You’ve no doubt heard the buzz around fasting. It’s being talked about on your favorite podcasts and television shows. Books are popping off the shelf promoting the health trend. Most likely, you’ve considered trying it out yourself.

Before jumping on the fasting bandwagon, it’s important to get all the info.

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Most of the promotion on the internet and television is all positive. While research has found health benefits to fasting, there are also many dangers. This is especially true for those that don’t seek medical guidance before implementing a fasting routine.

Plus, there are countless types of fasting and ways to implement fasting. How do you know the appropriate course for your body? Should you practice a longer fast every once in a while or an intermittent fast every week? The most important question to consider is if you should be fasting at all for your specific bodily needs?

In order to get some perspective on fasting, whether it’s right for you, and how to implement some safety measures, read further!

Dangers of Fasting

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When it comes to fasting, it’s all about implementation.

I mean, if you think about it, our ancestors relied on their immediate environment for food and when there wasn’t any, they went without. Our bodies are designed to be able to withstand the effects of zero food intake and certain studies have actually found that our bodies may need small periods of zero food consumption. With that said, we no longer live off of our immediate environment and our bodies are no longer trained to go without food consumption for long periods.

So, what does that mean for the fasting trend that’s reared a popular surge in the health world? It means that there is a lot of education that needs to go along with the practice. While many studies have found health benefits in certain fasting practices, the implementation of said practices needs to be better bolstered in order to avoid health issues.

If fasting is not implemented appropriately it can lead to severe dehydration, heartburn, fainting spells, drastic mood swings, difficulty sleeping, increased stress and anxiety, and severe headaches. Plus, there is fallout from these symptoms. For instance, fainting spells can lead to driving accidents or other bodily harm such as broken bones and concussions or worse. Mood swings, stress, anxiety, and irritability can affect your relationships at home and work. Heartburn may make it difficult to enjoy food during the periods that you can eat.

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Yet, the most dangers aspect of fasting is dehydration.

Our bodies may be designed to forego food, but we are not designed to forego water. Dehydration leads to fatigue, dizziness, confusion, nausea, and even changes in your stool composition and color. Plus, for those that suffer from other medical conditions, dehydration can exacerbate symptoms and worsen said conditions.

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Therefore, before you begin to fast, take a moment to speak with your doctor or nutritionist and plant a course of action that will keep you safe!

How to Fast Safely

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The most important part of devising a safe fasting regimen is working with a medical professional. Every human body is different and therefore tailoring a fasting plan to meet your individual needs is incredibly important. This goes for both sides of the spectrum — those that are healthy and those that suffer ailments of any kind. On top of medical guidance, there are a few tips and techniques that can help you fast safely and appropriately.

After speaking with your doctor and devising a plan that works, try implementing some of these safety tips!

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1. Begin with Short Fasts

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While the promotional information regarding long periods of fasting — over 24 hours — is rather appealing, there’s also a lot that needs to go into prepping your body and your environment for this type of fast. There are also quite a few dangers that may arise from longer fasting such as “dehydration, irritability, mood changes, fainting, hunger, a lack of energy and being unable to focus.”

Some shorter fasts that may be easier to implement and upkeep include the 5:2 pattern, — restricting “your calorie intake for two days per week — the 6:1 pattern, — referring to “only one day of reduced calorie intake instead of two” — or the 16:8 pattern — referring to  “only consuming food in an eight-hour window and fasting for 16 hours a day, every day of the week.”

2. Hydration, Hydration, Hydration

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While the human body can go days without food, we absolutely need water on a regular basis. Many fasting-related complications arise from dehydration. Even a slight or mild dehydration can lead to “fatigue, dry mouth, thirst and headaches.” fasting can actually increase the rate at which you get dehydrated. This is due to the fact that “20 [to] 30 percent of the fluid your body needs” you get from the food you consume. Therefore, by removing food intake, you’ll need to increase fluid consumption to moderate the deficiency.

Speaking with your doctor about hydration needs during a fast is super important, especially since hydration intake is incredibly individualized for your body.

Listen to your body and drink when you’re thirsty. Most people who fast aim for “8.5 [to] 13 cups (2-3 liters) of water over the course of the day,” while many health “authorities recommend the 8×8 rule — eight 8-ounce glasses (just under 2 liters in total) of fluid every day.”

3. Keep Snacks On-Hand

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This may seem counterintuitive — you’re trying not to eat during fast — and yet keeping a healthy snack with you at all times is a safety measure that could keep you from experiencing negative fasting symptoms such as fainting. If at any time during your fast you begin to experience extreme lightheadedness, fainting spells, or severe headaches, then you’ll want an emergency, fuel-filled snack on hand. This is especially important if you decide to fast during normal workdays or when you’re traveling.

4. Increase Protein Consumption

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While fasting may help aid in healthy weight management, it can also cause a loss in muscle mass if you don’t supplement your diet with the appropriate amount of protein consumption. Yet another reason why speaking with your doctor or a nutritionist beforehand is incredibly important! On top of muscle mass management, protein is also a great nutritional tool to help alleviate and manage hunger pangs that are associated with fasting, especially if you choose to take part in a longer fast.

5. Choose Healthy, Plant-Based Foods

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Focusing on being healthy during your fasting period is important, yet it’s also equally important to make sure you’re getting the right nutrition during your eating periods.

Before you even being fasting, make sure you’ve figured out an appropriate eating regimen with your doctor or nutrition. It’s incredibly important to make sure to consume appropriate amounts of all the macronutrients — carbs, healthy fats, and protein — as well as ample amounts of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Luckily, plant-based foods are a one-stop-shop for all of these nutrients!

On top of that, plant-based foods are also rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, which can help increase the efficacy and health benefits of your fasting period, while also protecting your body and providing the necessary energy to get you through those zero consumption periods.

6. If You Feel Sick, Stop the Fast

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This is probably one of the most important and yet overlooked tips for safe fasting.

Most of us believe that you’re supposed to feel horrible during a long fast. I mean you’re not eating so why would you feel good? This is somewhat true, but there’s a difference between normal fasting lethargy — irritability, hungry, and slightly fatigued — and a full-blown body meltdown.

It’s important to recognize the signs of healthy fasting and unhealthy fasting.

If you are experiencing fatigue and/or weakness “that prevents you from carrying out daily tasks, as well as unexpected feelings of sickness and discomfort” then it’s time to stop fasting, get some food, and seek medical advice and guidance.

Science-Based Health Benefits of Fasting

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Depending on the type of fasting you practice, there are certain purported health benefits. For example, more lengthy fasts — longer than 24 hours — are said to aid damaged or mutated cells turn over, hence why longer fasting has been researched in concurrence with cancer treatments such chemotherapy and radiation. Intermittent fasting, on the other, hand — those who eat within a restricted period of time every day or certain days of the week — are said to be more efficient for healthy weight management and a healthy metabolism. With that said, all types of fasting do share a few health benefits in common.

1. Reduces Insulin Resistance

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Insulin is a hormone that allows “cells of the body to take in glucose to be used as fuel or stored as body fat.” Over the last few decades, insulin has been found to be one of the most important hormones in the human body and can wreak havoc when it doesn’t function appropriately or for those that don’t produce enough or any insulin.

Insulin resistance refers to a condition “when cells of the body don’t respond properly to the hormone insulin” and it can be a precursor to “type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes, and prediabetes.” Basically, insulin doesn’t respond as thoroughly to the consumption of glucose (sugar) and therefore glucose “is more likely to build up in the blood” leading to high blood sugar levels.

Fasting has been found, through recent studies, to “improve blood sugar control, which could be especially useful for those at risk of diabetes,” and those who have insulin resistance. Not only does it have to do with forgoing food for a period of time, but fasting — specifically intermittent and alternate-day fasting — is also a great method for those seeking to limit “calorie intake” which has been found to be an effective way of “reducing insulin resistance.”

2. Fights Bodily Inflammation

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Along with fasting, inflammation is a hot button topic in the health world these days. This is for good reason. Research has discovered that chronic bodily inflammation is linked to the “development of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis,” and is an underlying cause of certain symptoms related to many autoimmune diseases.

Fasting has been found to help “decrease levels of inflammation and help promote better health.” Two specific studies highlight these health benefits.

One study performed by the Department of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Hail in Saudi Arabia entitled Intermittent fasting during Ramadan attenuates proinflammatory cytokines and immune cells in healthy subjects showed that “intermittent fasting for one month significantly decreased levels of inflammatory markers.” Another study performed by the Department of Biochemistry at the Maltepe University in Istanbul, Turkey entitled Interleukin-6, C-reactive protein and biochemical parameters during prolonged intermittent fasting found “the same effect when people fasted for 12 hours a day for one month.”

It’s important to note that both of these studies while illuminating, used a rather small test subject group, and therefore more broad range research is necessary.

3. Boosts Metabolism and Aids in Healthy Weight Management

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Many people have turned to fasting as a way to help maintain a healthy weight and boost their metabolism. Fasting achieves this desired effect through a few avenues.

First off, fasting can help restrict caloric intake, when practiced appropriately (refer to the tips in the above section for safe fasting technique). Calories are a “unit that measures energy,” specifically the “energy content of foods and beverages” that we consume. While your body needs calories in order to function properly, energize, and maintain overall health, fasting can help certain people manage calorie intake.

Yet, while caloric restriction may be part of the puzzle, the bigger piece lies within the benefits to your metabolism.

When it comes to short-term fasting, research has discovered that this practice “may boost metabolism by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which could enhance” healthy weight management. Another study review found that “whole-day fasting could reduce body weight by up to 9 [percent] and significantly decrease body fat over 12 – 24 weeks.” For those practicing intermittent fasting, a review found that “intermittent fasting over 3–12 weeks was as effective in inducing weight loss as continuous calorie restriction and decreased body weight and fat mass by up to 8% and 16% respectively.”

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