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Intermittent Fasting: Clarifying Facts from Fad

EsinIslam Ramadan Explorer

By Amira Ayad

Health Consultant - Egypt

Every year and oftentimes every month, we find ourselves bombarded with new dieting and health claims.

Last year, it was all about detox, juicing and raw foods. Recently, it's the intermittent fasting craze.

Dr. Michael Mosley's bold experiment had hit the top of the news. The man went for search for health, energy, weight loss and longevity. His long search and experimentation lead him to the 5:2 fasting solution, an intermittent fasting that achieves all these targets, he claims. His method can be simply described as fasting for 2 days per week and eating whatever you like for the rest of the 5 week's days. The method found appeal on so many levels.

Muslims found the new fasting regime appealing as it mimics the pattern followed by our beloved Prophet, peace be upon him. It's great to find the West 'validating' our long known and deeply honored tradition and rituals, they think. But, do we really need this validation? And, is this particular experimentation actually 'validating' our Prophetic tradition?

Fad followers loved this new diet and are willing to readily adopt it for as long as it stays on the top news charts.

Fast food lovers, on the other hand, found doctor Mosley's dietary regime the optimum solution and ultimate excuse for binging on whatever junk they please for 5 days a week as long as they restrict their caloric intake 2 days a week. Their conscious will be finally relieved from shame and guilt.

Benefits of Fasting & Caloric Restriction

No one can deny the benefits of fasting. It has been an integral part of every tradition, culture, religious and spiritual practice since the dawn of civilization. Modern day science has also proven fasting valuable benefits on health.

Dr. Andrew Weil, the famous physician and natural health advocate, sees that adopting the habit of fasting from time to time helps the body get rid of the waste and toxins resulting from natural metabolic reaction as well as environmental hazards and occasional unhealthy treats. If these toxins and debris are left to accumulate, he explains, chronic diseases may surface over time accelerating the process of aging (Weil).

Fasting is also believed to help the body on so many levels. It regulates blood sugar level and insulin control, helps us cope with mood swings, life stresses, and depression, and boosts nerve cells activity (Seliger; Weil),

Animal lab experiments showed that intermittent fasting -that is fasting every third day or every alternate day- affects longevity, reduces tissue inflammation[1], reduces the risks of heart diseases[2], diabetes, and cancer, boosts mental ability, lowers the risk of Alzheimer and Parkinson's diseases (Weil), and improves/delays aging symptoms and age-related disorders[3]. Intermittent fasting is also shown to enhance peripheral nervous system function[4]. These are the nerves that transport information between the brain and all body organs; which in turn improves aging undesired symptoms.

One aspect of fasting that is believed to be the main reason for most, if not all, of these health benefits is caloric restriction. Many studies show that animals fed nutritionally dense food (low on calories but high in nutritional value) live longer and much healthier than their counter parts[5]. The mechanism behind this fact is still not well understood, though[6].

And, since people find it easier to occasionally withstand hunger for a day rather then restricting their food intake everyday, intermittent fasting became a more accepted health intervention.

On the Opposing Side...

Fasting is far from being a cure-all solution as many fad diets want us to believe. First of all, it is well accepted among physicians and dietitians that fasting is a terrible way for weight loss. As our body feels the hunger, it perceives it as an upcoming crisis. It shifts to a survival mode, where its metabolism slows down burning fewer calories. Our body uses all its power to preserve and even store energy. The few pounds we may lose during fasting are easily gained back soon afterwards as little food will go along way.

And even those lost pounds would probably be from lost water not fats. Our liver and muscles store starch molecules in the form of glycogen to be available as readily breakable source of glucose upon need. When the body feels starvation, it first uses these glycogen stores rather than burning stored fats. These starch reserves are held together by water molecules. Breaking them releases these water bonds and affects weight loss. These are the 2-3 kg you drop fasting during your first week of dieting. But these stores are formed again minutes after your first meal indulgence.

Another major problem with the fasting diet is that it is found to reinforce the wrong eating habits. Relying on their fasting for improving weight and fitness, people tend to eat less fruits and vegetables and consume more sweets and empty calorie foods. And, on the non-fasting days or hours, people tend to binge more than they normally do.

What fasting traditionally did was restricting food intake giving the body a 'break' to focus on detoxification, rejuvenation and renewal. But is modern-day fasting achieving this purpose?

Traditional fasting also had its deeply integrated spiritual and religious purification intention. For us, Muslims, Allah taught us: ''O believers! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for the people before you so that you may become pious....'' ( 2:183)

Again, is it the case now?

Finally, while occasional fasting is perfectly safe for most individuals, it can pause real health risks on others. People with liver or kidney malfunctions, those with compromised immunity, pregnant and lactating women, anemics, diabetics, cardiac patients and people suffering from gastric ulcers are but few examples.

Everyone is Different

Dr. Andrew Weil sees endless variation s in intermittent fasting methods ranging from just skipping a meal or fasting every third day or every other day, to occasional once a week or once a month fasting (Weil).

This flexibility and personal-tailoring to one's specific state or needs is a very important aspect in Prophetic teachings. Abdullah bin Amr relates: "The Messenger of Allah was informed that I had taken an oath to fast daily and to pray (every night) all the night throughout my life (so he came to me and asked whether it was correct): I replied, "Let my parents be sacrificed for you! I did say so."

The Prophet then said, "You can not do that. So, fast for few days and give it up for few days, pray and sleep. Fast three days a month as the reward of good deeds is multiplied ten times and that will be equal to one year of fasting."

I replied, "I can do better than that."

The Prophet said to me, "Fast one day and give up fasting for a day and that is the fasting of Prophet David and that is the best fasting."

I said, "I have the power to fast better (more) than that."

The Prophet said, "There is no better fasting than that." (Bukhari)

And, our mother Hafsa relates: "The Prophet used to fast Mondays and Thursdays".

Umm Salamah was also reported to have said: ''The Prophet used to command me to fast three days every month beginning with Monday or Thursday. (Muslim)

In all cases, Prophetic traditions emphasized healthy eating, balance and moderation. Allah taught us in the Qur'an: ''And eat and drink but do not waste by extravagance, certainly He (Allah) does not like those who waste by extravagance.'' (Qur'an 7:31)

And, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: "No human fills a vessel worse than his own abdomen; a few bites are enough for man to keep his body upright, but if it is indispensable, then a third for his food, a third for his drink and a third for his breath.'' (Tirmidhi).

He, peace be upon him,also said: "The food for two is enough for three, and the food for three is enough for four."( Bukhâri, Muslim)

Problems of Waiting for Validation

Already Dr. Mosley's experiment had been dubbed as fad and has been harshly criticized by opposing nutrition and health experts. Many opposing scientists are presenting their own experiments proving the ineffectiveness and/or the risk issues associated with fasting. For instance, a recent study published in PLOS One journal[7] suggests that intermittent fasting and dietary restriction regimen negatively influences reproduction in young rats. Could it also pause a risk on young women fertility? They question.

Next year, Dr Mosley may find another tool that he likes better or another scientist will come up with a new health claim or dieting fad and soon our highly honored 5:2 fasting will fall out of hype.

Early Muslims did not need these 'scientific' proofs to strictly and sincerely honor and follow the footsteps of our beloved Prophet, peace be upon him. For centuries, Islamic teachings were followed, grasped and regularly practiced by faithful Muslims. They did not need to know that fasting boosts immunity, detoxifies the body and improves health and energy.

They did not know ''that homosexuality causes the spread of fatal diseases; that pork is a potential host for viral mutation; or that alcoholic beverages intoxicate the blood and nerves; they did not need to know that ablution boosts immunity, that regular prayers, supplications, and meditation reduce hypertension and relax the nerves; or that anger, hate, envy and severing family ties all disturb your biological functions; yet they were certain deep in their hearts that since the orders came from Allah, then they must hold tremendous benefits and great wisdom''[8].


References

Ayad. A. 2008. Healing Body & Soul. KSA: IIPH.

Faris et al. 2012. Intermittent fasting during Ramadan attenuates proinflammatory cytokines and immune cells in healthy subjects. Nutr Res. ;32(12):947-55.

Holford, P. 2004. Optimum nutrition bible. Piatkus.

Klempel, M.C. et. Al. 2012. Intermittent fasting combined with calorie restriction is effective for weight loss and cardio-protection in obese women. Nutr J.: 21;11:98.

Kumar, S. & Kaur, G. 2013. Intermittent fasting dietary restriction regimen negatively influences reproduction in young rats: a study of hypothalamo-hypophysial-gonadal axis. PLoS One. 8(1)

Lee, S. & Notterpek, L. 2012. Dietary restriction supports peripheral nerve health by enhancing endogenous protein quality control mechanisms. Exp Gerontol.: pii: S0531-5565(12).

Seliger, S. n.d. Is Fasting Healthy?

Uno M. et. al. 2013. A fasting-responsive signaling pathway that extends life span in C. elegans. Cell Rep.: 3(1)

 

EsinIslam Ramadan Team

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