This past Sunday I embarked on my first 24 hour fast in several years. Someone asked me why I was fasting, and I thought it was a good question. The reasons are related to my physical, mental, and spiritual health.
When the body has no incoming food for a period of time, it has to break down the body’s fat stores to generate energy. The common belief is that you immediately lose muscle when you fast. But, you don’t “lose muscle” that quickly, especially if you are keeping your physical activity low to moderate during your fast. However, if the fast continues past a certain point, your body will eventually break down muscle in order to preserve its fat stores.
Fat is like your body’s savings account. The body doesn’t like to dip into its fat stores, except temporarily, for specific purposes. It always likes to keep an emergency account of fat, just in case there is a famine. Remember, for most of humanity’s history (and even today in many parts of the world), famine is a real issue. In Western countries, we are insulated from this problem due to advances in food technology. But the human body has evolved to deal with periods of not enough food. It has also learned to protect itself from famine by slowing down the metabolism and breaking down muscle after periods of reduced food supply. But it can easily deal with short periods of not eating, and even thrives under these conditions.
This is why intermittent fasting has become so popular. It works better than continuous calorie restriction in terms of preserving muscle and eliminating excess fat. When we fast intermittently, we eat satisfying, regular-sized portions of food, but only during certain times of the day. Our bodies have evolved to deal with the fact that producing food used to require a lot of physical effort. Whether it was hunting animals or gathering produce, exercise was built into the eating process. Now, you can literally not get out of bed except to answer the door, and eat enormous amounts of food on a daily basis. This is not natural or healthy.
But we can’t turn back the clock on technology. So, restricting eating to a certain period of the day mimics the old times when people worked hard to get their food, then ate it when the work was done. Thousands of years ago, people did not eat all day, and all night, like we do today. There were no refrigerators, so no midnight snacks. If you were hungry at night, you had to wait until daylight (or go out there at night and end up becoming a midnight snack for some other creature).
My regular “feeding window” is between 7:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Then, I fast for the rest of the day until the next morning at 7:00 a.m. I keep to this schedule for 5-6 days per week. I allow Fridays and Saturdays to be more flexible. And I’ve recently implemented a 24-hour fast on Sundays. My last meal is Sunday’s breakfast before church, and I break the fast with Monday’s breakfast.
My reasons for doing this are as follows:
- Fasting cleans out old cells. This is called autophagy. It kicks in more strongly after 3 days of fasting. But even a one-day fast encourages the body to break down old, damaged cells for energy. New ones are created in their place. My skin tends to look amazing after a period of fasting.
- Fasting gives me a chance to remind myself that there are starving people all over the world. I am blessed with enough food to eat, but many are not. It reminds me to take nothing for granted, and to help others where I can.
- Fasting boosts my mental toughness. The body normally sends insulin into the bloodstream at your normal eating times in order to prepare for digestion. This makes you feel hungry, and reminds you to eat. When you’re fasting, your body will still produce insulin at the regular eating times. At those times, everything in you will want to give up the fast and just eat. The tummy starts to ache (water and tea help a lot!), the head hurts, you start feeling weak. It becomes a case of mind over matter. It’s important to remember that these physical reactions are temporary. They are not fatal, and they do not last long. Allowing the feelings to pass (which they will) teaches you that all feelings pass if you allow them to. We don’t have to give in to every feeling and emotion we have. We can set goals, and then act according to those goals – even when we’re uncomfortable, even when we feel like giving up.
- Once the hungry feelings pass (and they will), there is a period of bliss. Feel-good chemicals are released into the body. I love this period. A tingly, euphoric feeling washes over you, and your energy increases. It’s very similar to the high one feels during a particularly deep meditation, or after a tough exercise session.
- Fasting saves time and money. The time spent preparing meals and washing dishes can be spent doing other things – personal growth, business, pleasure, etc.
In short, every thing and every body needs a break at some point. Giving your body a break from processing new food is not dangerous. It’s amazing that in a society where dying of metabolic diseases – of which obesity is a prominent symptom – is much more likely than dying of starvation, people still think there’s something dangerous about not eating. It’s a great mental, physical, and spiritual discipline for anyone bold enough to take up the challenge. Obviously, check with your doctor first, especially if you have a history of medical issues. But, once you’re cleared, be prepared to learn a lot about your body and yourself!
Peace and love,