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The Basics of Fasting: Why Do It, Health Benefits, and Safety Recommendations

When many people think of effective strategies to lose weight, simply eating less or not eating at all seem to be logical solutions. Fasting is a part of many people’s religions and cultural traditions, but it is also a diet fad that can be both beneficial and risky.

Here is some information about what fasting is, its risks and benefits, and how to fast safely as part of an overall wellness plan.

Photo credit: Joshua Rappeneker via Flickr

What Is Intermittent Fasting

In general, fasting is abstaining from all or some foods for a period of usually 24 to 72 hours. People have intentionally fasted in this way for thousands of years for a variety of religious, cultural, and health reasons. However, a more modern approach to fasting is called intermittent fasting, in which a person alternates between periods of fasting and eating for a few hours or days per cycle. It’s more of an eating pattern than an actual diet, and popular strategies involve fasting for 16 hours per day or for two 24-hour periods per week.

For example, with the Leangains Protocol 16/8 method, you would only allow yourself one eight-hour eating period per day with 16 hours of fasting in between. Meanwhile, with the 5:2 diet, you would eat only 500 to 600 calories on two days of the week but eat normally on all other days. Another popular method is called Eat-Stop-Eat and dictates that you fast once or twice per week for full 24-hour periods.

The Bodily Effects of Fasting

Fasting impacts the body in many ways, especially in how your hormones and cells function. When you don’t eat on a regular schedule, your blood glucose levels drop and glycogen stores are used up. This causes the body to burn muscle and fat to give your bodily cells the energy they need. The human body is designed to burn fat first to preserve muscle until its absolutely needed. The body enters a stage called ketosis mode after not eating for a few days, which is when it burns body fat but may also come with many other undesirable side effects.

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Benefits of Fasting

When its approached responsibly and under the guidance of a nutrition expert, there can be health benefits to fasting. Some people lose weight as a result of fasting diets and experience reduced insulin resistance, which can protect against the onset of diabetes. Researchers have also studied the effects of fasting and found positive correlations to heart health, reduced inflammation, brain health, and anti-aging benefits.

Risks of Fasting

Fasting is not for everyone because of the dedication it requires, the nutritional knowledge needed, and because of the many things that can go wrong in the body without a steady source of nutrition. Some women stop menstruating due to fasting, and women trying to conceive a child may have increased fertility problems if they fast regularly.

It is also not recommended for people who are underweight or who have eating disorders to fast. Anyone with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or low blood pressure, can have adverse effects from fasting too. Common side effects from fasting include dizziness, weakness, confusion, agitation, loss of balance, and reduced energy and agility.

How to Fast Safely

Anyone interested in fasting should consult a medical professional to discuss the idea and get targeted advice based upon body type and weight goals. It’s also important to remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing with fasting.

Instead of adopting a strict fasting schedule, you can simply try to avoid snacking between meals in order to let your body burn fat between normal meals. Other ideas are to avoid eating anything after an early-scheduled dinner and to swap out sugar and refined carbs for a more plant-based Mediterranean-style diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.

Have you tried fasting? Let us know what you tried and how it went in the comment section below.

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