The very latest eating plan is simplicity itself. It requires no fiddly recipes, no special equipment and no complicated rules. You don’t need to combine anything, count anything or measure anything simply because there are no foods to combine, no calories to count and no ingredients to measure. This is the lean world of fasting which makes the most draconian diet look generous.
It involves ingesting nothing more than water for upwards of a day and it is gaining in popularity virtually by the minute. It’s certainly not a new concept – back in medieval times, fasting was a way of life and all over the world religions have espoused the spiritual benefits of purifying and castigating the body by withholding food. Nowadays, however, few think of fasting as a solely religious experience and it certainly isn’t regarded as punishment: fasters are simply looking for a healthier body, a brighter mind and clearer emotions.
Amidst healthy scepticism there is evidence backing periodic, sensible fasting. Research has been carried out since 1880 and since then medical journals have carried occasional reports on the use of fasting for the treatment of obesity, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, bronchial asthma, depression and even schizophrenia, to name but a few.
Most people nowadays, however, use it as preventative medicine. As medical herbalist Kitty Campion, author of A Woman’s Herbal (Vermilion) says, “Not only does it help the body to maintain peak fitness by periodically unburdening itself of accumulated waste, but, if done properly, it nips minor health problems in the bud, decelerates the ageing process, stabilises body weight and helps the body to utilise nutrition far more effectively.”
She points out that the digestive system uses up to 30 per cent of the total energy produced by the body so, by putting the system into a state of rest, the body can concentrate on detoxification and healing. On a health level, she says, fasting can improve your immune function and allow your body a decent chance to
deal with its problems; on a beauty level, fasting can make your skin look fresher and more toned, your eyes brighter and your hair more lush.
Quite obviously, you also lose weight. Six hours after the last meal, the body starts to use glycogen (the carbohydrate stored in the liver and muscles) as its energy source. But after twenty-four hours the body will adapt to obtaining its energy from stored fat. However, if you want to lose weight, fasting is not your best or safest bet.
As the British Medical Association point out, after twenty-four hours your body takes its energy, not just from stored fat but also from the breakdown of muscle. If you continue fasting over several days, your metabolism will slow down to conserve energy and, if you fast for too long, the ability to digest food may be impaired or lost entirely because the stomach gradually stops secreting digestive juices. Prolonged fasting also halts the production of sex hormones and your body loses its ability to fight infection. So fast for too long and fasting will be positively bad for you. However the BMA says that fasting for twenty-four hours is fine and can even be an effective means of weight control. After that, they advise you need medical supervision.
However Lyndel Costain of the British Dietetic Association is not happy about fasting in any form and is worried about the growing trend. “People say they’re fasting for religious or health reasons but I still suspect that weight loss is the bottom line,” she comments. “It’s simply not a useful way to lose weight because it very much increases the preoccupation and intensity about food without addressing what your body really needs.” She points out that, after about seven days, fatty acids can be released into the blood. They are converted into ketones which make the whole system acidic and can cause a “high”. “People say the extra energy and “high” is their body responding to fasting but in fact it’s just a switch to a different form of fuel.”
She is a adamant that fasting can cause more problems than it solves: “I simply wouldn’t recommend fasting,” she says. “We’re all capable of staying healthy on a mixed and healthy diet. Sure, sometimes we might feel a bit sluggish or bloated but our bodies are quite capable of digesting and absorbing all
kinds of foods.”
However naturopaths and other holistic health practitioners insist that, if carried out carefully and under
supervision, fasting is quite safe. Patrick Howard of the Purist Foundation which runs regular fasting weekends is adamant that, “No fasting is dangerous as long as you are supervised.” He recommends people start off with a one day fast and then progress to five or even seven day fasts for maximum benefits. The Foundation introduces people to fasting with a weekend explaining how fasting works and ncorporating a day-long fast which is carefully supervised.
The main difficulty, he insists, is not actually hunger but fear. “We have been brought up to think that
you have to eat to be strong and so if we think about stopping eating it terrifies us. However once you get into fasting mode it’s easier than you think.”
The first time I fasted, years ago, I was totally miserable. If it hadn’t been for the latest Jilly Cooper and an evening glued to trashy DVDs I wouldn’t have made it past teatime. As it was I went to bed at eight o’clock with hiking socks on my feet to keep warm, curled up in a ball and prayed for oblivion.
But by day two I was feeling better. My tongue felt furry, there was a strange taste to my mouth and however many times a day I showered I still seemed to smell unpleasant but the hunger pangs had gone and I felt much clearer and lighter. I found myself looking at my relationship with food and working out why and when I wanted to eat. I discovered I was using food as both comfort and, surprisingly, a cure for boredom so I started giving myself mini-treats or plunging myself into more involving activities and the hunger went.
By the third morning I wasn’t hungry at all and could easily have kept going. But I broke my fast gently with a glass of orange juice. Lunch was a light salad and I felt full after a small bowl. My energy levels had improved and my skin felt remarkably clear and soft. Now I regularly fast – usually for one day a week or fortnight and no longer have any side effects – other than feeling pretty good.
However I certainly accept that fasting is not for everyone. If in doubt, don’t do it. And it is distinctly not advised if you are pregnant or breast feeding, if you have any medical condition and particularly if you are diabetic or have any eating disorder. Always ask the advice of a qualified practitioner and don’t fast unsupervised for more than twenty-four hours. Remember, the new form of fasting is supposed to make you feel good – it’s not the modern equivalent of a hair shirt.