When many people hear the term “fasting,” they think of extremely restrictive and potentially even harmful dietary practices that are often used in order to shed weight quickly. These common fasting misconceptions can make many people hesitant to try a practice that offers significant and scientifically proven health benefits.

More and more research is indicating that various methods of fasting and calorie restriction can deliver health benefits that go well beyond weight loss. Resting your digestive system allows your body to devote energy to other beneficial activities, including reducing chronic inflammation and repairing cellular damage, which in turn help protect against disease and extend longevity.

If you’re interested in fasting, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the recent research and learn how to do it properly. Check out these 5 common fasting myths and learn the truth about the science surrounding this beneficial practice.

Myth #1: Fasting means you can’t eat

There are many different approaches to fasting, all of which allow your digestive system to rest without depriving your body of vital nutrients. Fasting doesn’t necessarily mean consuming only water or going days without any food. A variety of safe and healthy fasting options exist that allow you to experience the benefits of fasting in a relatively approachable manner.

Time-restricted fasting, also referred to as time-restricted feeding, involves eating all of your meals within an 8- to 12-hour window — such as 10am to 6pm — so that your body has a longer time to rest between dinner and the next day’s breakfast. In studies using mice, one group of mice was restricted to eating during an 8-hour window, while another group was allowed to eat at all times of the day. The time-restricted group performed better on fitness tests and had a lower risk of obesity, inflammation, and metabolic diseases than the mice who were allowed to eat whenever they wanted — even though both groups consumed the same total number of calories.

Intermittent fasting diets, such as the 5:2 diet, involve reducing caloric intake on different days during the week. Intermittent calorie restriction has been shown to promote weight loss and improve markers of metabolic disease, such as insulin sensitivity, in overweight women.

Another option is prolonged fasting, in which you reduce your caloric intake for a period of several days. An example of prolonged fasting is the ProLon fasting mimicking diet, which puts your body into a fasting state through the use of plant-based foods that are easy to digest. In clinical trials, ProLon was shown to promote numerous health benefits, including improved stress resistance in cells, the removal of damaged cells and tissues, decreased visceral fat, improved cognitive performance, and lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.

Myth #2: Fasting is unhealthy or harmful

The idea that fasting is dangerous because it deprives the body of necessary nutrients is unfounded, if fasting is completed in a healthy manner such as those described above.

It is important, however, to make sure that any fast is completed properly and supported by adequate water intake and anti-inflammatory, plant-based foods. Dr. Michelle Harvie, a research dietitian and specialist in intermittent fasting, recommends that participants continue to implement the healthy habits they learn from their calorie-restricted days, even on non-fasting days. Naturally, you’ll experience more profound results if the majority of your meals consist of healthy, whole foods, even during non-fasting periods.

If you’re taking medication or have been diagnosed with any health condition that requires medical supervision, it’s best to have your physician’s approval before attempting any major dietary changes, especially something as rigorous as a prolonged fast.

Myth #3: Eating frequent meals is better for weight loss

While the “several small meals per day” diet claims to increase metabolism, it’s not right for everyone. It’s true that the body burns calories best while digesting food in amounts; however, this alone does not guarantee weight loss. Researchers who study fasting claim that when we eat is just as important as how much we eat or what we eat.

As indicated by the mouse study mentioned above, there’s more to weight loss and overall health than just the number of calories we consume. Allowing your body to enter a fasting state helps heal underlying health issues such as inflammation and hormonal imbalances, all of which influence how your body uses and stores energy (or calories). These types of underlying health issues often make it difficult to shed excess weight, regardless of how many calories you’re consuming or burning throughout the day.

Myth #4: Fasting doesn’t deliver long-term results

When executed correctly, fasting can lead to significant long-term health effects. Many people wrongly believe that fasting simply causes participants to release water weight, and that any results will vanish as soon as a regular diet is resumed. In reality, intermittent fasting can target fatty deposits in the body, reduce inflammation, and strengthen the immune system for long-lasting weight loss and improved overall health. Studies involving the ProLon diet found that participants experienced benefits from following the diet for a 5-day period every month, even while eating their regular diet the rest of the month.

Over time, periodic fasting can give the body the break it needs to reduce inflammation, function more efficiently, and get rid of damaged cells — all of which are critical to achieving sustainable weight loss and reducing the risks of diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Myth #5: Fasting is too difficult and unrealistic for most people

Fasting can be challenging at first, but it’s not impossible. Most people find that the more often they do it, the easier it gets. Planning ahead and making sure you’re prepared will go a long way towards helping you succeed with any type of fast.

If intermittent fasting or prolonged fasting seem too difficult for you, start with time-restricted fasting using a 12-hour feeding window. You can gradually reduce your feeding window as you feel more comfortable.

For intermittent fasting, Harvie recommends avoiding carbohydrates, which can cause fluctuations in blood sugar that drive hunger, and focusing instead on protein, which empties from the stomach more slowly and can help keep hunger pangs at bay.

For prolonged fasting, try the ProLon diet kit, which supplies all of the food you need for a five-day fasting period, so that you don’t have to worry about selecting and preparing the right foods. The kit includes snacks and even small chocolate bars for dessert, so that you don’t feel deprived during your fasting period. Foods high in healthy fats, such as olives and nut bars, also help keep you feeling satiated even when eating fewer calories.

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