Periodic fasting can be an extremely effective tool for improving your health and losing weight, but there’s a lot of confusion surrounding fasting and how it works. When done correctly and safely, fasting not only promotes fat-driven weight loss, but can also lead to numerous other health benefits, including a strengthened immune system, increased energy, and reduced inflammation throughout the body.

One of the most common arguments against using fasting for weight loss is that the weight lost during a fast is simply water weight, and will be regained when you go back to eating your regular diet. But this is only part of the story.

What is water weight?

When you stop eating — or when you significantly reduce your carbohydrate intake — your body will have to find another source of fuel. In the absence of carbohydrates from food, the body first turns to glycogen — a form of glucose that has been stored in the liver and muscles. Each gram of glycogen is bound to 3-4 grams of water; as the glycogen is used up, this water is released with it. This is what accounts for the rapid weight loss that often occurs at the beginning of a fast.

If you return to your regular diet within one or two days, it’s true that your glycogen stores, and thus the water weight, will be replenished. Continuing to fast beyond this point is necessary to trigger changes in the body than can lead to more sustained health benefits.

Achieving nutritional ketosis

Once your glycogen stores are mostly depleted, the body will begin burning fat for energy, often starting with the dangerous visceral fat stored in the abdominal region. When this happens, the liver produces molecules known as ketones, which provide energy for parts of the body that can’t directly use fat, including the brain. When the body is producing ketones, it’s said to be in a state known as ketosis. (Ketosis should not be confused with ketoacidosis, which is a dangerous condition that can occur in people with diabetes.)

Complete fasting isn’t actually necessary to achieve nutritional ketosis. Ketosis can also occur in the presence of a very low-carbohydrate diet, in which the amount of carbs consumed is roughly less than 50 grams per day.

How fasting promotes other positive health changes

Fasting can also positively influence a number of metabolic processes throughout the body. Our bodies aren’t meant to be in a constant state of digestion. When we allow the digestive system to rest, it allows the body to devote energy to other things, including reducing inflammation and clearing out damaged cells and tissues.

Alleviating chronic inflammation is one of the most important things we can do for our overall health and wellness, and is crucial to long-term weight loss. Chronic inflammation is implicated in every major disease, including heart disease and cancer. Inflammation can also interfere with the brain’s ability to receive signals from leptin, a hormone responsible for telling the brain when you have had enough to eat. Without this signal, you may continue to overeat even when you’re full. Inflammation can also interfere with thyroid function, which in turn can disrupt your metabolism.

By allowing your digestive system to rest, and simultaneously halting the consumption of inflammatory foods such as sugar, wheat, and dairy, you provide your body with an opportunity to clear out existing inflammation and improve these metabolic functions that make it difficult to lose weight in the presence of the standard Western diet.

How to fast safely

When most people think of fasting, they think of a prolonged water fast. Not only is this extremely difficult to maintain, it can also deprive your body of essential nutrients. Fortunately, there are several ways you can experience the benefits of fasting without completely giving up food.

If you’re new to fasting, it may be most beneficial to start with an initial period of prolonged fasting, during which caloric intake is reduced for at least 5 days. Prolonged fasting doesn’t have to mean giving up food completely. Eating anti-inflammatory foods that are easy to digest — such as plant-based soups — can provide the digestive system with the opportunity it needs to rest so that the body can begin healing from inflammation and other damaging health conditions.

Following this initial fast, you can opt to repeat the 5-day fasting diet, or you can engage in practices such as time-restricted fasting, which involves limiting your meals to a certain time frame, such as 10am to 6pm. This leaves 16 hours during the day for your digestive system to rest. Most people find that fasting becomes easier the more they do it, and the benefits gradually increase over time.

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