Going off food has been a practice from time immemorial. Geeta padmanabhan suggests ways to reap its benefits
Fasting is in the news. Well, all right, it's not really news to us. We grew up around mothers, grandmothers and aunts “keeping vrathams” — self-imposed fasting to get a wish fulfilled.
We've traditionally fasted on certain days of the calendar without fail. In western India, 10-year-olds fast during Navrathri, probably managing on home-made soups, without any visible effects. We attend weddings where the bride and the groom fast till the ceremony gets over.
A common ritual
Fasting as a ritual is common to all religions — in the faith that it's a soul-purifying act. Whether as a “token”, “in sympathy” or with the ominous tag “unto death”, fasting has been a popular, and often an effective form of protest. We've all gone off food because the doctor said so, or in the fond hope that the body will recognise the sacrifice and shed a few kilos.
Now, this celebrated denial of body sustenance has found new supporters. Investigators at the Intermountain Medical Centre Heart Institute in Utah have found evidence that “periodic fasting not only lowers one's risk of coronary artery disease and diabetes, but also causes changes in blood cholesterol levels.”
Said the head of the team: “Fasting causes hunger. In response, the body releases more cholesterol. Now, instead of glucose, the system uses fat as the source of fuel.”
Protects the heart
Fasting, the study found, reduces other cardiac risk factors such as triglycerides, weight and blood sugar levels. When done sensibly, it can decrease the number of fat cells in the body and protect your heart. All this puts fasting on the health to-do list.
Not so fast, says Dharini Krishnan, consultant dietician, warning against the habit of fasting and feasting. Fasting can be understood in many ways, she points out. “If you're over 50 and lead a home-bound life, going without food can be good.”
Our elders spent the fasting hours in yoga, meditation and prayer, engaged in less physical and mental activity. Fasting was seen as mind-control, quieting of the mind. But, we go without a meal only to stuff it in at the next stop for food.
Fasting is beneficial for those having six meals a day, she says. When you fast, you break this cycle of breakfast to mid-morning snack to lunch to mid-afternoon tea to tiffin to dinner. Fasting gives the exhausted digestive system a bout of rest. Refusing a burger, pushing away a plate of rice or skipping a meal can only do good to an adolescent. “It de-stresses, calms them down,” she says.
Yes, she has tried fasting. “For nearly 35 years, I fasted on Mondays. I wouldn't take anything, but the body managed itself, because I was off sugar and salt. These make you thirsty.” She felt light and wonderful, she says. “I wasn't perpetually thinking of food, I felt completely cleansed.”
Strike a balance
Do it right, say doctors. Drink water if you're fasting and you're out in the open. If you eat a lot of milk sweets while fasting, you'll end up with more sodium in the system. Just skipping a meal? See that it's not breakfast. It's lunch you're cutting off? Drink a healthy smoothie. No dinner? Fine. But have the usual, light breakfast. “Look, what we cooked on the day after Ekadasi (a traditional fasting day),” says Haimavathi, supremely fit at 85. “We had agaththi keerai and morkuzhambu for an early lunch. Both mild dishes, to neutralise any acidity you might have developed.” Giving up unhealthy food and food that doesn't agree with you, is also a form of fasting, she adds.
Says Karambelkar, who hails from a part of Maharashtra that has heavy rains for three months: “Most of the religious fasting days occur during the monsoon, probably because it's hard to digest food when you're forced to stay home and there's hardly any sunshine.” Dr. Ali at the Mehta Hospital suggests a kind of fasting where you eat basic food and cut out the “extras”. He agrees fasting concepts differ, but warns: “Don't fast if you have diabetes or peptic ulcer. Don't do total fasting at all.”
Remember the old saying? Eat little, you are a yogi. Be a foodie, you become a bogi. Eat like there's no tomorrow, you end up a rogi.
Drink fluids if you're out in the open
If you are diabetic or have peptic ulcers, fasting is not for you
Break your fast with light food
Don't do strenuous work while fasting
Periodic fasting has been found to be beneficial to the heart