A Health Phenomenon: Fast facts on fasting

By Shubhangi Shah

People across the world follow a wide range of religions, which probably have one thing in common: staining from food on certain days. Buddhist texts restrict monks from eating after noon; Muslims have Ramadan during which they fast from dawn till sunset. Similarly, Jews practice Ta’anit, different Christian traditions have their fasting rules, and Hindus fast on several occasions throughout the year. “Several religions see abstinence as a crucial aspect in physical and spiritual well-being,” says Dr Unni Nilanjan, Ayurvedic doctor at Art of Living’s Sri Sri Tattva Panchakarma. “It means abstinence from indulgences. Far from being a way to sustain oneself, food often becomes an indulgence. In this regard, fasting helps a person develop an inner strength to withdraw from pleasures of the senses and go deeper within,” he adds.

However, with time, fasting has evolved from being a religious practice to becoming a health phenomenon, with several doctors and fitness pundits recommending it. So, what is the fuss all about?

Benefits galore
Fasting, intermittent fasting to be specific, is becoming increasingly common as a way to lose weight. In this, one eats in a time-restricted window and fasts otherwise. There is no restriction concerning food. And it has shown to be effective.

A 2014 study showed intermittent fasting led to a 3-8% loss in weight in 3-24 weeks. It also led to a reduction in waist circumference. As many as 40 review studies have found its positive results on weight loss.

However, it is not the only benefit.

According to Sreemathy Venkatraman, a wellness nutritionist, clinical dietician and founder of Mitha Ahara: Eat to Live, intermittent fasting can lead to:

  • Better control over blood sugar levels
  • Prediabetes gets cured in some cases
  • Drop in the levels of bad cholesterol
  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Drop in inflammation
  • Improved gut and metabolic health
  • Better energy levels

“Mental health improves, too, as one has better self-control and does not grace throughout the day,” she says. “As your weight decreases, so does your chance of developing chronic illnesses,” says Neha Pathania, chief dietician, Paras Hospitals, Gurugram. “You also experience enhanced cycles of brain health. Life expectancy increases too,” she adds.

Dr Nilanjan goes beyond that and points at Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, who won the 2016 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on autophagy, which is the body’s natural cleansing mechanism to purge the body of damaged cells and regenerate newer, healthier cells. “This happens while fasting,” the Ayurveda doctor says. Some bodies of research have shown that intermittent fasting and calorie restriction can cause autophagy.

However, since religious fasting is practiced for a few days, does it undo the benefits? The answer is no, according to Dr Nilanjan. “Fasting is similar to taking your car to the workshop. Doing it once in a while ensures that it runs smoothly and has optimum performance for a longer period. The life of the car is also longer when you maintain it regularly. Similarly, fasting increases the quality of life when done regularly,” he explains.

Dos and don’ts
Fasting has been shown to lead to weight loss and other health benefits. However, healthy eating is the way forward. “Hence, do not go overboard with high-fat, ultra-processed and ready-to-eat foods, which trigger inflammation and thus lead to more fat deposits. Instead, have a balance of all the food groups, which includes whole grains, healthy fats, good sources of protein, and lots and lots of fiber. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 35 grams of fiber per day for every adult, which is mainly sourced through vegetables and fruits. Hence, include lots of these, which are in season, in your diet,” recommends nutritionist Venkatraman, adding: “Also, do not forget to drink enough water.”

Coming to religious fasting, it is not uncommon to see people breaking fasts with heavy meals consisting of fried and high-fat foods. Dr Nilanjan recommends against it and says fasting is akin to a workout, as both are experiences we put the body through. “We wouldn’t just jump into a heavy workout or end one abruptly. Fasting puts the body into a particular state, and thus there is a need to ease out of it,” he says, recommending breaking a fast “with a light meal containing good amounts of carbohydrates”.

On the flip side
Like anything else, fasting, too, has its share of pros and cons. “When not done properly or under guidance, fasting can have detrimental effects on the body such as wasting and malnutrition, and can induce unfavorable conditions in the body such as ketosis and hypoglycemia,” says Dr Nilanjan.

“Also, it may result in the rise of cortisol, the stress hormone, which might cause an increased desire for food. Hence, overeating and binge eating are two frequently seen negative effects of intermittent fasting,” says Pathania, adding: “As you often forget to drink water when you do not eat, it can occasionally lead to dehydration too.”

Apart from these, if you experience unpleasant symptoms, including overeating and probable weight gain, and short-term physical ailments, hormonal changes, or menstrual cycles, discontinue your fasting routine immediately or talk to your doctor, recommends Pathania.

Muscle care
Although fasting can aid fat loss, there can be a concern about losing muscle mass too. “It is crucial to understand that weight loss without exercise typically results in a decrease of both lean and fat mass. Everything in a person’s mass that is not fat is considered lean. It holds for fasting too. Studies have shown that intermittent fasting for several months can lead to the loss of minor quantities of lean mass,” says Pathania.

At the same time, nutritionist Venkatraman recommends including protein in every meal, which can be challenging for vegetarians and vegans. “So, include lots of legumes and pulses in your diet. Have rajma, chana, white-eyed peas, nuts, and oilseeds. Vegetarians can have milk, yogurt, paneer, etc, while vegans can replace these with tofu and vegan milk varieties,” she says.

In the end, fasting can be a way of a very disciplined life. “You become aware of what you eat, and it gives you the power to control your hunger,” says Venkatraman. So what is the way to go about it? “To not assume it as just another fad and take it slow as benefits take time to show,” she adds.

Types of fasting
Intermittent fasting is an umbrella term and includes multiple types in its ambit. Here are a few of them

  • Time-restricted eating: Fasting for 12 hours every day
  • 16/8: This is the most popular kind. Here you eat in an eight-hour window, which may include two or three meals, and fast for the remainder. Ease is another benefit of 16/8. It reduces the time and money you need to spend on cooking each week
  • 5:2 diet: In this, you eat the normal amount for five days a week and limit your calorie intake to 500-600 on the remaining two days
  • Alternate day fasting: This is one way to do intermittent fasting. On this diet, you almost every other day but eat whatever you want on the non-fasting days.
  • Warrior diet: Another popular one, this one is based on the eating ways of ancient warriors, who ate thinly during the day and feasted at night. So you eat small amounts of raw fruits and vegetables during the day and a large meal at night

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