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Fasting for Health and Weight Loss: Is Fasting Good or Bad?

--by Susan Henry

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Should you fast?

This question generates another question: What is fasting?

Definitions vary. To some, a day without meat is a day of fasting. Some think fasting means skipping one meal, others think it's eating just one. It could be partaking of water and breadstuffs only; clear liquids only; or "liquid diet foods" only (Slim-Fast, Ensure, and the like). For a time in the sixties, you could call it fasting if you ingested liquified anything -- put your baked lasagne in the blender, whir until it would go through a straw, and bon fast!

According to Registered Dietitian Gail Sommerfeld of Loyola University and Peter Vash, M.D., Medical Director of Lindora (Calif.) Medical Clinic and past president of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, a fast means no food whatsoever and no liquid except water. And if it is for less than 24 hours it isn't a fast, it's skipped meals.

Portland, Oregon chef Paul Wenner, creator of the Gardenburger and founder of Wholesome & Hearty Foods, Inc., strongly advocates fasting. In his book, Garden Cuisine, Wenner recommends ingesting nothing but distilled water, at least sixteen 8-ounce glasses of it, for 24 hours once a week for three weeks. Once a month, make it a three-day fast, and take one seven-day fast yearly. But if you go without food for more than three consecutive days, Wenner cautions, "you will need supervision."

Why do this?

Wenner says the Bible tells him so. He quotes Matthew 6: 17-18: "When thou fastest (don't talk about it, do it in secret)". It's a spiritual experience.

Beyond that, Wenner says, there are physiological benefits.

  • "Fasting allows the digestive system to rest and heal itself"
  • "Many people report striking clarifications, new and clearer ways of seeing things: breakthroughs in resolving difficulties and coming to resolutions in their lives"
  • The body eliminates toxins
  • It gives the body a rest: it "does not have to process the food it would otherwise be exposed to. There is a lot of scientific data showing that the most likely way to extend life is to restrict calories."

"Give the body a rest from what?" counters Edith Hogan, a Registered Dietitian and spokesperson for The American Dietetic Association in Washington, D.C. Food is an ongoing requirement; the human body is designed to process it.

That's right, dietitian Elizabeth Somer says in her book Food & Mood. "Expecting your body to (function) in full gear without refueling is like assuming your car will run on empty."

"If you eat right, your system isn't going to be overworked in the first place," Hogan told FitnessLink. Eating right, she explained, means "variety and moderation" all the time. "But 'variety' doesn't mean variety of your pattern of eating; it doesn't mean food today, no food tomorrow."

A lot of people regard fasting as good for the soul, noted Dr. Vash, "but it certainly isn't good for the body. Going from food to fast shocks the system." Fasting lowers glucose "by 50 percent after 24 hours, and that's a lot of stress on the system," adds Robert Rakowski, clinic director of Natural Medical Center, Clear Lake, Texas.

As a result of that glucose depletion, "Three to five days without food brings about confusion; a trance-like effect." said Dr. Vash. Going foodless "has an alcohol-like effect on the brain."

After fasting only ten to 12 hours, the body starts using stored glucose, then begins to break down protein, said Dr. Mark DeMeao, assistant professor of medicine and associate director of nutrition at Loyola University Medical Center. "I don't know of any positive effects of fasting. I don't recommend it."

On the other hand, "I'm not totally opposed to fasting," said diet counselor Gail Sommerfeld, RD, who happens to be Dr. DeMeao's colleague at Loyola's nutrition clinic. "Twenty-four hours without solids is okay now and then -- provided that one takes in adequate water and eats a well-balanced, nutritious variety of foods throughout the week."

And Dr. Rakowski, despite his misgivings about stressing the body, is not totally opposed, either. Fasting "one day a week, and/or a weekend a month clears the digestive system." But a better choice, he said, is to "cut calories by 50 percent by eating nutrient dense, plant-source foods" regularly, as an ongoing lifestyle.

Roll call for Weight Loss

Among his "good reasons for fasting," Paul Wenner did not include it as a weight-loss plan. To the contrary, he noted that many persons fasting for three days report actual gains, because the body "thinks" it's entering a famine and defends itself by slowing the metabolism, thus conserving calories.

All our resource persons, however, did speak to the question: Should I fast to lose weight? The roll call...

Ms. Sommerfeld -- No
Dr. Vash -- No
Mr. Wenner -- No
Ms. Hogan -- No
Ms. Somer -- No
Dr. Rakowski -- No
Dr. DeMaeo -- No
Dr. Wellman -- No

Not For the Young or the Old

The licensed professionals agree on this, that fasting is not for the young and not for the older. Before age 18 to 20, the body is still building bone, muscle, and brain cells, and after about 40 to 45 it begins to lose it. Before maturity the body needs constant nutrients to build it; by middle age it needs them to prevent deterioration.

Fasting, even for 10 to 12 hours, causes the body to lose calcium, according to a study reported in The Journal of Nutrition. Any calcium depletion is particularly ominous for persons under twenty, whose bones are still gaining mass, and over forty, who tend to begin losing bone density.

Dietitian Nancy Wellman, Ph.D, of the National Policy and Resource Center on Nutrition and Aging at Florida International University, says fasting is just flat-out "not a good idea." Not for anyone, and certainly not for her constituency.

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