Going without food or fasting seems like a crazy thing to do in today’s western society. Food adverts, shiny packaging, addictive additives and celebrity endorsements all make for some good eatin’. But that’s rarely, if ever, the case with these packaged foods. How about trying the opposite and not eating it at all?

There’s a growing trend to eat like our ancestors would have, or at least a best guess as there is no way to know exactly what they ate. Known as ancestral or paleo (shortened from paleolithic) the diet focuses on good whole foods.  It shuns modern processed carbs and encourages consumption of good fats and high quality protein sources.

There is another aspect to our ancestral heritage that often gets ignored.  As a species, sometimes we would not have had easy access to food (paleo or otherwise) whenever we wanted it. No drive through McDonald’s back then I’m afraid.  So we went without.  We fasted.

Feast and famine

The human species evolved to be able to deal with good times and bad times. We’re not talking about new season of Game of Thrones good times here. No. More a “holy shit, we just killed a mammoth, tuck in chaps!“, good time.  The bad times were the opposite “holy shit, I haven’t eaten for a week. I could do with some mammoth chops right now!“. As uncomfortable as these periods of famine were, the human body had evolved to deal with them.

Our body fat is the way we stay alive when food is scarce.  One kilogram (about 2 lbs) of body fat contains approximately 7,000 – 8,000 calories. That’s the best part of a weeks worth of food there. The average western person holds a lot more than one kg of fat. The human body has the capacity to abstain from food for extended periods. So don’t worry, you’re not going to faint if you don’t get your morning frappé and muffin.

Health benefits

OK, so we can survive without food for a while.  But why should we? That is a fair question. There are numerous cited benefits of fasting, fat loss (lipolysis) is probably top of the pops here. But there are deeper health benefits that range from curing disease to increasing how long you live.  Here are some of the broad strokes:

Lower body fat: Having a lower body fat percentage means you weigh less, which places less stress on your heart and joints. It also reduces your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart attack and disease. Plus, you’ll just look and feel better.

Autophagy: This process on it’s own should make you want to consider fasting. Autophagy is the greek derived name (‘to eat oneself‘) of the bodies process of cell cleaning and removal of waste proteins and cellular parts.

“Sometimes, you just need to replace the battery, throw out the old one and get a new one. This also happens in the cells. Instead of killing off the entire cell (apoptosis), you only want to replace some cell parts. That is the process of autophagy…” Dr. Jason Fung

Type 2 Diabetes: Dr. Jason Fung author of The Obesity Code and The Complete Guide to Fasting works regularly with patients to not only help them lose body fat, but reverse their Type 2 Diabetes. By fasting for extended periods of time their bodies insulin resistance regulates to normal levels as it is not constantly spiked by an influx of carbohydrates. Modern diabetes medicine (Metformin for example) can help manage the symptoms of diabetes. Fasting has been proven to cure it.

Increase Lifespan: Harvard ran a study on intermittent fasting and concluded that there is evidence that it may help increase longevity. The study looked at the effect of intermittent fasting on the mitochondria (the energy source of cells) which become less efficient as we age. There is evidence that fasting keeps your mitochondria in a youthful state for longer, which in turn will keep our body functioning better for longer.

Cancer: There are a growing number of studies indicating that fasting may help manage (and some more extreme studies that state it cures!) the ever growing epidemic of cancer.

It’s free: While this may not have any physical implications, it’s always nice to get something good for free.

Types of fasting

There are numerous ways to approach fasting with varying levels of difficulty.  Though they won’t be discussed at length here, it’s worth knowing what they are:

Intermittent Fasting – This is the easiest way to start. This generally means just simply skipping a meal on a daily basis. For example, the highly praised Leangains approach by Martin Berkhan recommends fasting for about 16 hours per day.  That would work by having dinner by 9pm, then the next day skipping breakfast and eating lunch at about 1pm.

Extended fasts – For people who can ‘stomach’ (pun intended) a longer fast the health benefits seem to exponentially rise. But be warned, this is not for the faint of heart, and should only be undertaken after serious research and the all clear from you health practitioner. These fasts can involve days, weeks and sometimes months of fasting.

Dry fasting – Kind of what it sounds like. This is a period of fasting where you take in no liquids of any description. Advocates tout the benefits as cited above, but with faster, more extreme results. Some practitioners even take this a step further with a ‘Hard’ dry fast.  This means no water contact at all.  No showers or hand washing here. Maybe reschedule any appointments during this period…

“Instead of using medicine, better fast today.” Plutarch

This is only a brief introduction into the depth and history of fasting as a lifestyle choice. Each type of fasting holds it’s own rabbit hole of fascinating background and practice. I shall be looking more in-depth at all types of fasting in later posts. But if you want to know more, have a watch of the following video, or scroll to the bottom for some recommended reading.

Fasting introduction with Dr. Jason Fung

Recommended reading