Fast Tracking Mindfulness — Is There a Connection between Intermittent Fasting and Greater Consciousness?
Fasting has become popular as a weight management technique in recent years, but for centuries, extended periods of abstinence have been part of religious and spiritual practices in both the West and East. For example, Catholics avoid meat during Lent, Jews fast on Yom Kippur and other holidays, and Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan. Buddha is believed to have undergone extreme fasting before attaining enlightenment, and today, Buddhist monastics avoid food after midday.
There’s a difference between fasting and starving yourself, however. Fasting is part of a day where there is minimal calorie intake. It’s generally understood to last a minimum of 12 hours. Not eating for more than a day isn’t advised because your body needs food to keep functioning as intended. But when approached sensibly, fasting can have many mental and physical benefits.
Fasting for Weight Control
Consuming fewer calories than usual can help control weight by forcing your body to burn stored fat. But, additionally, intermittent fasting speeds up your metabolism (as opposed to starvation, which slows it down). It assists your digestive system in working more effectively and processing food more efficiently. Fasting lowers insulin resistance, avoiding fluctuating energy levels and reducing the risk of type II diabetes.
Fasting for Improved Cognition
When you fast, your body has to process ketones in the absence of readily available sugars. Ketones promote a metabolic process that leads to the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is instrumental in supporting cognitive function. It helps prevent the death of brain cells and promotes the growth of new neurons and synapses. Alzheimer’s, obesity, and depression have all been associated with low levels of BDNF, so maintaining healthy levels is recommended.
Fasting for Longevity and General Health
Studies have shown that people and communities that fast regularly tend to live longer. It’s most likely because denying the body food for extended periods forces it into regenerative mode. Dead and damaged immune cells are expelled and replaced by healthy ones, while the toxins that get stored in fat are released and disposed of. Additionally, fasting may reduce inflammation, lower the risk of heart disease, and alleviate symptoms of gastrointestinal illnesses.
The Multiple Ways Fasting Encourages Mindfulness
But perhaps one of the most effective ways fasting can change our lives is the mindfulness the practice encourages. Fasting is about listening to the signals from our bodies, minds, and environments, then choosing how to respond. Here are six ways that fasting can improve our mindfulness.
1. Awareness of Our Relationship to Food
Without even knowing it, we absorb others’ attitudes toward food and eating, which is not necessarily in our best interests. For example, rather than eating when we are hungry, we eat at socially acceptable mealtimes — hungry or not. Or, we eat to solve an emotional need rather than a physical one, such as when we’re stressed or upset. For many people, food has become either a reward or a punishment. Fasting forces us to acknowledge our hunger and spend time understanding its causes.
The option of eating whatever and whenever we like is a privilege that’s denied to the hundreds of millions of people living in poverty globally. The challenges in willingly denying ourselves sustenance can remind us how lucky we are to have that choice. Fasting can remind us that the abundance of food in our lives is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of humanity.
If we become truly grateful for the ready availability of food in our lives, we naturally empathize with those for whom this is not the case, as well as with those whose relationship with food is more complicated. How much more difficult must eating be for those living with eating disorders?
4. Our Appreciation of Food
It may surprise you how much better food tastes after fasting. You will be able to savor the flavors of even the simplest of foods and truly appreciate your meal. You will also become more conscious of how your body reacts to different foods, such as how processed foods can produce sugar rushes and what foods keep you feeling satisfied for longer.
5. Our Connection to Food
Along with understanding how your body responds to different foods, you will likely develop a closer connection to your food sources. For example, do you know where your food comes from? Who has made it? And do the ethics of its production align with your own?
6. A Simplified Life
And finally, fasting can help us live less complicated lives. Imagine one less meal to prepare or never needing to worry about what’s for dessert. As we connect with our bodies and our food, shopping becomes simpler and more community-focused. We create less waste and need less storage. Depending on your current habits, you may spend either more or less time cooking — but it will be a more mindful process either way.