The idea of fasting is alien to many of us—it brings to mind long periods of hunger…feeling uncomfortably weak…even faint. But fasting has been practiced—with wonderful results—for hundreds of years. One of its main benefits is to give the body, particularly the digestive system, time to rest. But what if fasting weren’t so hard to do? There’s a type of fasting known as intermittent fasting that is easier to do. During intermittent fasting, the length of time between meals is extended—it could mean skipping one meal or two, for instance. Skipping a meal can feel good because it feels good to hold off eating when you’re not hungry. Best of all, you decide the amount of time that you “fast” based on your health and schedule. To find out more about this type of fasting, our editors turned to Joel Fuhrman, MD, who specializes in preventing and reversing disease through nutrition.

WHY FAST?

Fasting occurs when an individual decides to go without food or drink—except water—for a prescribed amount of time. In addition to skipping a meal or two, ways to do intermittent fasting include alternating-day fasts (eating one day and not the next) and fasting every few days or once a week.

Fasting, even for a short amount of time, is a form of detoxification. It gives our bodies a break from digesting. When we are not digesting, it’s easier for our bodies to remove excess tissue such as fat and cellular waste products.

People who practice intermittent fasting say it gives them more energy, promotes sounder sleep, sharpens their focus and concentration and helps combat stress. Other people use it to improve discipline and gain control over eating, especially if they know that their feelings of hunger can be related to psychological needs. Research also shows that intermittent fasting may reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes and possibly cancer.

SET UP YOUR OWN FAST

Fasting of any kind provides the most benefit when an individual’s diet is already healthful. That’s because the body requires nutrients such as antioxidants to fuel the detoxification process. In fact, an individual who consumes an unhealthful diet exacerbates his or her nutritional deficiencies when fasting—so if your diet tends to be full of junk food, your first step is not to fast. Instead, eat predominately wholesome, nonprocessed plant foods for two to three months…and then you can consider giving fasting a try.

You can decide to fast for any length of time that suits you. Use one of the suggestions below or find a variation of your own…

  • Skip a meal (or two). You choose whether you want to skip lunch, for instance, or dinner. Another option is to eat only dinner.
  • Fast for one whole day. You can do this once a week or once a month.
  • You can fast for a day (or skip meals or eat only at dinner) every other day or every third or fourth day.

For people who are just beginning, it’s best to try intermittent fasting for shorter amounts of time (such as lengthening the time between meals or skipping one meal). This allows you to get used to the feeling of fasting. Once you get used to it, you can progressively add on—extending your fast for another hour if you are lengthening the time between meals, for instance.

WHO SHOULD/SHOULDN’T TRY IT

Anyone who is healthy can safely do intermittent fasting. If you do feel faint or lightheaded during a fast, it’s wise to get off your feet immediately so that you don’t risk falling.

If you have a chronic condition, such as diabetes, kidney or liver problems, are pregnant or breast-feeding, or are on medications, speak to your doctor first before participating in any fast, including intermittent fasting.