Fasting is not the fad that it is being made out to be these days. It is not a social media thing; it is about the serious business of your health. The idea of fasting comes down through the ages, through millennia in India and for long enough to be ancient traditions in other parts of the world. In India and in ancient Greece this tradition had been provided with a proper scientific background as well.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Fasting has been used therapeutically since at least the 5th century BCE, when Greek physician Hippocrates recommended abstinence from food or drink for patients who exhibited certain symptoms of illness. Some physicians recognised a fasting instinct, whereby patients in certain disease states naturally experience a loss of appetite. Some physicians believed that administering food during such states was unnecessary and possibly even detrimental, since fasting was thought to be an important natural part of the recovery process.”
In India the idea and concept of upvaas has come down from millennia. Upvaas in Sanskrit is akin to “Sitting near to…” i.e. sitting near to God.” The intrinsic link between Heaven and Earth is established through a physical and mental act, which is fasting.
Interestingly, this fasting has been carefully integrated into Hindu scriptures, to make it easier for the commoner to follow. Hence, it has, over millennia, become an integral part of Indian culture and tradition. The practice basically connotes willingly abstaining oneself from eating certain or any kind of food, drink or both. The way this is done is through a vrat in Indian households. The period of fasting also varies: it could be partial or be prolonged for 24 hours. Some people of certain Indian religious sects like the Jains are known to keep a fast for weeks at a stretch. Such extreme religious fasting is now banned in India, because it causes serious health problems.
For Indians the reasons for fasting may pertain to religion and spiritual aspects, but the inherent health aspect cannot be overlooked. When you look deeply, you realise that Indian religious scriptures state that fasting is not only a part of worship, but a great instrument for inculcating self-discipline too. That is where the health aspect is most pronounced.
A part of humanity
According to a publication of the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, religious and cultural traditions are an integral part of humanity. These practices have a significant impact on lifestyle and health of the community. The article says: “Fasting is a ubiquitous religio-cultural practice that is found, in varying forms, across the world. The month-long Ramadan and the Christian Lent fasts are examples of religious practices of Islam and Christianity, respectively.” This shows that every religion, more or less, understood the importance of fasting and related diet habits and if they could not make ordinary folk understand the importance of fasting in normal terms – it must be understood that the distribution and availability of food was not as organised in ancient times as it is today – then they packaged it into religious norms and faith would take care of the rest.
What studies have seen is that “caloric restriction (CR) and intermittent fasting (IF) have shown to improve glucose homeostasis and insulin resistance in humans. IF and alternate day fasting appear to be equally as effective as CR for weight loss and cardio-protection. A greater decrease in body weight is seen in CR, with comparable reductions in visceral fat mass, fasting insulin, and insulin resistance by both methods.
In animal studies, CR and IF are both associated with a modulation of lipid droplet protein composition and reduction of intracellular diacylglycerol, thus improving insulin sensitivity and modulates visceral fat and adipokine profile thus conferring cardiovascular protection.”
What all this boils down to is that fasting forms an essential part of our diet. Which means that it is as important to not eat, as it is to.
About the meals
That brings us to the new, recent findings. All this come to the fore because of some new findings published in a research paper out of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. Interestingly, it says that our three-time meal ‘tradition’ is not an old tradition at all, and that the original habit of humans was just two meals a day.
Today, fasting is more for looks and general health reasons, than for religious purposes, though the effects are probably the same.
The current belief is that fasting helps in the detoxification of the body. Looking good is also a reason these days, and fasting has been incorporated in many diets to supplement special diets and exercise.
In medical context, fasting refers to the state achieved after digestion of a meal. A number of metabolic adjustments occur during fasting and many medical diagnostic tests are standardised to fasting conditions. Thus fasting has both religious and medical significance in India.
The number of meals
A report published by the BBC dissects the different meal structures and habits of humans today. It says that the three meals a day concept is “surprisingly modern”. It says: “We’re told breakfast is the most important meal of the day, we’re given lunch breaks at work, and then our social and family lives revolve around evening meals.”
However, the big question is, “is this the healthiest way to eat?”
The subject can be analysed in a different way. “Before considering how frequently we should eat, scientists urge us to consider when we shouldn’t. Intermittent fasting, where you restrict your food intake to an eight-hour window, is becoming a huge area of research.”
The old adages of moderate eating – let is restrict these to non-diabetic individuals seems good. The study says: “Giving our bodies at least 12 hours a day without food allows our digestive system to rest, says Emily Manoogian, clinical researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, and author of a 2019 paper entitled ‘When to eat’.
“Rozalyn Anderson, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and Public Health, has studied the benefits of calorie restriction, which is associated with lower levels of inflammation in the body.
Benefits of fasting periods
“‘Having a fasting period every day could reap some of these benefits,’ she says. ‘It gets into the idea that fasting puts the body in a different state, where it’s more ready to repair and surveil for damage, and clear misfolded proteins.’ Misfolded proteins are faulty versions of ordinary proteins, which are molecules that perform a huge range of important jobs in the body. Misfolded proteins have been associated with a number of diseases.”
These are interesting findings, though all come back to us in the old sayings and prescriptions of fasting. The way Hindu religious texts have prescribed, you tend to get into the habit of what is now being called ‘”intermittent fasting”. Scientists now find that IF “is more in line with how our bodies have evolved.” Anderson says “it (IF) gives the body a break so it’s able to store food and get energy to where it needs to be, and trigger the mechanism to release energy from our body stores.”
And there is a clear medical benefit. Another study, by Antonio Paoli, professor of exercise and sport sciences at the University of Padova in Italy, finds that fasting “could also improve our glycaemic response, which is when our blood glucose rises. Having a smaller blood glucose increase allows you to store less fat in the body.”
So the idea is to have an early dinner and increase the time of your fasting window. That allows better glycaemic control.
There are more medical terms associated with the explanations, but fasting – or IF – is a process where the development of diabetes is inhibited.
Interestingly, another study says that it is possible that the very sight of food initiates a process in the body that and triggers hunger. That does not necessarily mean that the body needs food at that pint of time.
Just one meal a day?
The article asks: “But if intermittent fasting is a healthy way to eat – how many meals does this leave room for? Some experts argue it’s best to have one meal a day, including David Levitsky, professor at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology in New York, who does this himself.
‘There’s a lot of data showing that, if I show you food or pictures of food, you’re likely to eat, and the more frequently food is in front of you, the more you’re going to eat that day,” he says.”
What happens is, before we had fridges and supermarkets, we ate when food was available. Throughout history, we consumed one meal a day, including the Ancient Romans who ate one meal around midday, says food historian Seren Charrington-Hollins. Wouldn’t one meal a day leave us feeling hungry? Not necessarily, Levitsky argues, because hunger is often a psychological sensation.
“When the clock says 12pm, we may get feelings to eat, or you might be conditioned to eat breakfast in the morning, but this is nonsense. Data shows that if you don’t eat breakfast, you’re going to eat fewer calories overall that day. Our physiology is built for feasting and fasting,” he says. However, Levitsky doesn’t recommend this approach for people with diabetes.”
The other argument
Manoogan doesn’t recommend sticking to one meal a day, since this can increase the level of glucose in our blood when we’re not eating – known as fasting glucose. High levels of fasting glucose over a long period of time is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Keeping blood glucose levels down requires eating more regularly than once a day, Manoogan says, as this prevents the body thinking it’s starving and releasing more glucose when you do eventually eat in response.
Probably the better argument
Instead, she says, two to three meals a day is best – with most of your calories consumed earlier in the day. This is because eating late at night is associated with cardio-metabolic disease, including diabetes and heart disease. “If you eat most of your food earlier on, your body can use the energy you feed it throughout the day, rather than it being stored in your system as fat,” Manoogan says.
“But eating too early in the morning should be avoided, too, she says, as this wouldn’t give you sufficient time to fast.”
Now we have a better handle on when to eat, and when to fast. The issue of what to eat, however, is a very different kettle of fish, and has to be treated separately.