A Fast for the Holidays

As 2022 comes to a close, grave existential questions loom. Is the doomsday clock ticking louder? Have we harmed our planetary home beyond repair? Is the global economy headed for collapse, or will a reckless war end all things?
These are some of the debates that friends and families will have when they gather in groups around the dinner table. This year, those holiday meals themselves may be the source of despair. The higher costs for food make entertaining large groups an expensive proposition.
It may not be practical to suggest fasting as an alternative. But it’s good food for thought. And research findings suggest ample benefits. As a new year’s resolution, fasting could have personal health and economic benefits. A global trend towards more mindful eating would be a welcome development for the planet too.
Narrowly defined, fasting means not eating. But there are different approaches with varying levels of austerity. Longer fasts, 24 hours or more, are hard to do and not generally recommended. Intermittent fasting is far easier and can result in a wide array of health benefits, including weight loss, improved brain health, reduced insulin resistance, reduced inflammation in the body, and improved blood pressure.
What is intermittent fasting? It can take different forms. Time-restricted fasting limits food intake to specific hours of the day. Alternate day fasting involves eating normally one day and eating very little the next. The common theme is a longer-than-usual gap between eating.
What happens when food intake is absent? For a typical person, after about 12-16 hours without eating, the body starts to react as if there is a threat, turning to stored energy and activating biological alerts. People who are fasting will experience hunger, but they also have increased performance, for example, on memory tests.
Another element of fasting shouldn’t be ignored, and that is the reduced consumption of food that would have been eaten in the absence of a fast. Fasting during the holidays isn’t the social thing to do. But if the food on the table is loaded with fats, sugars and salt, then a fast is a good friend.
Put another way, fasting well should also mean eating well. There must be a reasonable balance between calorie restriction and healthy caloric intake. There is no good that comes from fasting one day if the next day involves a binge.
For people who are underweight, emotionally unwell, or managing complex medical conditions, and for breastfeeding mothers, fasting is not a good idea.
But for the majority of people who are carrying extra pounds, the greatest benefit of fasting is healthy weight loss. If fasting helps reduce weight and maintain weight loss, then this means a decrease in risk of diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
The connection between fasting and cognitive function is an area of recent research. Scientists are studying how cells react to the deprivation of energy and how they then respond afresh when food finally arrives. There’s some indication that fasting helps neurons and brain cells build resilience against deterioration of neural connections brought on with aging.
Unfortunately, most people eat three meals a day, plus multiple snacks. At this time of year, the meals tend to be big and decidedly not healthy. The snacks are often worse.
Also at this time of year, we tend to get more mail. It’s encouraging to hear from long-time readers indicating how this column has helped them in one way or another. We wish all of you a happy and healthy new year.
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