Fasting Decoded: History, Benefits, & Practical Application in a Healthy Lifestyle

On social media and in the health and fitness world, we hear the terms “fast”, “intermittent fasting”, On social media and in the health and fitness world, we hear the words “cleanse”, “fast”, “detox”, “fasted cardio”, and “fasted HIIT”, often. As you read, you will soon find that my goal here is to provide with a well-rounded and general overview of fasting as a tool in promoting general health. This by no-means is a step-by-step “how to” fast. If after reading you have further questions about specific parts of this post and application to your own unique life, I’d be thrilled to hear from you and chat. That being said, skip the next paragraph if you want to dive right in to all the info - but if you have an extra 20 seconds to read, please do so!!

In this piece it is my intention to provide well-rounded and reliable information, so that in your health and wellness journey you can educate yourself, make decisions based on what is best for YOUR body and YOUR life. Everyone has their own opinions and own experiences - that is amazing! However I think in this saturated space there is not enough balance, individuality, and recognition that what may work for one person in one time in their life, may very well not work for another person (or even the same person however many years later!!). End rant. Here’s what I wanted to really say before diving in: this is an overview of what I believe to be quality information. With that information, I provide my thoughts that are based off of my education, experiences, observations, and philosophies in regards to health and wellness. I am not an RD or physician. If you are thinking of incorporating fasting into your lifestyle, I highly recommend consulting with a physician before doing so. Do your research, know that you are unique and that your body reacts differently than every other body, and honor yourself with good judgement and safe practices.

Overviews & History

Fasting is a topic we hear quite a lot about right now, but it is actually an extremely old practice that has been around for thousands of years. Chinese medicine has used fasting for many different purposes: regular and brief fasts have and are used for the maintenance of good health and “cleansing of the digestive tract and rekindling of the digestive fire.” Fasting is used in a variety of ways depending on the individual: on a weekly basis, upon the change of each season (4x /year), or during times of change or purification. In a more extreme fashion, fasting has a long history of being used to treat cancers, serious illness, and chronic disease.

Aside from physical health, fasting has been long-used to aid mental health. It is often incorporated into different types of meditation.

Take-home message: fasting is not new or revolutionary by any means..

Looking to the history of humans and modern society, we evolved very quickly from hunter-gatherers to these highly efficient creatures we are today. Before modern society and the ready availability of food, fasting was a normal part of life. If you pick or catch food one day, you eat. If you don’t pick or catch anything else for three days, you fast. In these conditions, humans were still able to thrive. To me, this topic is SO fascinating.

In our society today, we have access to food 24/7 (this is obviously not the case in all parts of the world and in all communities, I am generalizing here). Americans are obsessed with food. With the health, fitness, & wellness space exploding, we are returning to these “practices”, that were done by our ancestors without thought or choice. If you look back through history, different cultures in different times were extremely intuitive and astute about fasting or not. As the world began to modernize, some communities and cultures embraced fasting because their bodies and overall health responded positively to it. Some did not. This speaks to my point in the second paragraph beautifully: every human’s physiology, biology, and chemistry is unique and reacts to stimuli differently. If you skipped that paragraph the first time around, go back!!

Take-home message: Many cultures have intentionally used fasting as a tool in health throughout history. However as society and modern life have changed, fasting and how it is used has changed as well.

Fasting Today

In our recent history, fasting has been most-commonly used to aide in weight loss, body composition manipulation, and more recently (at least in the mainstream space) for promoting general health. Popular modes of fasting as-of-late are intermittent fasting, 24-72 hour fasts, cleanses, detoxes, fasted cardio and HIIT...I’m sure there are plenty more that I am missing.

When we talk about any health practice, it is really important to note our day-to-day lives. How much we sleep, what we eat, how often we eat, stress levels, activity, social and cultural stimuli important factors. History is so important and we can learn a lot, but that needs to be balanced with recognizing that the lives we live today are VERY different from the lives that were lived 50, 100, 200, 1000 years ago. In public health and medicine we know that environment and lifestyle habits are critical to health outcomes - so in this conversation about fasting (and any conversation about health) these factors make a huge difference and are extremely important.

Benefits of Fasting

With the above being said, what are the potential benefits in our modern lives? There are actually quite a lot: some understood more than others, and some backed by science more than others. Here is where I see the most potential value and promise:

-Promote and support general health

-Strengthen the immune system.

-Support weight loss and weight control.

-Help to preserve muscle while in a calorie-deficit (cut).

-Boost HGH (human growth hormone) levels in the body.

-Promote neurogenesis in the brain.

-Play a role in fighting and preventing cancer, auto-immune, and chronic diseases.

*Many of these topics are currently very “hot” in the research right now, and I expect that a lot more insight will be provided in the next 5-10 years. I also want to stress that each body is different, and the benefits some individuals see from fasting may be different from others.

Types of Fasting

There are so many different ways to fast and protocols you can follow for different outcomes, but when choosing what pattern of fasting to use, remember that some methods may be great for you and your body, and some not so great.

For example: intermittent fasting can be a great place to start - but within intermittent fasting itself, there are different ratios of fast-time vs. feed-time. Some days a longer fast may be great, and some days a shorter may be what you need. Listen to your body, and observe how you feel, think, move, and perform.

Another really common trend is fasted cardio and HIIT. The theory behind doing the workouts in a fasted state (for most people this is in the morning without having eaten breakfast) is that it helps to mobilize and burn fat. There is scientific evidence to support this, but there are a few factors to consider. (1) Gauge how you feel and perform. If your performance suffers consistently, this may not be a good method for you, and the fasting may actually hinder your ability to burn and mobilize fat if your performance declines significantly. (2) The additional fat loss achieved with this kind of training differs for each individual, depending on their body composition, level of conditioning, and the rate that their body adjusts to change.

If you are someone who always eats before a workout and couldn’t imagine training without food in your stomach, maybe give a fasted workout a try. The human body is extremely efficient at adapting to environmental stimuli - so if you are comfortable and used to eating before a workout, and all of a sudden are training fasted - you may experience some great benefits. Once your body is used to the fasting and comfortable, go back to eating before for a few weeks and repeat.

For individuals who are really in-tune with their bodies and are very familiar with health & wellness in their own lives, fasting can be a very cool tool to notice how your body reacts under different conditions. You may expect an energy drag but experience an energy boost, or you may notice sensitivity to macronutrients upon re-introduction. This can be a great way to further strengthen your mind-body relationship, and hone-in even more on your health.

I only recommend incorporating fasting into your lifestyle if you are a generally healthy person. And even so, check-in with a medical professional beforehand if possible. For the following individuals however, I would definitely not recommend fasting (at the very least on your own):

-A medical doctor or healthcare professional has advised against it.

-If you have, or suspect you have, a negative or warped relationship with food.

-If you have a history of disordered eating.

Final Thoughts

A final point I’d like to make and feel strongly about, is that fasting is not a quick-fix, magic pill, hack, or trick. If you are someone who is just starting out on their journey to live a healthier lifestyle, I strongly suggest covering your basics first BEFORE moving on to incorporate something like fasting. Get moving, clean up your diet, address mental health, get consistent, get comfortable listening to your body...Then I think it would be appropriate to move-on to something like fasting.

So my take on fasting is that it can be a really powerful tool to incorporate as part of a healthy lifestyle, especially in the world we live in where food is readily available constantly. While fasting has been shown to help improve body composition and weight loss to an extent in some scenarios, I think for most individuals, it is a tool better served to improve and enhance general health. However as this topic is studied further, I may be surprised and proved totally wrong! Regardless, I love that I am able to learn about these topics, share my thoughts, and see what amazing strides towards optimal health are being made through eating patterns and lifestyle changes!

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