Is fasting healthy?

Millions of people around the world have tried fasting as a way to lose weight. Intermittent fasting and the 5:2 diet are apparently both science-approved ways of keeping your waistline in check.

In recent years, numerous studies have suggested that intermittent fasting - abstaining or reducing food and drink intake periodically - can be good for us, making it one of the most popular trends worldwide.

One of the most well-known intermittent fasting diets is the 5:2 Fast Diet - a plan that involves eating the recommended calorie intake for 5 days a week but reducing calorie intake to 25% for the remaining 2 days - to 500 calories a day for women and 600 calories a day for men.

Studies into this indicate that this eating plan can not only help people lose weight, but it offers an array of other health benefits including improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well as insulin sensitivity.

Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

Since the body is unable to get its energy from food during fasting, it dips into glucose that is stored in the liver and muscles. This normally begins around 8 hours after the last meal is consumed. When the stored glucose has been used up, the body then begins to burn fat as a source of energy, which can result in weight loss. As well as aiding weight loss, the use of fat for energy can help preserve muscle and reduce cholesterol levels.

A detoxification process also occurs, because the toxins stored in the body's fat are dissolved and removed from the body. It is said that after a few days of fasting, higher levels of endorphins "feel-good" hormones are produced in the blood which can have a positive impact on mental well-being. There are suggestions that state that prolonged fasting may also be effective for regenerating immune cells.

Studies have shown that when you fast, your body tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged.

A study published in the journal "Cell Stem Cell" found that repeated cycles of 2-4 days without food over a 6-month period destroyed the old and damaged immune cells in mice and generated new ones. What is more, the report concluded that cancer patients who fasted for 3 days prior to chemotherapy were protected against immune system damage that can be caused by the treatment, which they attribute to immune cell regeneration.

The good news is that the body gets rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts during the fasting. There have been many reported benefits of fasting, including but not limited to:

Weight Loss, Fat Loss, Improved Physical Complexion, Increased Mental Clarity, Emotional Detox / Purging of past baggage, Physical Detox / Body Cleanse, Vividness of Dreams, Increased Spiritual Connection, Increased Creativity, improving one's relationship with food, Reset Poor Eating and Lifestyle Habits from the past.

With the potential health benefits of fasting widely hailed by nutritionists worldwide, it is no wonder many of us are putting our love of food to one side in order to give it a try.  

To eat or not to eat, this is the question?

It is important to keep in mind that during a fast, your body is in "healing mode". It's burning away the waste in your fat cells, unlike the normal days when it's burning from glucose. Trying to engage in any physical activity or normal routine will result in precious muscle being burned just to keep-up with your energy needs, since muscle is a more efficient fuel of energy than fat. Not only does this prevent the healing from taking place (burning of fat cells), you also waste precious muscle in the process.

To experience the full benefits of a fast, you should be resting as much as you can, and limit the more physically challenging aspects of your regular routine. Fasting studies indicate that the first 1-3 days are the hardest because this is when your body adjusts to not getting energy from glucose. After the initial adjustment is done, the physical sensation of hunger disappears. They say that the days beyond this should be progressively easy, as long as activity levels are kept light.

But intermittent fasting isn't all bells and whistles, according to some researchers and health care professionals, there are some people who should avoid this type of diet altogether.

People who fast commonly experience "dehydration", largely because their body is not getting any fluid from food. As such, it is recommended that plenty of water is consumed prior to fasting periods.

For others that are used to having breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between, they may find fasting periods to be a major challenge. As such, fasting can increase stress levels and disrupt sleep. Dehydration, hunger or lack of sleep during a fasting period can also lead to headaches.

Fasting can also cause heartburn; lack of food leads to a reduction in stomach acid, which digests food and destroys bacteria. But smelling food or even thinking about it during fasting periods can trigger the brain into telling the stomach to produce more acid, leading to heartburn.

Fasting 101Whilst many nutritionists claim intermittent fasting is a good way to lose weight, some health professionals believe such a diet is ineffective for long-term weight loss.  There are many considerations to take in when contemplating fasting whether it is for a short or longer period.  More importantly, it is highly recommended that you consult your health care professional before considering this diet.  Like all things, it's a good idea to ensure that your body (as we are all very unique) is ready to take on the challenge and your health care professional is your best source to check in with.

If you have tried intermittent fasting what was your experience? What lessons did you learn during fasting? And what recommendations would you make for others considering intermittent fasting?