To learn how to eat . . . try fasting

Curious thing about fasting: It teaches you how to eat.

In previous posts, I've discussed the potential benefits of fasting: reduction of blood pressure, reduction of inflammatory responses, drop in blood sugar, weight loss, and reduced heart attack risk. In my recent Heart Scan Blog post, Fasting and Heart Disease, I discussed the just-released results of a study in people who fast for religious reasons and experience less heart disease.

Fasting can mean going entirely without food and just making do with (plenty of) water, or it can mean variations on "fasting" such as vegetable juice fasts, soy milk fasts, etc.

How can fasting teach you any lessons about food and eating?

People who fast will tell you that the experience:

--Helps you appreciate food tastes when you resume eating. After a fast, flavors are stronger; sensations like sweet, sweet, or salty are sharper; you become reacquainted with the variety of wonderful food textures.

--Makes you realize how you ate too much before your fast. After a fast, you are satisfied with less. You will eat more for taste and enjoyment, less for satiety and mindless indulgence.

--Makes you more mindful of the act of eating. For many of us, eating is an automatic activity that provides fleeting satisfaction. After a fast, each bite of food brings its own special enjoyment.

--Reveals to you how awful you felt when many foods were eaten. For example, many people are physically slightly ill after eating pancakes, pizza, or other highly processed foods but cease to recognize it. Remove the offensive foods entirely and you might realize just how bad you felt.

--Takes away fear of hunger. Many people have a gut-wrenching fear of hunger. It's probably partly instinctive, that animal-like fear of not knowing when your next meal is coming, partly the abnormal, artificial drive to eat ignited by processed foods like wheat and corn syrup.

--Makes you realize just how much of your day is spent in some activity associated with food. Shopping, eating, cleaning up afterwards, thinking and talking about food all occupy an extraordinary portion of everyone's life. A fast can open your eyes to just how much time is spent in these pursuits. Sometimes, gaining an awareness of a mindless, repetitive behavior can provide the first step towards changing direction.

Most people consider a fast for rapid weight loss. But fasting is far more than that. Perhaps fasting has become an integral part of many religious practices because of its capacity for enlightenment, reawakening, revelation, but not of only the spiritual, but also of how far many of us have strayed in diet.

Fasting is what Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollen might describe as looking the pig you're about to eat in the eye, an opportunity to open your eyes to what it is you 've been doing all these years.

Comments (13) -

  • Anonymous

    11/18/2007 6:40:00 AM |

    Thought provoking article. I have never fasted before, and would like to try it out.

    Can you suggest any resources online that describes about how one can fast the right way - the pre-fast preparation, fasting period and post fast recovery? You did touch on these briefly in your previous articles; I was curious if there were any resources out there that you would recommend.

  • Dr. Davis

    11/18/2007 1:47:00 PM |

    Two sources of information on fasting: The Track Your Plaque Special Report, Fasting: Fast Track to Plaque Control, a report on fasting to gain control over coronary risk.

    Also, Dr. Joel Fuhrman's book, Fasting and Eating for Health, is an excellent resource. (But I tell my patients to ignore much of the "low-fat" commentary, which is outdated.)

  • Nancy M.

    11/18/2007 3:22:00 PM |

    I've been doing something called "Intermittent Fasting" where you extend your overnight fast either by skipping or delaying one or two meals the next day.  There's been some study of it by the folks who study calorie restriction.  It isn't calorie restriction but seems to offer the same sort of changes that CR does.  

    Dr. Eades had an interesting blog post about it here:

    That got many of us "low-carbers" interested, some of which were pre-diabetic or T2 diabetic.  Many of those people with glucose control issues have seen their fasting glucose levels plummet by incorporating IF into their low carb routine.

    If heart disease is driven by excess blood glucose and insulin, then anything that gives your body a little rest is probably a good thing.

    Oh, I can vouch for the fact that food tastes EXTREMELY good when you're fasting most of the day. Smile

  • Dr. Davis

    11/18/2007 4:07:00 PM |

    Hi, Nancy--

    Interesting perspective!

    I wonder if the intermittent fasting approach of skipping breakfast and lunch has an effect on metabolic rate. I suppose you can't argue with success!

    Also, thanks for bringing Dr. Eades blog to my attention. He's got a lot of interesting ideas.

  • JoeEO

    11/18/2007 9:50:00 PM |

    I think that having an interview with Dr Eades (both) would be a great addition to this blog (or the typ site). I think that he is one of the best bloggers on the whole internet.

    I recall, in one particular post that might be interesting to TYPers, Dr Mike Eades mentioned that he stopped prescribing niacin for his patients as he found that a low carb diet had most of benefits of niacin - he was speaking of LDL  particle numbers and size and HDL.


    Joe E O

  • Dr. Davis

    11/18/2007 11:38:00 PM |

    Hi, Joe--

    Wonderful idea!

    I also agree with the idea that niacin and weight loss/carbohydrate restriction achieve similar effects. However, there are indeed people with such severe disorders to start with (e.g., HDL 25 mg/dl, called hypoalphalipoproteinemia, or triglycerides of 500 mg/dl, called familial hypertriglyceridemia, or genetic defects in some other pathways that are not uncommon) that do indeed necessitate niacin.

    Also, when your goal is not just correction of cholesterol or lipoproteins, but REVERSAL of heart disease, we push our patients harder.

  • Anonymous

    11/19/2007 6:14:00 PM |

    Talking about how fasting can help with heart disease, and presumably with helping to control glucose and lipids levels, have you heard if donating blood will help in correcting lipid #s?

  • Dr. Davis

    11/19/2007 11:54:00 PM |

    No, sorry, never heard of that. Blood donations reduce iron, but I've never heard of any effect on lipids or lipoprotein patterns.

  • Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

    11/20/2007 1:05:00 AM |

    A word od caution. For some people, fasting can have just the opposite effect. It can derail one's sense of appetite and proper eating practice. I've been there.

  • Anonymous

    11/27/2007 3:25:00 AM |

    I understand that complete fasting can cause muscle wasting.  Conversely (and surprisingly) intermittent fasting has anabolic effects.  (In other words, the bodybuilder's dogma that you need a constant flow of protein to build muscle isn't true.  What's effective is a large portion of protein in a single meal a day, and then nothing the rest of the day.)

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