As some parts of the world are preparing to fast daily for Ramadan, while other countries are using intermittent fasting (IF) as a weight loss technique - fasting is certainly a hot topic right now!
Although lengths of fasting vary based on the intent - fasting for Ramadan lasts from sun up until sun down, while IF can range from 12 hours to 2 days - studies have shown interesting effects that fasting can have on the body!
Before we get into some of the ways that fasting may benefit your health, let’s talk about what happens to the body when it eats vs. when it fasts.
What happens when we fast?
When we eat food, it is broken down by the digestive system and eventually ends up as molecules in our blood. Some of these molecules (carbohydrates from foods like grains, starches, fruit and dairy) are broken down as sugars that can be used by our cells for energy. If you’re following the keto diet, then your body is using fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates.
This energy is used to fuel our body in its daily activities and to feed our muscles when we are exercising. When our body doesn’t use up all the energy it has available to it, we end up storing that energy in our liver, muscles and then eventually, as fat. This is done through a hormone called insulin - essentially, insulin helps to transfer the molecules from the blood to our cells for storage. This is one of the reasons why we gain weight - because we have too much energy from food (overeating) that isn’t being used up by our body, so it is stored as excess fat.
On the flip side, when we go for a stretch of time without having energy available from food, our insulin levels decrease and the sugars that were being stored as fat are now able to be used for energy by the body. So, essentially, when our insulin levels fall, we burn fat. Interestingly, this is the process that is already happening in our bodies when doing the ketogenic diet. Without carbohydrates for fuel, the body is already burning fat.
Now that we know what happens to the body during eating vs. fasting, let’s look at some of the ways that fasting might benefit overall health & wellness.
How might fasting benefit your health?
- The majority of studies done on fasting have shown that it can help you lose weight! Because the body has to use the energy it has stored in its fat cells, you end up burning through them.
- Evidence has shown that fasting for 18 hours at a time may increase life span and decrease the incidence of diseases (including cancer and obesity).
- Some studies have shown that fasting may reduce “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides in the body, benefiting heart health.
- Some people who fast for Ramadan lose weight and end up feeling healthier, however some people actually gain weight during the month. Weight gain is most frequently due to the popularity of deep fried, high fat or sugary foods that are often eaten to break the fast. If you’re hoping to lose weight throughout the month, try focusing on nutrient dense, healthy foods during the eating period and try not to overeat during iftar. This will help you maximize the potential benefits that fasting has to offer.
Whether you’re fasting for religious or personal reasons, there is definitely some compelling evidence that it might benefit your health long-term. Regardless of your reasoning, make sure that while you are eating that you’re focusing on fresh, whole foods that are filled with nutrients to help your body thrive!
And remember, fasting might not be right for everyone - as always, make sure to consult with your doctor before choosing an eating plan that is right for you!