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The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting [Where religion and exercise collide]

Posted Aug 15 2012 12:47am

A few Sundays ago found me standing at the pulpit of my church giving a talk about… how my colonoscopy was the best day of my life. (Seriously, forget childbirth. That hurt so bad I still have nightmares about it. But whatever drugs they gave me for colonoscopy not only gave me amnesia but made me feel aMAYzing. ANYHOW.) Actually I was giving a talk about intermittent fasting. (Don’t ask me how the colonoscopy worked into that. I love public speaking and part of that is probably due to the fact I sort of blank out when I talk so it’s like a double surprise! Whee!) This is a popular subject these days and it may be the one health principle that pretty much every expert agrees on. Which is kinda hilarious since it sucks so much to do.

But it’s not just us nutty Mormons that practice fasting. We’ve been one Gym Buddy short this past month and it’s not because she got sick of us calling out “Hey, I just met you and this is crazy…” daring someone else to finish it. (Try it, it’s like “shave and a haircut, 2 bits. You can’t not finish it. See? Right now you’re mouthing “So here’s my number, call me maybe” aren’t you?) Ramadan, the month-long fast observed by most Muslims, is the reason Gym Buddy Krista has temporarily gone M.I.A.. For some reason she doesn’t feel like working out when abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours which, since Ramadan falls in August this year, means she fasts from about 4:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. – gotta love living on the 45th parallel!

Hmm… which one is Krista? I’ll give you a hint: she’s wearing black.

I can relate. In a previous post I mentioned how, as a Mormon , I fast at least once a month which means no food or water for a full 24 hour period and  Sagan of Living Healthy in the Real World , asked me to write a post about my experience with voluntary starvation.

Spiritual Benefits
First, I would like to say that for me fasting is primarily a religious endeavor, a matter of faith. Fasting isn’t just about not eating and drinking but is primarily about building a closer relationship with God. The 24 hours is supposed to be a time of prayer, meditation and study. In addition, we donate the money we would have spent on food to the poor and needy in our area so as to keep our focus on serving others. I’m not going to lie: going that long without food or water isn’t easy and sometimes it makes me seriously grouchy but I’m not perfect and if anyone knows that, it’s God. I figure He’s pretty forgiving when I make the kids eat PB&J’s because I don’t want to cook them something I’m going to have to smell and drool over.

Physical Benefits
That said, there are a lot of benefits to fasting (or intermittent fasting, “IF”, as if is often referred to) that extend quite firmly into the physical sphere. Long considered the purview of the incense-and-nutritional-yeast crowd or filed under The Weird Things Hollywood Types Do, fasting is becoming more and more mainstream. And with good reason -  recent research shows that this primitive survival technique actually has some impressive health benefits.

A study from the American Heart Association found that people who fasted were 39% less likely to have coronary artery disease. This study looked at a sample of 4500 men and women, 90% of whom were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints  (a.k.a. Mormons). Previously researchers had thought that Mormons’ lower risk of heart disease was due to the religious prohibition against smoking and drinking alcohol but researchers were surprised to find it most correlated to the monthly 24-hour fasts that adherents practice .

In addition to the heart benefits, Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple and guru of all things IF cites a study that showed, ““health benefits… in insulin resistance, asthma, seasonal allergies, infectious diseases of viral, bacterial and fungal origin (viral URI, recurrent bacterial tonsillitis, chronic sinusitis, periodontal disease), autoimmune disorder (rheumatoid arthritis), osteoarthritis, symptoms due to CNS inflammatory lesions (Tourette’s, Meniere’s) cardiac arrhythmias (PVCs, atrial fibrillation), menopause related hot flashes.” Mark is so convinced of the benefits that he has made fasting one of the primary points of his Primal Blueprint and encourages everyone to try it . Many other studies support the health benefits of fasting including increased insulin sensitivity, faster healing from injury, cellular rejuvenation, decreased blood pressure, reduction in oxidative damage, less type 2 diabetes, less cancer, less cardiovascular disease, protection against heart disease and – the holy grail of health nuts – decreased fat mass. Who wouldn’t want all that awesomeness?

Psychological Benefits
Another benefit of fasting, according to Dr. Judith Beck, author of the popular Beck Diet Solution is that it helps you to see that “hunger is not an emergency.” So many dieters derail from their carefully planned meals when the hunger pains strike because they think they are starving. They think that if they don’t eat immediately then they will be overwhelmed by their hunger when the truth is that hunger waxes and wanes and you will not die if you don’t eat for a few hours. Dr. Beck points out that once her patients fast for at least one meal, they see for themselves that they can survive and thrive despite hunger that their cravings have less power over them and it becomes easier to stick with that diet. Plus, she explains that many people never allow themselves to get truly hungry and so they never feel what real physiological hunger feels like thereby causing people to confuse cravings with hunger. But wanting to eat and needing to eat are not the same thing.

Many people, especially hard-core fitness types (ahem), fear if they don’t get some nutrition every 3-5 hours then they will lose muscle and kill their metabolisms. Actually the opposite is true, according to Mark Sisson (the man with all the answers). “It all makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, because our predecessors almost certainly went through regular cycles where food was either abundant or very scarce. The body may have established protective mechanisms to adapt to these conditions by sensitizing insulin receptors when it was critical that every bit of food be efficiently used or stored (as in famine), or by desensitizing them when there was a surplus, so the body wouldn’t be overly-burdened by grossly excessive calorie intake .”

Food is great. It’s delicious (usually) and fun to eat and everyone, everywhere needs to eat it. Going against this primal urge is difficult, especially at first. While there are, of course, reasons why some should not attempt fasting (if you are struggling with an eating disorder, for instance, or diabetic or hypoglycemic) for most of us it can be an awesome experience on many levels.

To try it, pick a day when you don’t have a lot going on (the day of your big presentation or your final exam is probably not the best time to start this) – I usually choose my rest day so I don’t have to worry about dying of thirst after a run – and just plan to skip a meal*. Then try skipping two. The type of fast you do – juice, water only, 18 hours, full abstinence – is up to you. There are as many types as there are people. Just take careful note of how it makes you feel and what, if any, differences you notice. Fasting may be the cheapest and simplest health “products” out there! (Note I did not say “easiest”.)

Caveat: When people discover that I fast, they generally say “Oh, you must lose so much weight!” This would not be true. Both Krista and I have noticed that fasting does not cause either of us to lose weight. While the research shows that fasting, over a long period of time, can help you maintain a healthy weight, it doesn’t work like a crash diet dropping 10 pounds in 10 days.

Have any of you fasted before? What kind did you do and how did it make you feel? Do any of you have religious practices that affect your workout?

*Be smart. Check with your doctor first if you have any health concerns. I am not a doctor, a nurse, a guru of anything or even all that smart sometimes (as evidenced by my massive collection of ridiculous footwear). If you start to feel sick, stop immediately.

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