these conditions, it’s very important to talk to your doctor before you make any changes to your medication, insulin use, or eating habits. With all the hype and ads for diet foods, medications, exercise, what really works is to keep the grub out of your mouth. Who knew?



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