Intermittent Fasting: Clarifying Facts from Fad
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
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, reduces the risks of heart diseases, 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.
Intermittent fasting is also shown to enhance peripheral nervous system
function. 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. The
mechanism behind this fact is still not well understood, though.
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
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 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''.
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.
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)