What It Means, Types, Benefits, and Risks

What It Means, Types, Benefits, and Risks

Fasting is abstaining from eating and drinking for a certain period of time. Some people fast during specific times of the year as a religious practice, but fasting is also commonly used to manage weight, improve blood sugar, and support better overall health.

Always consult your healthcare provider before fasting—it may be unsafe if you have low blood pressure or underlying health conditions that may worsen while fasting for weeks.

There are several types of fasting. Intermittent fasting (IF) is the most popular type for weight management, reducing inflammation, and preventing symptoms of chronic health conditions.

Prolonged Fasting

Prolonged fasting involves reducing your calorie intake of food for more than two days. Typically, prolonged fasting lasts seven days or longer. Drinking a good amount of water during prolonged fasting keeps you from being dehydrated.

Fasts lasting no longer than 20 days are generally safe but have some risks. Not eating enough calories can cause a significant loss of muscle mass and electrolytes (electrically charged minerals found in blood, sweat, and urine that help regulate the nervous system, hydration, muscle function, and blood pH).

People with hypotension (low blood pressure), heart conditions, or who are underweight are at greater risk of health complications when fasting for prolonged periods. While fasting, your body readjusts to your new calorie intake schedule, which may cause changes in your hormones and how quickly your body processes food.

Intermittent Fasting (IF) 

Intermittent fasting (IF) involves alternating periods of fasting. Intermittent fasting includes time-restricted feeding (TRF), alternate-day fasting (ADF), modified alternate-day fasting (MADF), and periodic fasting.

  • Time-restricted feeding: Eating during the same window of time every day. The time frame you choose to eat during can be between 12-20 hours of the day. Some people who practice TRF use the 16:8 method—fasting for 16 hours and eating within an eight-hour window.
  • Alternate-day fasting: Choosing to fast every other day for 24 hours
  • Modified alternate-day fasting: A less restrictive version of ADF. During modified ADF, you can have a small meal of around 500 calories on a fasting day.
  • Periodic fasting: Occurs once or twice a week every few months. Most periodic fasts last 24 hours and do not require calorie intake, while modified versions allow for a small amount of calories during fasting.

No rules exist regarding what to eat when you break your fast. However, foods high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats support weight management and improve metabolic (blood sugar and lipid levels) health.

Religious Fasting

Fasting is a common religious practice to show devotion and faith. For example, Ramadan is a holy month in the Islamic tradition, during which people refrain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset. During this time, people wake up before dawn to eat and break their fast in the evening after sunset for the month.

Some religious fasts involve restricting certain foods rather than having a particular window of time to eat and drink. This may include only eating plant-based foods during certain times of the year. Other fasts allow proteins like fish but restrict other foods during a fast.

Fasting can have many health benefits, but it is important to check with your healthcare provider before changing your dietary routine.

Many people try intermittent fasting for weight management. According to research, IF helps lose visceral (around your abdominal) fat. In one study, participants who ate within an 8-hour window experienced an 11.1% average reduction in visceral fat.

However, more research is needed to determine if fasting is the most effective option for losing visceral fat. Some research suggests that fasting may benefit low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, triglyceride (the most common fat in your body) levels, and cholesterol more than diets.

Intermittent fasting may also help your body preserve muscle mass while losing weight and maintaining a healthy metabolism. Fasting can help with insulin resistance by regulating your blood sugar levels.

It’s important to recognize potential risks associated with fasting and their symptoms.

Extended periods without food can lead to nutritional deficiencies, decreased energy levels, and impaired cognitive function (ability to think, reason, and remember). Prolonged fasts have been associated with low sodium and chloride levels as well.

For people with preexisting health conditions, such as diabetes, fasting can worsen symptoms of these conditions and contribute to potential disease complications.

Improper fasting methods can disrupt your regular eating patterns, potentially leading to an eating disorder such as binge eating disorder (BED) or anorexia nervosa (AN).

If you are considering fasting, consult your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian or nutritionist to ensure a balanced nutritional intake. They can help you adjust your diet or the parameters of your fasting.

How To Fast Safely

Start slowly if you’re interested in fasting to improve your health. For example, the 16:8 method allows for a relatively normal dietary pattern before gradually decreasing the window of time you can eat. Eating healthy while fasting can also keep your energy up during times of the day when you are not taking in any nutrients.

Eating a healthy diet of high protein, fiber, and healthy fats also helps your body not lose any nutrients it needs. Although there are no dietary restrictions associated with fasting, it is recommended that you avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages.

Some researchers suggest mixing an electrolyte powder into drinks to prevent sodium and chloride deficiencies. However, most religious fasts only allow water as a beverage during the day.

Stop fasting immediately if you experience nausea, low blood pressure, or fatigue. Consult your healthcare provider on options that may be safer for your body. They can help you determine whether fasting affects other parts of your health.

There are many options for weight management and metabolic health other than fasting that your healthcare provider can recommend. If fasting for religious purposes, your healthcare provider may be able to help you find different ways to fast that keep you healthy without disrupting your practice.

Fasting is generally not advised for people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking certain diabetic or heart medications. Fasting is more likely to cause very low blood sugar in people with type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes who are dependent on insulin.

You may experience more side effects with prolonged fasts. Some people experience fatigue, nausea, and mood swings from the drastic change in eating patterns. If you have low blood pressure or are prone to fainting or periods of lightheadedness, it’s best to avoid fasting methods that involve long periods of calorie restriction. 

People who have a history of eating disorders should consult a healthcare provider before fasting.

There are various reasons someone may go on a fast. Fasting for religious purposes is a common practice not tied to potential health benefits. Some people may also fast for personal goals, such as decreasing visceral fat or setting new dietary patterns.

Fasting isn’t the best choice for everyone. If you are living with diabetes, an eating disorder, or low blood pressure, fasting may have adverse effects on your health. Consult your healthcare provider before starting a fast to discuss your options and whether fasting overall is safe for you.

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