FASTING: A Blessing to Get Your Health on Track
Fasting has been practiced by billions of people for centuries either as an observance of their religious duties or because of its purported health benefits. Muslims are preparing to observe sixteen plus hour fasts during the month of Ramadan, where they are prohibited from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. While the benefits of fasting are many, there are often two groups of people who fall into two categories in Ramadan; those who gain weight and those who lose (and the coffee and sugar addicts who teeter-totter between the two depending on how much self-control they have during iftar).
What if we told you that post iftar (breaking of the fast) you don’t have to feel and look like an overstuffed baked potato? You don’t have to feel sluggish and sleepy (and you're not supposed to!) after breaking your fast. Study after study has shown that after a period of fasting your body has a stronger immune system, improved blood sugar, a sharper mind, and sets you up for weight loss. If this is the case, what are we doing wrong? Why do so many people GAIN weight during Ramadan when they are not eating for the majority of the day? Well, it all starts and ends with how you feed your body. The food you consume can either go for you or against you and we are here to provide you tips on how to make fasting this year work for you, and it’s all backed by science
Anyone who struggles with their weight can benefit from fasting because temporarily restricting calories allows your body to burn the fat that is has stored away for a rainy day. All of our bodies have two main energy sources for fuel: sugar [or glucose, if you want to get fancy] and fat. Just to clarify before we go any further, glucose is defined as the byproduct of the breakdown of consuming carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, and rice. It also comes naturally from fruits and vegetables and it also comes from your typical table sugar found in desserts and packaged goods.
Now back to the good stuff; our bodies can’t burn both glucose and fat simultaneously so it’s going to choose to burn the one that’s easiest to do, so glucose will win every single time. The problem with this is that we eat so often and so poorly that before our bodies are able to burn up all the current glucose stores to get to the fat stores, we are already eating our next meal which, depending on what it is, will be converted to glucose again. It is a vicious cycle that over time leads to weight gain and frustration.
Before you throw in the towel and think this Ramadan won’t be any different, I want you to hear me out and understand how you can make your body work for you. Let’s do a quick breakdown of what’s going on after you eat your food. After your food is digested your body begins to use up all the nutrients you ate for immediate usage: protein for your muscles, fat for energy needs and storage for later, glucose for energy needs and storage for later. Glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles, once your body uses up all this easier form of energy, then your body can dig deep and access your fat stores, and this is what we have all been waiting for.
When you temporarily restrict your calories and avoid excessive carbohydrates (Yes! Please still eat your carbohydrates as our brains use glucose as it’s a primary source of energy), you use up all the glycogen stores in the body, it is only then your body can access your fat stores. This is exactly what we want to be doing in a fasted state, using up all the fat stores in the body to prevent weight gain.
Fun fact about glycogen (remember it’s the stored form of glucose), it sits tight with 3-4 molecules of water so when your glycogen levels are depleted so does the excess water which means your bloat goes away with it. Do you love science yet?! So in a nutshell, fasting will help prevent weight gain by chewing up the fat stores and getting rid of excess water weight.
You probably have insulin resistance and don’t even know it. I know you’re probably thinking “Who me? I don’t take insulin, that’s only for my uncle who has the ‘sugar’ disease”. You’re only half way right. We all make insulin, (unless you’re a type 1 diabetic) it’s a hormone that is secreted from the pancreas to pick up all the glucose from your bloodstream that is converted from food to take it to your cells for energy. The more food you eat that is easily converted into glucose (think simple carbohydrates like cookies) the more insulin your body will automatically make to help pick it all from your blood and transport it to your cells for use. Over time, your cells will start to ignore or become resistant to the insulin and your pancreas will go into overdrive and pump out more insulin so the cells will start paying attention again to have the same effect.
If you are diabetic, your doctor would look at your blood sugar levels and say to increase your insulin but over time you will have the same problem. More insulin will eventually lead to more insulin resistance which means more blood sugar will stay in your bloodstream and eventually lead to weight gain via increased fat stores. Our bodies have a small amount of space to store all this glycogen but have an unlimited amount of space to store excess fat which is why you see people with varying levels of obesity.
Fasting is a great way to prevent or reverse insulin resistance because when you fast your body is going to use up all of the glycogen storage first then go for the fat stores. Because you are not eating for long periods of time, your blood glucose levels are lower and by default, your insulin levels are lower. This is exactly what we want because we want your cells to recover from insulin overload and over time it will improve cellular sensitivity to the insulin which ultimately will improve or prevent insulin resistance. Regulating your insulin is truly one of the best-kept secrets to maintaining a healthy weight.
In order to have lasting effects of maintaining a healthy weight, you need your body to work for you in other areas as well such as reduced inflammation and a good immune system. In a recent study in the Cell Stem Cell journal, fasting has shown to protect against immune system damage by inducing immune system regeneration. Sounds great but what does that mean? In a fasted state, the body naturally wants to conserve its energy so it starts to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially the ones that are damaged, old, or mutated. As these immune cells are being knocked off new stem cells are being generated. So if you’re starting to fast with a heavily damaged immune system like from chemotherapy, autoimmune disease, or aging, fasting can literally generate a new immune system by the way of new stem cells.
Stem cells are the frameworks of our entire immune system, you can think of them as a blank canvas. They are the cells which all other specialized cells are created. This is incredibly exciting and promising news as this creates major possibilities for healthy aging and to fight diseases. As we age, our immune system tends to decline to put us at risk to contract infections but if fasting enables us to get rid of ineffective cells and generate new ones this will lead to favorable outcomes and improved quality of life.
Lastly, you can’t lose weight if you are constantly losing focus, angry, or in a brain fog. One of the coolest things fasting does to your brain is that it helps improve your cognitive function. Yes, the old noggin benefits from fasting too. When you’re fasting your brain stimulates the production of a protein in nerve cells called brain-derived neurotrophic factor [BDNF]. This protein is responsible for learning, memory, alertness, and generation of new nerve cells. It positively influences all cognitive related deficiencies which is why you will have mental breakthroughs, the sharpness of the mind, and more energy when fasting.
Now that you understand the fundamentals and benefits fasting and what fasting does to your body, you’re probably wondering what should you eat so you don’t have insulin spikes and don’t add to your fat stores? We will talk about the most nourishing and hydrating foods you should be eating on the blog next week. Stay tuned, in the meantime drink more water.