Everyone would have at one time or the other fasted. Whether voluntarily, religiously or even forcefully due to famine. Fasting is quite common and recent studies have shown that it can be immensely beneficial to ones health. Food is an essential part of survival for all breathing things. However, too much or too little food can cause complications such as obesity, high blood pressure, malnutrition and a host of others illnesses. To prevent these, some nutritionists encourage engaging in fasts along sides exercises, balanced meals and proper shelter for a long and healthy life,
Without a doubt fasting plays a major role in our lives and should be indulged in periodically. But what then is fasting and why is it good for you?
1.2 A brief history of fasting
Fasting is as old as time and studies have shown it is an inane ability/instinct by all forms of life (both humans and animals alike). No one knows exactly when humans started to fast but as far back as 5BC, Hippocrates a Greek Physician had recommended a fast as medication for certain illnesses.
The early men were hunters and gatherers who had limited food and so had to resort to living on what they could find to eat. When there was no food they would fast and when they find food they feast, thoroughly. This developed a kind of mutation in them where the body had to resort to stored fats when food is unavailable so they could survive. But the thing with mutation is, they do not just go away. They are still within us and now that food is abundant with people eating at least 3 times per day the gene hardly or never kicks in.
The rising tide of obesity is strongly associated with daily calorie intake and sedentary lifestyle-promoting transportation. Mattson MP, Allison DB, Fontana L, et al. Meal frequency and timing in health and disease. ProcNatlAcadSci U S A. 2014; 111(47):16647-53.
Above is a chart showing the increasing number of obese people over time. From the chart there is an incline in the number of obese people as the years increase. This can be further back our theory of abundant food causing obesity and more illnesses unlike when food was unavailable.
It should be noted that fasting was done by humans for several reasons in ancient time; religious, cultural, political, and even health purposes.
1.3 Fasting in religions and culture
Almost all religions save (Zoroastrianism, who are firmly against it) encourage fasting and have different rules of participation for its worshipers. They usually range from 1 40 days and are seen as a way to attain higher purity and self-control.
In Judaism, there are several fasts all-round the year such as the Yom Kippur which represents the Day of Atonements. The Jews usually engage in a six days continuous fast at least once a year in preparation of an event. The fasts are usually strict and all forms of meals are prohibited, even water. They have two major fasts, Tisha BAv and Yom Kippur which are compulsory and occur 24hours from sunset to the next days sunset. There are also four minor fasts; Fasts of Gedaliah, Fast of Esther, Fast of the 10thTevet and Fast of 17th Tammuz, each occurs from sunrise to sunset and are optional.
Muslims also participates in fasts and a popular one is the Ramadan. It lasts for days and participants are not allowed to eat when the sun is out i.e. after sunrise/before sunsets. Unlike other religions, the Muslims believe fasting is more than abstaining from food but is also a time to refrain from ill speech, fights and lustful thoughts so you can develop a stronger hold on your emotions and actions.
Christians are also firm advocates of fasting and several passages in the Bible involved characters engaging in fasts. The Roman Catholics usually fast for 40days to mimic Christ fasting in the wilderness. This fast is called Lent and usually precede Easter (a day to mark Jesus death)
Buddhists monk mimics a type of intermittent fasting where they eat only in the morning i.e. from sunrise to noon and fast till the next sunrise. They do not term this activity fast but are rather following the Vinaya rules. Lay Buddhists, however, engage in proper fasts during retreats or intense meditation.
Some religions engage in fasting to prepare their chief priests and priestesses before meeting their gods. Ancient religions such as Hellenistic engaged in this activity and the priests were rewarded with revelations and divine teachings from their deities. Other religions such as the pre-Columbians required a fast from individuals when they commit a sin and confess to a priest. A fast would also be carried out to appease an angered deity.
Some Native Americans tribes fast when a vision quest is about to begin and even during it. The Shamans in Evenk (Siberia) also fast in a bid to get further visions after an initial vision. The Pueblo Indians fast before a major ceremony and called it retreats.
Though all these religions may fast at different hours, dates and even call it different names but they all do it for the same reason, purity. They believe when you fast you clean and heal your spirit and body.
1.4 Fasting in medicine/health-wise
Leaders and intellectuals of the early era such as Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Philip Paracelsus and Hippocrates considered fasting as beneficial to human health and advocated for it. Hippocrates during his treatments often prescribed fasting as medication alongside consumption of apple cider vinegar. His reason, as well as other Greeks, was that during illness one usually lost appetite and this is considered a human instinct to heal itself from within. Hippocrates also wrote that To eat when you are sick is to feed your illness.
The Greeks in ancient era also believed fasting helped to improve cognitive abilities. Certainly, you would agree that you feel lazier and unable to work after a full course breakfast as opposed to when you eat later hours of the day. Studies have shown people who eat a large breakfast are less productive in the early hours, unlike people who engage in noon brunch. When you are overfed, blood flow is diverted to your digestive system so it can immediately cope with the large influx of food. This, however, causes less blood flow to the brain causing a condition called food coma.
Philip Paracelsus who founded toxicology wrote that Fasting is the greatest remedy the physician within. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), also wrote that The best of all medicines is resting and fasting. St Catherine of Siena of the fourteen century was also a firm believer, she practised and extolled fasting.
In the 19th century, therapeutic fasting became popular in the US and was administered to ill patients under medical supervision. One of its advocates was Dr Herbert Shelton who claimed to have used water fast to treat 40,000 ill patients. The UK also adopted the movement and named it Nature Cure Approach. It included fast, diet, exercise, fresh air, sunshine and positive thinking. It was used in treating an array of illness such as obesity, allergies, headaches, high blood pressure and so much more. However, as time went on and with the introduction of newer and faster medicines, this approach became less used and abandoned. Some hospitals still encourage patients to engage in fasts especially in Germany where fasting is incorporated in their medical practices.
In recent years, however, statistics show people gaining new interest in different types of fast such as the 5:2 diet and intermittent fasts.
1.5 Fasting As a Form of Protest/Politics
Fasting also extends to social and political realms where people engage in fasts as a protest or a show of solidarity. An example is when Gandhi engaged in 17 fasts while in prison during Indias struggle for independence. One of which was to atone for his followers who did not follow his teaching of non-violence towards the British rulers. He also fasted so the government would remove the disabilities imposed on the untouchables.
Dick Gregory in 1960 also fasted to protest against the violation of American Indians civil rights and also the military activities of the US in Southeast Asia.1981 had ten Irish nationalist dies in Belfast prison during a fast for better rights in prison. Bobby Sands was one of the protesters who died and had only recently been elected to the British Parliament.
Fasting, however, had its dark sides in history, where it was exploited by fraudsters and exhibitionist. An example is Linda Burfield Hazzard who claimed to be a doctor in Minnesota and put her patients on a strict fast which killed over 40 patients. She was however caught in 1912 and convicted of manslaughter. She later died in prison from a fast of her own. Another tragic event was the Victorian fasting girls incident. They claimed they could survive without food indefinitely and some doctors tested one of them Sarah Jacobs by putting her to a fast. She did not survive the test and died at age 12.
1.6 What then is fasting?
Fasting is a total or partial voluntary abstinence from food or certain types of food. However, some people extend fasting to abstaining from sex, alcohol, ill speech or bad actions, but for this book, we will stick to its traditional definition.
1.7 Types of fasting
There are several types of fast people engage in for several reasons and I have compiled a list of some of them;
Absolute/Dry fast: This type of fasting involves total refrain from all forms of food even water. It is quite beneficial as the body does not come in contact with energy from food thus has to burn through its stored fats for survival. Several people have attested to immense weight loss via dry fasting. It is also beneficial health-wise as autophagy – which is a struggle for survival between cells where only the stronger ones win and the weak cancerous cells die – usually sets in. Although there is no fixed time one should engage in dry fasting, it is best you listen to your body so you can tell when it has reached its limit, especially when starting out at first. The body needs water to survive, so 2 days is the recommended maximum time for dry fast. Some people fast for less than 24 hours e.g. 14 hours dry fast.
Partial fast: With partial fast, certain types of food are usually eliminated from your diet for a period. E.g. carbs, processed food, caffeine, dairy products, animal products. It simply means restricting unhealthy meals from your diet while consume whole and natural products.
Intermittent fast: This is a type of fast that involves partial or absolute fast over a set time. There are several types of intermittent fasting and it is a quite popular and sustainable type of fasting that produces results. You can engage in alternate-day fasts where you reduce calorie intake every other day or eat only within set hours in a day and fast the remaining hours.
Water fast: This type of fasting involves drinking only water for a stipulated time.
Calorie restriction: This type of fast is beneficial to weight loss as it involves restricting your calorie intake for a set time; a few days in a week, every other day etc.
Juice fasts: With this fast, you can consume only fruits, fruit juices and vegetables. This way you are providing your body with essential minerals while cleansing it from unnecessary fat from processed foods.
Rice fast: This type of fast is extremely beneficial to the body and should be engaged every once in a while. It involves eating only brown rice for a set time. Brown rice is far nutritional than other types of rice and contains complex carbohydrates. Replacing it as your meal during your fast can help alleviate digestive discomforts, irritable bowels and thoroughly cleanse your system.
Types of fasts
Consume nothing during the duration of your fast
Adjust your fast to suit your lifestyle and needs
Break your fast into smaller achievable bits
Drink only water during your fast
Count and limit number of calories consumed
Consume only fruits and fruit juices
Eat only brown rice
Table 1.0 Types of fasts broken down
1.8 General benefits of fasting
What are some known benefits of fasting you may ask? When I started to fast I had some reservations and wondered if it would work for me. You may also think like this too but I tell you engaging in a fast has been the best and cleansing thing that has happened to me.
Scientists are researching daily on the benefits of fasting and a recent study byscientists at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) further supported its benefits. Five scientists from the institute used four fasting individuals in their study, they drew blood samples from them and studied the increasing levels of metabolites during the fast. Their study showed a total increase of 44 metabolites with 30 newly found substances. Three of which were leucine, isoleucine, and ophthalmic acid, all longevity aiding substances. They concluded that the increase of these substances during fast may extend the total lifespan of individuals.
Other benefits of fasting also backed by science include;
Reduction of insulin resistance by promoting blood sugar control
Fights inflammation for overall health
Improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels which enhances heart health
Boost brain function to prevent neurodegenerative disorders
Boost body metabolism and reduce calorie intake for effective weight loss
Helps prevent the occurrence of cancer and can be used alongside chemotherapy treatment