Fasting is an ancient practice, deeply rooted in spirituality, health and religion. It involves refraining from food and sometimes water for a specific period of time, aiming to enhance one’s spiritual, religious, or physical well-being. Fasting has played a vital role within human history throughout the ages, tracing back to various cultures, religions, and ancient philosophies. However, its evolution from being a survival mechanism to a modern-day tool for weight management and obesity control is quite fascinating.
In the past, people fasted because they had no other choice, such as that of prehistoric times, as hunter-gatherer communities, our ancestors would naturally fast until they secured their next meal. Survival dictated their food consumption, which forced them to rely on foraging, hunting, and fishing. At that point, diet concepts and intentional fasting were non-existent. Fats were crucial for survival, and some experts even speculate that our inclination toward higher fat consumption may have evolved from this era.
Therapeutic fasting can be traced back to the 5th century BCE, when the Greek physician Hippocrates recommended abstaining from food or drink for patients displaying certain illness symptoms. Plato and Aristotle also supported fasting as a means of improving ones physical wellbeing. But, it wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that fasting practices evolved and became more sophisticated as our understanding of human physiology deepened. Some medical experts noted that specific medical conditions led patients to naturally lose their appetite, suggesting an innate fasting instinct. Around this time, scientists and researchers started to take an interest on the effects of intermittent fasting, and the effects it would have on obesity and illnesses. By 1945, scientists began investigations on restricted eating and fasting on lab rats.
Fast forward to today, and Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a prominent feature in modern day diet culture, emphasizing the contemporary approach of the “when” of eating over the “what.” For example, the 5:2 IF approach involves regular eating for five days and restricting calorie intake to 500–600 calories on the remaining two days. This approach addresses issues in today’s lifestyles, such as excessive caloric consumption, reduced physical activity, and associated problems like obesity, heart disease, and mental health concerns.
Modern-day fasting is now a weight management and overall health improvement tool. Today, fasting is positioned as a daily dietary plan integrated into one’s lifestyle, promoting enhanced mental and physical functions. Dr. Hana Patel, an NHS GP and medico-legal Expert Witness, highlights that short-term fasting offers substantial health benefits. This can include adaptive cellular responses like reduced oxidative damage, improved energy metabolism, enhanced cellular protection, potential heart benefits, reduced cancer risks, and support for brain health.
However, Dr. Patel cautions that IF might not be suitable for everyone and can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors, particularly in young individuals. Evidence suggests that fasting, in general, can reinforce distorted self-image. When I asked Dr Patel whether there were any type of patients fasting wouldn’t be recommended to, she said, “Such as intermittent fasting, as this may lead to dangerous eating behaviors in some young people evidence has shown. Fasting in general may reinforce distorted self-image or compulsive behaviors in vulnerable individuals.”
Religious fasting, observed by millions worldwide, has recently piqued the scientific community’s interest due to its potential health benefits. Notable fasts like Ramadan and Greek Orthodox Christian Fasting have been the subjects of popular scientific study, but the diversity of fasting practices, timings, general eating habits and their impact on health make reaching consistent conclusions challenging. This calls for further research to comprehensively explore the health benefits of religious fasting.
In conclusion, the effectiveness of fasting depends on a committed and informed approach. For some individuals, fasting can have adverse effects, particularly those with a history of eating disorders or medical conditions. Therefore, whether for spiritual, health, or religious reasons, fasting should be approached with caution and tailored to individual needs.