#359 (6/3/2009) To Fast or Not to Fast?

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The more you eat, the less flavor;
the less you eat, the more flavor.

Chinese Proverb

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To Fast or Not to Fast?

By Steve Edwards

As our Nutrition 911 series transitions from drinks to food, what could be more natural than to discuss something in between, like fasting? Most people think that the simplest way to lose weight is to not eat. But if you don't eat, you'll die, which renders this "theory" ineffectual or, at best, short-lived. As we've discussed, we need nutrients to live, and we also need nutrients to transform our bodies from being overweight and out of shape to being svelte and toned paragons of fitness. So what's the deal with fasting? Is it a trend? Is it dangerous? And should you do it?

Silverware Wrapped in Measuring Tape

First of all, fasting isn't a trend. It's one of the oldest therapies in medicine, and its recorded practice dates back thousands of years. But these days, it's hard to peruse the magazines at your local market without being provided with myriad "trendy" fasting options promising health and spiritual enlightenment, and most importantly, weight loss. It's also pretty easy to find literature warning of the dangers of fasting. So let's have a look at its history, benefits, and potential dangers.

If you've read any historical literature, you know that fasting has been around a long time. Many of the oldest healing systems have recommended it as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, believed fasting enabled the body to heal itself. Paracelsus, another famous healer, wrote, "Fasting is the greatest remedy, the physician within." Sounds good, but what exactly is it: simply not eating, or using some sort of product you've seen pitched on TV?

Woman and a Glass of WaterBy definition, anytime that you don't eat, you are fasting—hence the word "breakfast." Most therapeutic fasts last longer than one night, usually from 1 day to a few weeks. Juice or liquid fasts, while not traditional, are quite common because many of the desired results are achieved without as much stress on the body (see 2-Day Fast Formula® for one option). It's also common to begin a fast by eating cleansing foods, like veggies or soups. A modern fast is often synonymous with a cleanse, or it's a very restricted diet designed to reprogram your body. Most fasts only last a few days. Provided that you stay hydrated, the body can function without food for this long with little stress (though it may not feel like it to you, especially the first time).

Those wanting to participate in the longer and more traditional fasts should have medical supervision, or at least be certain they are in condition to undertake such a venture. While strict nutritionists rarely recommend such things, most alternative medicine practitioners, including homeopaths, naturopathic doctors, and ayurvedic doctors, are well versed at supervising and monitoring patients during fasts. Monitored fasts are almost always safe, but they should be entered and exited with care.

We'll get to the different types of fasts in a moment. First, let's look at 10 reasons why you might want to try fasting or make it part of your lifestyle.

  1. To cleanse your system. Most of us eat more than we should, take in more toxins than we'd like, and are subjected to many other things, like pollutants, that we'd rather avoid. Furthermore, most of us carry around a lot of undigested food in our systems that comes from eating more than we can process. Essentially, a fast will flush these things from your system. Yes, you'll lose weight. But more importantly, your body will run better than it did before.

  2. To change bad habits. When you don't eat, your body craves sustenance and becomes more sensitive to toxins. Most habits are based on cravings, but when you completely change how your system is running, those cravings also change. Coffee is the easiest example. During a fast, your body is too sensitive to tolerate highly acidic substances or caffeine. Coffee will often make you feel terrible during fasting, when ordinarily it has the opposite effect.

  3. To change your health. Many chronic conditions can be treated effectively with fasting, including allergies, anxiety, arthritis, asthma, depression, diabetes, headaches, heart disease, high cholesterol, low blood sugar, digestive disorders, mental illness, and obesity. Fasting is thought to be beneficial as a preventative measure to increase overall health, vitality, and resistance to disease.

  4. Cracker and OlivesTo reset your body clock. Fasting gives you a clean slate. Without nutrients, you become more sensitive, and sleep and other patterns change. It's an easy time to revamp your schedule and get your body clock working in your favor.

  5. To bring your body into homeostasis. This is the balance point your body prefers to be at but is rarely achieved with our hectic lives. When the intake of food is temporarily stopped, many systems of the body are given a break from the hard work of digestion. The extra energy gives the body the chance to heal and restore itself—plus burning stored calories gets rid of toxic substances in the body. Essentially, you force your body to work efficiently, and thus bring everything into balance.

  6. For increased mental clarity. Most of us probably first heard of fasting as a spiritual exercise. There are examples of it in most religious texts. It's a great tactic for mental and spiritual rejuvenation because it forces you to focus on important thoughts and frees the mind from everyday clutter. When you are deprived of nutrients, your body—in survival mode—begins to focus on things of true importance.

  7. To make changing your diet easier. When you fast, you become more sensitive to what you put into your body. It's easier to understand how nutrients affect you, and hence how bad foods make you feel worse. The easiest time to change your diet for the better is after a fast. Your body will crave healthy foods. All you need to do is give it what it wants.

  8. To get a better feel for how exercise and diet make your body work. When you take away nutrients, your body can't function as well as it did from a performance standpoint. When you add nutrients back, y ou'll feel your energy increase, and understand how exercise affects you and how your body utilizes nutrients. This understanding can be a great dietary aid. Most of us have a hard time understanding what fats, carbohydrates, and proteins do for us, but coming off a fast, you'll more easily understand their functions, especially if you are exercising.

  9. Woman with Blue ScarfTo improve fat mobilization and physical efficiency. Many physiological changes occur in the body during fasting. Your body turns to stored fat for energy, and this process becomes more efficient under the stress of a fast. Furthermore, the brain, which has high fuel requirements, still needs glucose (sugars converted from glycogen) to perform well. To obtain glucose for the brain, the body finds two sources of fuel, ketosis and muscle, so the body begins to break down muscle tissue during a fast. However, to fuel the brain, the body would need to burn around a pound of muscle a day.

    So we've developed another survival mechanism to create energy that saves important muscle mass, a process called ketosis. Via ketosis, the liver converts stored fat into ketones, which can be used by the brain, muscles, and heart as energy. Those of you versed in the Atkins diet may have a negative association with this process, but "Atkinsers" somewhat abused it. It's another survival mechanism the body has that can be developed and utilized. Where Atkins may have overdone it was by promoting it as a way of life, not a phase toward improving the body's functionality.

  10. To get a forced rest phase. Our bodies do better when we train periodizationally. This is training in phases of intensity, one of which is rest. P90X® is based on periodizational training. Since we tend to skip the rest phase because we feel like we'll regress if we don't exercise (either that or we overly embrace it to the point of not exercising), fasts force a recovery phase because you can't do hard exercise. The most exercise you should attempt is low-intensity movements, like walking, hiking, or easy yoga or stretching. During this time, the body heals its cumulative microtrauma that has resulted from exercise. When you come off a fast, your body will be slightly deconditioned. However, its capacity for conditioning will have increased. This means that once you catch up to the fitness level you were at prior to fasting, you will more easily exceed this level, instead of hitting a plateau.

What are the different types of fasts?

There are many fasts on the market, which sounds funny because if you're not eating, it raises the question, why do you need the market? But most fasts contain some sort of strategy that includes some nutrients.

  • 2-Day Fast Formula®The simplest are the "beginner" fasts—Beachbody's 2-Day Fast Formula® is a beginner fast. These usually provide some liquid nutrients, like fruit and veggie juices or a shake, to make things less stressful. You still get most of the benefits of fasting, and well, you still get to look forward to some meals.
  • More complex fasts are ones like the Master Cleanse diet, which allows you to get some nutrients, though very few. With Master Cleanse, you're supposed to fast for a longer period of time than with a beginner fast, usually at least 10 days. These fasts require that you have a lot of self-knowledge. It's always recommended to begin with a shorter fast to see how it affects you.
  • Spiritual fasts are traditional and strict. They often mean going for long periods of time with no nutrients at all; you just drink water. Since their aim is more mental than fitness oriented, they're rarely—if ever—recommended by the fitness and nutrition industry.

How often you fast depends a lot on what type of fast you do. Longer fasts should not be done often, but 1-day fasts can be done regularly. An old common religious practice was to skip eating 1 day per week, which can be easily done without any associated fitness loss. So it's fairly easy to make fasting a regular part of your "diet."

To enter a fast, no matter which type it is, it's best if your diet is gradually lightened over a few days. First, heavy foods like meats and dairy products should be eliminated. Grains, nuts, and beans should then be reduced. The day before you begin, eat only easily digested foods like fruits, light salads, and soups. Likewise, you should break your fast gradually, going from lighter to heavier foods progressively. The diet after a fast should emphasize fresh, wholesome foods, which is easier because junk and convenience foods will usually make you feel awful. It's also vital that before, during, and after a fast you drink a lot of plain water. This keeps you hydrated and helps flush your system.

It's also important to note that fasting is not appropriate for everyone—especially pregnant and nursing women—and in some cases, it could be harmful. Those with health conditions should always have medical support during fasting.

Now that we've covered how not to eat, next we'll look into how we should eat, starting with the best food in the world.

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Got something to say? Chat with the writers and other readers this coming Monday, June 15th, at 8:00 PM ET, 5:00 PM PT, in the Beachbody Chatroom!

Steve Edwards If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

Check out our Fitness Advisor's responses to your comments in Steve Edwards' Mailbag on the Message Boards. If you'd like to receive Steve Edwards' Mailbag by email, click here to subscribe to Steve's Health and Fitness Newsletter. And if you'd like to know more about Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope.

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The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite

Book Review by Denis Faye

I've always had a hard time with food. As a kid, my kitchen was rarely stocked with salty and sugary snacks—rarely, because most of those salty and sugary snacks would be eaten before they even had a chance to be put away. A jumbo bag of Fritos® would be lucky to last an hour in our house. Gallon tubs of ice cream were routinely opened for the evening's dessert. My best friend's mother once asked him to stop bringing me over after school because I would regularly and impulsively clean out her pantry's stock of peanut butter and chocolate chips.

Boy With Two Burgers

While I had friends who would smoke funny things and listen to Pink Floyd, I didn't do drugs; when I watched The Wall, instead of smoking those funny things, I got "high" by drinking 2 liters of Coke® and eating an entire box of Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch®.

Through my teens and into my twenties, my weight seesawed between 225 and 170. It wasn't until I moved to Australia that I finally got a handle on things. Perhaps it was the lack of exposure to the American media machine, perhaps it was because junk food is more expensive down under and fresh produce is cheaper, perhaps it was because I had fallen in with a committed pack of super-fit surfers, or perhaps I was just sick of being fat. Either way, I finally turned things around and have managed to remain relatively thin ever since.

But it's incredibly difficult. While my thinner waist is a result of raw willpower that's tested daily, I still have to resort to a few tricks. It was impossible to curb my appetite, so instead, I learned to fill up on the right things. I eat more fruits and vegetables in a day than most people eat in a week. I stay out of restaurants as much as possible, and for at least a decade, even vaguely tempting groceries did not enter my house. It's only in the last couple of years that I've been able to keep peanut butter on hand, and that's because I've learned to block its very existence out of my head.

Also, I exercise. A lot.

David Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite

Overweight Belly and Tape Measure The reason I'm playing true confessions is because it was with great personal interest—perhaps even out of personal necessity—that I opened former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler's new book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.

Sometime in the 1980s, Americans starting getting fatter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1988 and 1991, the number of overweight Americans increased by 85 percent. Between 1960 and 2000, the average weight of women between the ages of 20 and 29 went from 128 to 157.

The "why" for this has been extensively covered in books like Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. We have access to more salty and sweet foods, and the portions we're served are larger. When a 500-calorie fries, 310-calorie Coke, and 540-calorie Big Mac meal is presented to you as a normal lunch, you're going to eat it.

And you're going to get fat.

Overeating: Solutions?

Unfortunately, while the problem is well documented, the solution isn't. Calling for reforms in the food service industry is lovely, but this is a billion-dollar industry; and frankly, people will continue to eat 1,350-calorie McMeals, no matter how unhealthy those meals are.

The other half of the solution—that consumers should exercise self-control—isn't all that helpful either. A few lucky ones, including me, found an escape from the Dionysian trap, but we are few. It's one thing to say you won't eat M&M'S®, but as anyone who has any issues with overeating knows, when you're at a party and you're surrounded by bowls of the little multicolored jerks, they call out to you in a collective, candy-coated chorus that's often too much to bear.

Conditioned Hypereating

That's the premise of The End of Overeating. Thanks to our culture of consumption, the drive to eat beyond our needs has skyrocketed out of control. Kessler dubs the problem "Conditioned Hypereating."

Essentially, Kessler theorizes that today's foods have been engineered to the perfect point of saltiness, fattiness, and sweetness. It just tastes so good, and it's just so accessible. Where once higher-fat ice creams were premiums and adding crushed candy bars or other extras as toppings was a novelty, these practices have now become the norm. And while all these rich foods damage the waistline, they cause majorly gratifying chemical reactions upstairs.

(Of course, I didn't need Cold Stone Creamery® or Chili's®. I learned how to "engineer" foods myself. In my junior year of high school, my favorite after-school snack was a Ruffles® and Miracle Whip® sandwich on Wonder® Bread.)

Overweight Man Looking at His FridgeThe brain's pleasure-seeking chemicals, called endorphins, are overstimulated by these foods because these foods are specifically created to cause this overstimulation. The brain remembers this stimulation, so over time when you see these foods, another chemical called dopamine is released. According to Kessler, "Dopamine drives desire through a survival-based capacity known as 'attention bias.' Defined as 'the exaggerated amount of attention that is paid to highly rewarding stimuli at the expense of other (neutral) stimuli,' attention bias allows us to pick out what matters most so we can pursue it."

In other words, in the same way the brain induces "fight or flight" responses or overwhelming maternal instincts, it urges us to eat yummy junk. Our stomachs may be full, but our brains really, really want the rush.

4 Steps to End Conditioned Hypereating

After explaining this, Kessler dedicates several chapters to admonishing the food industry for creating this situation. It's an interesting read, but it is fairly well-treaded territory. Where the book really shines is part four, "The Theory of Treatment." Here, Kessler suggests how someone suffering from Conditioned Hypereating might go about fixing it.

Basically, Kessler suggests four steps to kicking the habit.

  • The first is to become aware of the problem.
  • The second is to reverse the habit by exercising competing behaviors.
  • The third is to develop thoughts that quiet the old, problematic thoughts.
  • The fourth and final step is to seek support.

Kessler then explains how to achieve these steps with methods like planned eating, which is basically having your meals planned and sticking to that plan. This is much like the nutrition plans that come with programs like P90X® and ChaLEAN Extreme®.

As it turns out, as much as I value The End of Overeating, there's nothing in Kessler's book that I didn't already know. However, it has given me a new perspective. He's taken these facts and connected the dots in a way I hadn't seen before.

Woman With VegetablesAs I said, my change came largely due to willpower, but I was blessed in that I was put in a situation where that willpower could take hold. I often forget this when giving advice and simply tell people suffering from Conditioned Hypereating to just buck up and do it.

It's just not that simple, and now that I know exactly why, hopefully, it will grant me the patience and tools to help others accomplish the goals that took me so long to achieve.

Related Articles
"The Magic Number for Health and Beauty"
"What's Your Fitness Personality?"
"Why You Might Be Losing the Battle of the Bulge"

Got something to say? Chat with the writers and other readers this coming Monday, June 15th, at 8:00 PM ET, 5:00 PM PT, in the Beachbody Chatroom!

Denis FayeIf you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

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Test Your Candy IQ!

By Monica Gomez

June is National Candy Month. No, this doesn't mean you should run out and buy a tub of Red Vines to celebrate (sadly, this includes me). How much do you know about these sweet, delicious treats?

  1. Girl with a Jelly bean CrownHow many jelly beans are produced in the U.S. each Easter? According to the National Confectioners Association (NCA), more than 16 billion jelly beans are produced each year for Easter, enough to fill a plastic Easter egg 89 feet high (or the height of a nine-story office building)! The NCA states that it takes 6 to 10 days to make a jelly bean. Next time April 22 rolls around, you can celebrate Earth Day and National Jelly Bean Day!

  2. What did "fairy floss" come to be known as in 1920? William Morrison and John C. Wharton introduced "fairy floss" at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, selling 68,655 boxes. In 1920, "fairy floss" was renamed cotton candy. Don't go "flossing" your teeth with this sweet treat, though. One cup contains approximately 336 calories and 84 grams of sugar (the main ingredient in cotton candy). This isn't exactly the fuel we'd recommend for, well, anything!

  3. When are most NECCO® Sweethearts® Conversation Hearts sold? Most of the eight billion Conversation Hearts manufactured each year are sold between January 1 and Valentine's Day, making them the #1 non-chocolate Valentine's Day candy. Originally called Motto Hearts, Conversation Hearts used to be made in myriad shapes, like postcards, watches, baseballs, and horseshoes. These shapes allowed for longer sayings. Today, Conversation Hearts are even printed in Spanish. �Deliciosos!

  4. Chocolate CandyHow many pounds of milk are used each day by U.S. chocolate manufacturers? According to the NCA, 3.5 million pounds of whole milk are used every day to make chocolate. And it's no surprise. It would take that much to produce what American's have voted as their favorite flavor. A recent survey revealed that 52 percent of U.S. adults voted chocolate as their favorite flavor.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

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