10 Reasons to Fast
By Steve Edwards
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isn't a trend. It's one of the oldest therapies in medicine and its recorded
practice dates back thousands of years. But these days, it's hard to peruse the
magazines at your local market without being provided a myriad of "trendy"
fasting options promising greater health, spiritual enlightenment, and most of
all, weight loss. It's also pretty easy to find literature warning of the
dangers of fasting. So let's have a look at fasting, its history, benefits, and
whether or not you might want to make it part of your lifestyle.
If you've read any historical literature,
you know that fasting has been around a long time. Many of the oldest healing
systems have recommended it as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle.
Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, believed fasting enabled the body
to heal itself. Paracelsus, another famous healer, wrote "Fasting is the
greatest remedy, the physician within." Sounds good. So just exactly what is
definition, anytime that you don't eat, you are fasting; hence the word
"breakfast." But most therapeutic fasts last longer than one night, usually
from one day to a few weeks. Juice or liquid fasts, while not traditional, are
quite common because many of the desired results are achieved without as much
stress on the body. It's also common to begin a fast with a period of cleansing
foods, such as veggies or soups. A modern fast is often synonymous with a
cleanse; or a very restricted diet designed to reprogram your body. The
majority of fasts only last a few days. Provided that you stay hydrated, the
body can function without food for this long with little stress (though it may
not feel like it to you, especially the first time). Those wanting to
participate in the longer and more traditional fasts should have medical
supervision, or at least be certain they are in condition to undertake such an
adventure. While strict nutritionists rarely recommend such things, most
alternative medicine practitioners, such as homeopaths, naturopathic doctors,
and ayurvedic doctors are well versed at supervising and monitoring patients
during fasts. Monitored fasts are almost always safe, but should be entered and
exited with care.
We'll get to the different types of fasts in
a moment. First, let's look at 10 reasons why you might want to try a fast or
make them part of your lifestyle.
- To cleanse your system. Most of us eat more than we should, take in more toxins than
we'd like, and are subjected to many other things, like pollutants, that we'd
rather avoid. Furthermore, the majority of us carry around a lot of undigested
food in our system that comes from eating more than we can process. A fast
will, essentially, flush these things from your system. Yes, you'll lose
weight. But more importantly, your body will run better than it did
- To change bad habits. When
you don't eat, your body craves sustenance and becomes more sensitive to
toxins. Most habits are based on cravings, but when you completely change how
your system is running, those cravings change also. Coffee is the easiest
example. During a fast, your body is too sensitive to tolerate highly acidic
substances and caffeine very well. Things like coffee will often make you feel
terrible, when it has the complete opposite effect normally.
- To change your
health. Many chronic conditions have used fasting
as an effective treatment, including allergies, anxiety, arthritis, asthma,
depression, diabetes, headaches, heart disease, high cholesterol, low blood
sugar, digestive disorders, mental illness, and obesity. It is thought to be
beneficial as a preventative measure to increase overall health, vitality, and
resistance to disease.
- To reset your body clock. Fasting gives you a clean slate. Without nutrients, you become
more sensitive and sleep and other patterns change. It's an easy time to revamp
your schedule and get your body clock working in your favor.
- To bring your
body into homeostasis. This is the balance point
your body prefers to be at but is rarely achieved with our hectic lives. When
the intake of food is temporarily stopped, many systems of the body are given a
break from the hard work of digestion. The extra energy gives the body the
chance to heal and restore itself, plus burning stored calories gets rid of
toxic substances stored in the body. Essentially, you force your body to work
efficiently and, thus, bring everything into balance.
- For increased mental clarity.
Most of us probably first heard of fasting as a religious
exercise. There are examples of it in most spiritual texts. It's a great tactic
for mental and spiritual rejuvenation because it forces focus on important
thoughts and frees the mind from everyday clutter. When you are deprived of
nutrients, your bodyin a survival modebegins to focus on things of
- To make changing your diet easier.
When you fast you become more sensitive to what you put
into your body. It's easier to understand how nutrients affect you and, hence,
how bad foods make you feel worse. Exiting a fast is the easiest time to change
your diet for the better. Your body will crave healthy foods. All you need to
do is give it what it wants.
- To get a better feel for how exercise and diet make your
body work. When you take away nutrients your
body can't function as well as it did from a performance standpoint. When you
add nutrients back, you'll feel your energy increase and how exercise affects
you and utilizes nutrients. This understanding can be a great dietary aid. Most
of us have a hard time understanding what fats, carbohydrates, and proteins do
for us but coming off a fast you'll more easily understand their functions,
especially if you are exercising.
- To improve fat
mobilization and physical efficiency. Many
physiological changes occur in the body during fasting. Your body turns to
stored fat for energy, and this process becomes more efficient under the stress
of a fast. Furthermore, the brain, which has high fuel requirements, still
needs glucose (sugars converted from glycogen) to perform well. To obtain
glucose for the brain, the body finds two sources of fuel, ketosis and muscle,
so the body begins to break down muscle tissue during a fast. But to fuel the
brain, however, the body would need to burn around a pound of muscle a day. So
we've developed another survival mechanism to create energy that saves
important muscle mass, a process called ketosis. In ketosis, the liver converts
stored fat into ketones, which can be used by the brain, muscles, and heart as
energy. Those of you versed in the Atkins diet my have a negative association
with this process but Atkins-ers somewhat abused it. It's another survival
mechanism the body has that can be developed and utilized. Where Atkins may
have overdone it was promoting it as a way of life, not a phase towards
improving the body's functionality.
- To get a forced rest phase.
Our bodies do better when we train periodizationally. This
is in phases of intensity, one of which is rest. Since we tend to skip this
phase because we feel like we'll regress if we don't exercise (either that or
over-embrace it to the point of not exercising), fasts force a recovery phase
because you can't do hard exercise. The most exercise you should attempt is
verylow intensity movements, like walking, hiking, or easy yoga or
stretching. During this time, the body heals its cumulative microtrauma that
has resulted from exercise. When you come off of a fast, your body will be
slightly deconditioned. However, its capacity for conditioning will have
increased. This means that once your catch up to the fitness level you were
prior to fasting you will more easily exceed this level, instead of hitting a
What are the different types of
There are many fasts on the market, which sounds funny
because if you're not eating, it begs the question why do you need the market?
But most fasts contain some sort of strategy that includes some nutrients.
- The simplest are the "beginner" fasts, such as with
Beachbody's 2-Day Fast Formula. These usually provide some liquid nutrients,
like fruit and veggie juices or a shake, to make things less stressful. You
still get most of the benefits of fasting and, well, you still get to look
forward to some meals.
- More complex are things like the
Master Cleanse diet, in which you still get some nutrients - though very few -
and you're supposed to continue this way for a longer period of time, usually
at least 10 days. These fasts require that you have a lot of self-knowledge.
It's always recommended to begin with a shorter fast to see how it affects you.
- Religious fasts are traditional and strict. They often mean going
for long periods with no nutrients at all; just water. Since their aim is more
spiritual than fitness oriented, they're rarely - if ever - recommended by the
fitness and nutrition industry.
How often you fast depends a lot on what
type of fast you do. Longer fasts should not be done often, but one-day fasts
can be done regularly. An old common religious practice was to skip eating one
day per week, which can be easily done without associated fitness loss. So it's
fairly easy to make fasting a regular part of your "diet."
a fast, no matter which type it is, it's best if your diet is gradually
lightened over a few days. First, heavy foods such as meats and dairy products
should be eliminated. Grains, nuts, and beans should then be reduced. The day
before you begin, eat only easily digested foods like fruits, light salads, and
soups. Likewise, you should break your fast gradually also, going from lighter
to heavier foods progressively. The diet after a fast should emphasize fresh,
wholesome foods, which is easier because junk and convenience foods will
usually make you feel awful. It's also vital that before, during, and after a
fast you drink a lot of plain water. This keeps you hydrated and helps flush
It's also important to note that fasting is
not appropriate for everyoneespecially pregnant and nursing
womenand, in some cases, could be harmful. Those with health conditions
should always have medical support during fasting.