It is that time of year again: our muslim fellow citizens start the fasting month Ramadan. But can that healthy? What kinds of fasting are there and what do you have to consider?
What fasting is all about and why we have unlearned to be hungry are this week’s topics of Tutorial Thursday.
Have you ever fasted? Or simply skipped a meal?
Maybe you are even a religious muslim and celebrate Ramadan every year?
Thanks to my social environment I have learned very early on that there are people that starve themselves although they don’t have to. Several muslims in my class and in my circle of friends astonished me anew every year. Drinking and eating noothing all day, from dawn till dusk, seemed impossible to me. And it actually took me 24 years to try it myself for the first time.
A first encounter
My first fasting experience (during Ramadan, to be precise) was several years back now but it had a lasting impression on me. I only fasted for four days and with the modification that I drank water during the day but it was in the hot summer of Northern Africa. I really wasn’t used to this. I think it makes a major difference whether you grow up with this tradition and get used to the conditions early on or you expose your body to this task for the first time after a quarter century. Especially under these climatic conditions.
However, it was a great experience. What was really hard for me, though, were the huge amounts of food that you eat traditionally after dusk. YOu could say the hunger of the whole day wants to be satisfied. As a matter of precaution we also stood up very early in the morning to have one last meal before sunrise. Each morning I wasn’t hungry at all because I was still stuffed from the evening excess. Trust me: what a moderately wealthy tunesian family puts on the table during Ramadan would today be called food porn.
Healthy or not?
This is also the moment when I ask myself: is that even healthy? Eating and drinking nothing all day and then eating loads of different meals in the evening, while the biggest portion of the food consists of wheat, honey, and marzipan?
From a physiological point of view you send your blood sugar to the top of Mount Everest and back down again in a short amount of time. Your liver can also feel overburdened quickly here. First it spent all day transforming glycogen and fat into easily accessible fuel for the cells it suddenly has to do it the other way around. Your pancreas has to produce a huge amount of insulin at once and the gastrointestinal tract has to get back to the assembly line right away after a nice, relaxing holiday at the beach (and that is probably even worse than the early alarm on Monday mornings). All of these aspects, however, can be influenced by what you eat and how you eat it. When the sun goes down your meals should be healthy. Vegetables as a base and a sufficient amount of healthy fat and proteins. This will keep your blood sugar frok going through the roof and won’t let it crash down immediately afterwards. And don’t stuff your head hole too fast. Even though you might be very hungry you should still eat slow and chew each bite thoroughly. This will make it easier for your gastrointestinal tract and improves the nutrient intake. Starch-, sugar-, and fructose-heavy food should be avoided in general.
There is nothing really that speaks against moving your complete food intake to a few hours in the night. Especially because we are only talking about four weeks of a whole year. What is questionable, though, is also abstaining from drinking anything all day. Most experts and scientists strongly advise against not drinking because you are risking dehydration. The human body consists of 65% water. Water is involved in the function of every cell and countless metabolic processes. Especially your kidneys will make you feel when they need more water. They need water to detox your body from toxins and waste and without water this will be increasingly more difficult.
In my opinion the fluid intake over the day is very important and shouldn’t be disregarded. Especially in very hot climates and with great physical stress.
Intermittent fasting, also known as periodic fasting, can be characterized as the omission of individual or all meals. It can be done at any time over the year and take different forms, depending on your individual goal. The main goal of this type of fasting is to flexibly train your metabolism and, if needed, reduce bodyfat.
Unfortunately, our metabolism has become lazy. The constant stream of nutrients often lets it only use carbohydrate as an energy source. Depending on how you design your meals there might even be excess calories. So why should the body fire up the lipometabolism if there are more than enough carbohydrates constantly? If you skip one or two meals (at least 12-15 hours without food intake) your metabolism is forced to use different metabolism processes or improve them. Very important for periodic fasting is that you keep the times flexible. If you generally just skip breakfast your body will adapt to that in a few days. The goal, however, as mentioned above is to stay flexible. Just like our ancestors had to be. In the Stone Age, there were also inconsistent meals. There were days without any kind of food. And when they finally hunted down a buffalo they suddenly had food for weeks.
I personally include periodic fasting into my week regularly. It is an incredibly effective tool to reduce body fat. My tip: don’t eat after 6 pm and fast over night. In the morning, right after getting up, drink a big glass of water and then do a moderate training unit (strength/endurance). Eat a protein- and fat-rich breakfast afterwards.
The period of 12-15 hours without energy supply forces the body to use its carbohydrate reserves (in the musculature and liver). The training unit in the morning makes the body burn body fat to create energy.
Therapeutic fasting is the most radical form of food abstinence of all the examples here. For a certain amount of time (most often two weeks) you completely go without any form of solid foods. Only water, herbal teas, and vegetable broth are allowed. The motivation behind this are promised health benefits. It is all about detoxing and purifying your body. But you can also reduce body fat with this method. It is very important, however, to be physically active enough throughout your diet. The huge energy deficit can make the body use protein to create energy. These proteins come from the body’s own structures like muscles. If you do therapeutic fasting you will very likely lose weight. But don’t let that be muscles!
Many people that do this kind of fasting also use some kind of diuretics to make sure that their colon is completely emptied. Restore to factory settings so to speak!
Coincidentally, I am right in the middle of therapeutic fasting myself. This topic seems to follow me for a few years now. In the media, you can regularly see heated discussions about the benefits and the downsides to these methods. But if you want to join the conversation you should at least have tried it yourself and that’s why I have decided to do it.
Interim report: day four – I feel good! I haven’t eaten anything since Sunday. Of course I get short periods of great hunger from time to time but I can handle them just fine. I drink more than normal (which is a big advantage) and I still have enough energy to get through my daily routine of office job, personal training or Outdoor Gym training. Crazy! I never thought that it would be possible.
But the best thing about it: it has broadened my horizon.
There are a couple of things that have become clear to me recently. I think most of us have unlearned hunger! In the age of fridges, super markets, and snack bars everywhere food is omnipresent. I was also very much used to eating whenever I was hungry. It really isn’t that bad being hungry for a couple of hours. Sure, you might say that you become very cranky when you haven’t had something to eat for hours. But why is that so? Maybe because we are spoiled.
But why do we even refrain from food?
This might be one of the reasons why there still are the different types of fasting: in these parts people don’t have a shortage of anything really. A big portion of people in the world, however, have. Our ancestors probably had to do without food for longer periods and more often. One of the principles of Ramadan is to think of the people that don’t have as much as we do. I have experienced it during the last fews days what huge privilege it is to have food available at all times. I am thankful and have learned to repsect food much more. And all that in just a few days! Abdication lets you appreciate what you have more.
Christians also have a fasting period between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Many people here take this opportunity to relinquish certain luxuries like sweets, watching TV or going shopping. This will show you how good life actually is.
The bottom line is: no matter for what reason, motivation, and for which period of time your are fasting, it always is a great experience. If you make sure to drink enough and be moderately aactive it is not problematic at all. Done right fasting can have huge health benefits. You will give your digestive organs a welcomed break, force the body to use different effective metabolic processes, and broaden your horizon. How about you: can you handle hunger? Try it!