One of the most common practices found in the world’s great spiritual traditions is fasting.
The Buddha refrained from food and drink during his period of asceticism – and Buddhist monks fast on the new moon and full moon each month. Fasting is an integral part of the Hindu religion. And abstaining from food and drink from sunup to sundown during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
The Bible contains dozens of references to fasting. It is prescribed as preparation for an important event (Judges 20:26, I Samuel 14:24), as a mourning rite (II Samuel 1:12, 12:16-23), and as a form of atonement (Jonah 3:5, Jeremiah 36:9). In the New Testament, Jesus fasts for 40 days. In the Old Testament, Moses does (twice).
Orthodox Jews fast during Yom Kippur, Tzom Gedaliah, and Purim. Early Christians fasted every Wednesday and Friday. Many do today during Advent, Pentecost, the Assumption or Lent.
For skeptics, of course, fasting evokes some of the worst associations with religion: irrationality, guilt, self-denial, or punishment. But practitioners contend it is a way of purifying and recharging. Fasting strengthens temperance and self-control. It can be a time to focus on your inner life rather than your physical needs. And it promotes humility and empathy. After all, is it not easier to identify with the plight of the world’s hungry when your own stomach is rumbling?
Now science is trumpeting the benefits of fasting, as well. Research shows that nothing is more effective in increasing human lifespan than caloric restriction. But during fasting periods, the body also kicks into repair mode, fixing and protecting tissues, organs and the nervous system. And it can lead to a powerful sense of catharsis, especially for those who have overindulged in processed or unhealthy foods.
In short, this ancient spiritual practice is gaining millions of secular adherents today. Why? Because the scientific evidence in favor of it is unequivocal. Just ask Dr. Michael Mosley.
Mosley trained as a doctor at the Royal Free Hospital in London, but after passing his medical exams joined the BBC and began making science documentaries. He has won numerous awards, including being named Medical Journalist of the Year by the British Medical Association. His 2012 documentary “Eat, Fast and Live Longer,” viewed by more than 30 million people worldwide, has become something of a sensation.
Dr. Mosley insists there is nothing else you can do for your body that is as positive and powerful as fasting. He points to mountains of evidence – and his own personal experience – to prove it.
Fasting doesn’t have to mean giving up food for an entire day. Dr. Mosley’s recommended technique is intermittent fasting. He recommends consuming a quarter of your regular calorie intake on two nonconsecutive days each week. That’s 600 calories for men and 500 for women. For obvious reasons, it’s called a 5:2 Diet – five days on and two off.
But calling it a “diet” is a misnomer, really. Diets are about what you eat. Intermittent fasting is about not eating. With this plan, there are no complicated rules to follow, no recipes to learn, no points to add up, and no lists of foods you can or can’t consume. Instead of saying “no” all the time, you get to have a life. You can plan ahead and still enjoy yourself at parties, cookouts and banquets. You get to eat all the foods you enjoy most of the time.
And there are numerous health benefits. Studies indicate that intermittent fasting:
- Improves your cholesterol count and blood glucose levels.
- Moves you closer to a Body Mass Index of 25 or less, reducing your risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, strokes, gallbladder disease, colon and breast cancer, osteoarthritis and respiratory problems.
- Improves IGF-1 – a hormone that prevents cell death and slows the aging process – reducing the risk of a number of age-related diseases.
- Switches on millions of repair genes in response to the minor physiological stress of fasting.
- Gives your pancreas a rest, boosting the effectiveness of the insulin it produces.
- Promotes an enhanced sense of wellbeing. Many fasters report a “glow,” perhaps the result of something going on at a metabolic level that governs our moods.
Why is intermittent fasting so good for you? Scientists hypothesize that it is because human beings evolved in an environment where food was often scarce. We are the product of hundreds of thousands of years of feast or famine. Intermittent fasting mimics the environment in which our bodies and genes were shaped.
Your body is exquisitely adapted to respond to stresses and shocks in a way that makes it tougher and healthier. (The scientific term is hormesis.) When you severely restrict your calorie intake, you “fool” your body into believing it is in a potential famine situation. It switches from its ordinary “go-go” mode to a maintenance mode. And that leads to a cornucopia of health benefits.
Intermittent fasters generally make some unexpected discoveries. They find they commonly eat not because they’re hungry but because they’re bored, thirsty, or just because food happens to be in front of them. We eat from habit, or because it’s a certain hour, or because we are afraid that if we don’t we will be hungry later.
There are a number of common misperceptions about fasting, too. The first is that it is incredibly difficult. You might imagine that hunger builds and builds until it becomes unendurable and you find yourself face down in the local pizza buffet. The reality is that hunger comes and goes in waves, then passes.
We tend to assume that fasting makes it harder to concentrate. Yet fasters report that it sharpens their senses and concentration. Most believe fasting will make them irritable. But studies show it improves mood and protects the brain from dementia and cognitive decline.
Of course, the biggest misperception is that if you fast one day you’ll just blow it by pigging out the next. Yet study participants told to eat all they want on non-fast days regularly report eating only slightly more than they ordinarily do.
The biggest obstacle to fasting is fear. Our brains evolved to persuade us to eat as much as we can as often as we can to guard against future hunger. That was an effective strategy in a food-deprived environment. But in our modern world of inexpensive, easy-to-access, fatty, salty and sweetened foods, it’s a decided handicap.
If you’d like to give fasting a go, you might begin by watching Dr. Mosley’s documentary, widely available on the Internet. In a follow-up book, he also offers these tips:
- Find a friend or family member to join you… or at least support you in your endeavor.
- Which two days you fast each week are unimportant, any two nonconsecutive days will do. But for scheduling reasons, many find that Mondays and Thursdays work best.
- Try fasting from 2 to 2. Most daily fasts are from morning until night. But they needn’t be. Any 24-hour period will do. You may find it easier to fast, say, from 2 p.m. one day until 2 p.m. the next.
- When tempted to eat, always wait 10 or 15 minutes to see if the hunger subsides.
- Stay hydrated. You can be tempted to eat when you are only thirsty.
- Distract yourself, if necessary, with a walk, a phone call or anything that takes your mind off eating. As fasting advocate Brad Pilon notes, “No one’s hungry the first few seconds of a sky dive.”
- Prep your fast-day food in advance. This keeps you from the dangerous temptation of foraging in the pantry or fridge.
- Whatever you eat on a fast day, relish it. Go slow.
Many describe fasting as the equivalent of hitting a reset button for your entire body. You may fear that going an entire day while consuming 600 calories or less is sheer torture. But anyone who has had to prep for a colonoscopy knows that a day without eating is hardly the end of the world.
Mosley reports that men enjoy intermittent fasting because it is uncomplicated, requires no cooking skills, and can be viewed as a challenging but enjoyable test of willpower. Women tend to like it because it’s easy to implement, their bodies respond to it rapidly and while they may not be eating their beloved chocolate today, they know they will be tomorrow.
Intermittent fasting is not an invitation to binge and starve. It is calibrated and sensible. Over time most fasters see their appetites moderate. And while it may seem like a tough slog at first, over time the sense of deprivation diminishes and eating this way becomes second nature.
Not everyone should fast, of course. The list includes children, pregnant women, people with underlying medical conditions or those who are already too thin.
But for the rest of us, there are good reasons to give it a try: a self-repairing physiology, greater disease resistance, a cognitive boost, and improved longevity. And, not least of all, steady and sustainable weight loss. Dr. Mosley reports that he dropped pounds so rapidly that he switched to fasting just one day a week once he reached his ideal weight.
In short, intermittent fasting offers a host of physical and psychological benefits. It is not a diet, but a sustainable strategy for a longer, healthier life. You stand to gain a lot… and perhaps lose a bit, as well.