Learn to Fast the Healthy Way

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Discussions about improvements for health frequently focus on additions to your diet and exercise plan. You resolve to exercise more, eat more vegetables, take more supplements, or drink more water. However, one of the simplest strategies to improve your longevity and decrease disease could lie in taking in less.

Fasting, or a periodic refraining from food, drink, or both, is an ancient practice. Fasting is built into most religious traditions, and more recently has become a popular diet strategy, whether as part of a cleanse program or a calorie-restriction regimen.

While further research is needed, some studies support the health benefits of a fast.

What Happens During Fasting

When the body does not have a steady supply of energy from food (when you consume no food within seven to eight hours), it starts to look within for components to burn and produce energy. Your body will first burn off extra glucose, then move to fat metabolism (the breakdown of fats), as well as small amounts of protein metabolism (the breakdown of proteins).

With prolonged fasting (typically somewhere around three days), the body begins to form molecules known as ketone bodies. This state is known as ketosis. During ketosis, ketone bodies are made within the body and used as an alternative source of food for the brain when glucose is no longer available. Ketone body production helps to preserve lean muscle mass as much as possible while still fueling the body.

While short-term, fasting-induced glucose and fat metabolism are normal components of a healthy lifestyle, prolonged starvation resulting in the metabolizing of muscle and excess ketone body production is stressful to the body’s organs. This prolonged degradation can lead to long-term organ damage and should be avoided. The key is promoting a state of harmonious short-term fasting, while avoiding the stress response of long-term starvation (typically, limiting fasting to no more than 72 hours).

Benefits of Enabling Autophagy

Autophagy is one beneficial result of fasting. This cellular process was studied by cell biologist Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2016 for his work. The word autophagy comes from the Greek root words auto, “self,” and phagy, meaning “to eat.” Autophagy is one way that the body works to break down and rid itself of degenerate cell components, replacing them with functional ones.  

When you eat a meal, the body produces a hormone called insulin to help absorb glucose. This insulin decreases autophagy. However, fasting lowers the available glucose in the body. This leads to lower insulin production, and an increase in cellular autophagy.

There are many ways to fast in a healthy way. When deciding what is best for you, consider that most healthy habits should meet two main criteria:

  1. It should be a ritual (as in built into your life, reoccurring, and habitual).
  2. While any new habit may require effort at first, the fasting practice you choose to practice should, overall, promote a sense of ease and well-being in your body.

The following are two ways to include fasting into your routine—the healthy way. Choose one, or practice both.

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1. Nightly Fasting

Ayurveda teaches that the largest meal of the day should be lunch, with a small dinner occurring prior to 6 p.m. Following 6 p.m., the body enters a Kapha cycle, during which the focus is on “rest and digest.” This phase lasts from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., when the body prepares for sleep. After 10 p.m., the body enters a Vata stage, which lasts from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. During this time, the body is working to metabolize nutrients and prepare itself for the following day. Eating during this time interrupts the body’s natural ability to detoxify and reset overnight.

Ideally, you would not eat between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily. By following this pattern, you build in a “mini fast” to each day and follow the normal circadian rhythms of your body.

2. Periodic Fasting

Most religious traditions incorporate some form of periodic fasting to allow the body a reprieve from digestion, and the mind time to focus on spirituality. For instance, Hinduism recognizes two fasting days monthly. These days are known as Ekadashi, a Sanskrit word meaning “eleven.” During Ekadashi, fasting options are flexible. Some choose to abstain from food altogether for 24 hours, consuming only water or no–sugar-added juices. Others follow a simple diet on these days, eliminating grains and beans though still consuming broths and steamed vegetables.

While Ekadashi offers a solution for regularly scheduled fasting, it is not necessary to align yourself with any particular religious tradition. Instead, follow a schedule that works for you. This may be weekly, monthly, or seasonally. Any fast is healthy, so long as it is moderate (no more than 72 hours), habitual (occurring regularly), and responsible. (See disclaimer, below.)

As with any health habit, fasting should enhance your overall feelings of well-being. A fast should not introduce fatigue or strain into your life. Find a fasting habit that works for you, whether you eliminate a nighttime snack, or form a habit of whole-day fasting. In this way, you can enhance vibrancy in your body while simplifying your daily routine.

*Disclaimer and Editor’s Note: If you have diagnosed diabetes, hypoglycemia, are pregnant, or take medication for chronic disease, check in with your physician or a Registered Dietitian. Fasting is often not recommended for several health conditions. Your physician or Registered Dietitian will work with you to find a program that is healthy for you.

The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.


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About the Author

Brittany Wright

Writer, Registered Dietitian, Certified Yoga Teacher
Brittany is a dietitian, writer, and adventurer. With experience in wellness consulting, acute care nutrition, as well as geriatric and end-of-life nourishment, Brittany has honed a simple food philosophy for all: Eat real food, slowly, with good people. Outside of the nine to five job as a registered dietitian, Brittany enjoys exploring the mountains of Colorado with her husky puppy, Nieve. Follow their adventures here.Read more