Friday, 13 November 2009

Water fasting revisited

As the sixth day of my water fast passes, I have been making some observations. If you believe my mental faculty has not been unduly compromised, please continue on, but beware, I am going to challenge the “party line”.

It appears that water fasting is growing in popularity. There are countless blogs, discussion forums, vlogs on YouTube, Facebook groups, Tweets, etc. Books by fasting pioneers, such as Herbert Shelton or Linda Hazzard, are available freely online. As people are more and more frustrated with their chronic conditions which can only be treated symptomatically they will look to alternatives. And an “illegal” alternative, such as water fasting, is even more tempting.

But does fasting make sense? In my opinion it doesn’t. The main premise of the fasting theory is that it “cleanses” the body, rids it of “toxins”, and rejuvenates. The unpleasant symptoms accompanying fasting are said to be the function of healing. The more unpleasant, the better the healing effect. First, imagine the powerful the placebo effect! Fasting requires major disruption in everyday life, constant focus, often visualisation of the healing process. And the expectations of the outcome are tremendously high as people are almost religious about their fasting. While I am not disputing some the often reported positive results of water fasting, I propose that fasting is not necessary to achieve them. Let us have a look today at one of the outcomes, weight loss:

It appears that most people these days are driven to fasting to lose weight. Pythagoras might have fasted for mental clarity, Gandhi for political reasons, but most of us do it to lose the fat, though typically proclaiming that this is expected to be “only a side effect”. True, people lose on average 0.5kg daily, which over two weeks gives 7kg. Impressive! Beyond two weeks weight loss is much, much smaller, as the body conserves resources even more and metabolism is even lower. Most of the weight is, however, gained back after the fast, particularly if the insulin pumping high carbohydrate diet is to follow (starting with fruit juices and fruits while breaking the fast). There are, of course, reports of greater weight loss, such as 1kg a day on average, but it appears that it is typically achieved by those who exercise during the fast. While little exercise minimises loss of muscle mass, vigorous walking, cycling or even running almost guarantees that muscle tissue will be burnt along fat. Let us assume that a prudent person would fast for two weeks, would not exert themselves and would not gorge on carbs while eating again. The initial 7kg weight loss would probably be about 4kg net, unless the gain is prevented by strenuous exercise. Now, from experience I know that a low carbohydrate Paleo diet can lead to easy loss of 2kg over two weeks without much exercise. If you exercise during this time burning 1,000 kcal/day (running 1h, cycling 2h, walking 3h) you are guaranteed to burn another 2kg over two weeks and there is nothing to stop you from walking 6h daily and burning twice as much! And walking can offer some other benefits typically attributed to fasting. In conclusion, water fast for weight gain is unreasonable.

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