FASTING and why we should all STILL be doing it
I am not Muslim, but a lot of my dear and long-term patients are. Where I am from, a very large part of the population is Muslim and therefore, in the next few days many are getting ready to start their Holy Month of Fasting aka. Ramadan. I am not about to give you a whole lecture on Religion (because although I am a God-loving human, I am no cleric). I am taking this opportunity to talk about something that is fundamental to our health, and that is FASTING.
FASTING has been practiced since the beginning of time, and is one of the many things that many religions have in common. I was raised Catholic and I have a very brief recollection of my grandmother fasting for religious purposes, but I believe most of the Catholics have (sadly) abandoned this practice. I do know that many other Christian denominations fast quite frequently, as well as Orthodox religions, Hindus and Buddhists. If you want to correct me here and tell me how many more other religions fast, go right ahead, you will only be strengthening my point. I will make some references throughout this post, but as you know, I am a practical gal, I like to make things simple for my readers, but I LOVE to read smart people that reference and do lots of research, and so here I will often reference things that I have read in Dr. Fung's blog (I just might not reference it properly), and so in the references section you will find a link to his site and blog. Dr. Fung is a Canadian Kidney, Diabetes and Obesity specialist and he writes a lot about Insulin and Fasting as well as LCHF diet (now you know why I like him!).
So Doctors, too, recommend fasting, not just religion. There's got be something here. A quick look at history and we find quotes from Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, where he clearly talks about fasting, and why we naturally fast when we are sick (all animals do in fact), that is why you don't feel like eating when you are sick, trust your body people! Drink (aka water), on the other hand, is something you should never withhold. So here, Prophet Muhammad and I might not be in agreement, I believe the Muslim fast is the only fast that prohibits drink during their fasting period, and I have often voiced my opinion about that with my Muslim friends and clients, however, if you drink enough water during the allowed periods you should be fine. Back to fasting...Why would Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Hippocrates, Galen, Plutarch, and even Benjamin Franklin recommend fasting if it were bad for you? Unlike what many people think, fasting is not done as a sign of "sacrifice", but rather it is a HEALING mechanism for our body to detoxify and reach homeostasis. That's why it's not just religion that recommends it, but the great doctors (aka. teachers) of all times, recommended it, religion was merely a vessel to guide people.
Only in the last decades did this practice become less and less common, as many other things, "evolution", is not always a good thing. We also know that only in the last decades did we start eating grains as the basis of our diet, and only in the last decades did Obesity and Diabetes, and everything else associated with these, become an epidemic. So, let's just say that whatever we have been doing "in the last decades" has not been very good for us! But here, we will just speak about fasting.
So why is fasting so good for you? Where do I begin? Let's start by saying that we fast every single day! Oh yes we do...you know the word "breakFAST"? Yes, right, it means braking a fast, so naturally we fast everyday overnight. If eating was required all the time we would all die in our very first night of "fasting" (my kids would survive for a long time, since they did not want to wean off that good mommy milk). Anyway, so we naturally fast. And I have already mentioned, that most of us, when we are sick, fast for sometimes days on end. So, we know fasting (up until 40 days actually) doesn't kill us, it does the exact opposite, it heals us! When we fast, basically we don't take any food in, although there should be no restriction on liquids. I'm gonna be brief here because I don't want you all to "cut to a commercial break", but basically when we eat, our blood glucose normally goes up, insulin, which is a hormone, goes up and then slowly the glucose levels go down, glucose is stored (as glycogen and fat) and then the insulin goes down too. So when we don't eat, the opposite happens. So basically, the opposite means your blood glucose levels don't go up and your insulin also doesn't go up. For those of you that have ever heard about DIABETES have now just thought DIABETES. Because what does the average person know about HIGH GLUCOSE and HIGH INSULIN? That somehow it is related to DIABETES. I don't need to go into more details here, but I am dying to write a blog about it, and I will, soon. Naturally, we must assume that fasting has to be good for Diabetics, pre diabetics and just about anyone who doesn't want to get Diabetes (hey wait a minute...that's all of us!!!). You should also know that fasting for long enough periods, causes your body to burn fat stores to produce energy (this is a natural occurrence that we should ALL want to happen, cause the last thing you want is to just keep storing body fat), it also secretes hormones that are thought to be anti-aging (this is where you might want to read Dr. Fung's blog for the details, if you like that kind of stuff), and eventually it actually increases your percentage of lean body mass which leads to a faster metabolism (I gotta tell you that this is the single most frequent question that I get from my patients, how to build more muscle and lose more fat). Answer: it is not a pill or a supplement that's going to do that for you, it is something much cheaper...FASTING! This paragraph is already a lot longer than I wanted it to be, but I still have more fasting benefits to tell you...How about brain clarity? This is simple, do you ever notice that when you finish eating, your brain becomes all foggy and you get really sleepy and have a hard time working? Well, if you are eating all the time (especially carbs, there I said it again) then, you are going to be "groggy" all the time right? So obviously, fasting is good for that too. Ok, ok, I will stop here for now.
Who should NOT fast? This is pretty obvious, but I am going to say it anyway, pregnant women, breastfeeding moms, kids...even though all of these people naturally fast too, when their body needs to, but they don't need any more of it. There are obvious reasons for this, mostly, it is a period of growth...period. Unless, you want to grow (vertically or horizontally), or are growing something inside you or through you, then you SHOULD be fasting. Also, fasting and starvation are not the same thing, and again Dr. Fung states this brilliantly. Fasting is a voluntary spiritual or healing practice. Starving is an involuntary reduction of calories. You don't actually have to REDUCE your caloric intake while fasting, and I will actually talk about this now when I speak a little bit about Ramadan.
So let's talk about Ramadan and my recommendations. Ramadan, for those of you that don't know, is a month-long period of fasting, among other things, from sun-rise to sun-set, practiced by Muslim followers. Again, kids and a few other groups of people are exempt from this practice. So if you live in Toronto, today the sun rose at 5:38 am and will set at 8:53 pm, then you are obligated to fast for those 15 hours and 15 minutes (warning Ramadan has NOT yet started, June 7th people). However if you live in Johannesburg, South Africa, the sun rose at 6:49 am and set at 5:23 pm, you only need to fast for less than 11 hours (you lucky jerks, as some might be thinking :). But really the truth of the matter is that most people actually fast for longer than those two periods because not everyone wakes up before sunrise to eat (this meal is called Suhur or Suhoor). So many people go from not eating anything from about bedtime until sunset of the next day, so around 20 hour let's say. Here, I note again, that they also cannot drink anything during that same period, and here I put a sad face :(
So what should you eat during the periods of non-fasting? So this goes for everyone, in my opinion, whether you are following Ramadan or just want to get into fasting, or just want to learn how to eat better. You should eat REAL food, unprocessed, mostly animals and plants (naturally this is a Lower Carb Higher Fat diet, even if you are not trying to follow a LCHF diet, if you follow this principle, that is what is going to happen). Simple. What you should avoid is anything that is PROCESSED, drinks that are diuretic (which will make you more dehydrated, like too much coffee, tea or alcohol, you should be focusing always on replacing liquids lost) and definitely avoid grains and all other foods high in sugars, natural or not. Why? Very simple again. If you eat foods higher in carbs, this is going to take the space of more nutritious foods, like animal and plant foods, obviously, but another big reason is because these foods will give you a big rise in blood sugar and then a quick drop. Normally this drop will go even below the normal blood glucose level, this is called reactive hypoglycemia. This big drop will cause you to crave more sugary foods and also make you feel hungrier sooner and throughout the rest of the day. Rationally then you should be consuming foods that are more nutritious, and can sustain you for longer periods of time: these are the plant and animal foods, therefore these are Lower in Carbs and Higher in Fat. I hope you are getting the picture here...
What do people normally eat during Ramadan? Again, I am not Muslim, so I am not the expert of Ramadan, but I have been to many Iftar (this is the meal that is used to open the fast after sunset). I know that normally Muslims "break fast" with dates and tea (with sugar). Now, I myself eat dates, I think they are a great source of Iron as well as many other important nutrients, but let's be honest, they are SUPER SWEET, full of sugar. This is going to do what? Open the door for the whole glucose up and down speech I just told you, and make you crave sugars the rest of the evening. And guess what people mostly eat for the rest of the evening until they go to sleep? Samosas, rice, naan or roti and curries, and then the immense amount of desserts or "sweets". So, here I am going to break the myth that fasting is the same thing as starvation. Most Muslim people that fast, actually consume MORE CALORIES during the month of Ramadan than in their regular diet! Also, most people GAIN WEIGHT during the month of Ramadan than during the rest of the year (at least from what I have clinically seen, I have not looked this up). I am not saying that eating more calories make you gain more weight (although many Nutritionists will tell you this), what I am saying is that they do eat more, so they are NOT STARVING, and they do gain weight because of the types of foods they are eating!
So I am going to repeat the one of the above paragraph, So what should you eat during the periods of non-fasting? So this goes for everyone, in my opinion, whether you are following Ramadan or just want to get into fasting, or just want to learn how to eat better. You should eat REAL food, unprocessed, mostly animals and plants (naturally this is a Lower Carb Higher Fat diet, even if you are not trying to follow a LCHF diet, if you follow this principle, that is what is going to happen). Simple. What you should avoid is anything that is PROCESSED, drinks that are diuretic (which will make you more dehydrated, like too much coffee, or tea, you should be focusing always on replacing more liquids lost) and definitely avoid grains and all other foods high in sugars, natural or not. Why? Very simple again. If you eat foods higher in carbs, this is going to take the space of more nutritious foods, like animal and plant foods, obviously, but another big reason is because these foods will give you a big rise in sugar and then a quick drop. Normally this drop will go even below the normal blood glucose level, this is called reactive hypoglycemia. This will cause you to crave more sugary foods and also make you feel hungrier sooner and throughout the rest of the day. Rationally then you should be consuming foods that are more nutritious, and can sustain you for longer periods of time: these are the plant and animal foods, therefore these are Lower in Carbs and Higher in Fat. I hope you got the picture here...