There is of lot of talk about intermittent fasting these days. Benefits are said to range from weight loss, to enhanced heart and brain functioning, to increased longevity.
Eat, Fast and Live Longer
Last year I watched a BBC TV Horizon programme called “Eat, Fast and Live Longer”. The presenter, Michael Mosley, tried out different fasting diets and looked into the science behind them.
The research on regular fasting shows the following results:
- Reduction of IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor 1), which is said to be one of the best ways to reduce weight.
- Less IGF-1 reduces life-threatening illnesses such as diabetes and cancer.
- Lower IGF-1 levels slows the production of new cells and helps in the repair of existing cells.
- Damaged DNA gets normalised and accompanying age-related diseases are reduced.
- Fasting helps slow down the ageing process.
Health secret of the 101-year-old marathon runner
In the Horizon programme, Michael Mosley interviewed a Sikh man called Fauja Singh, who was running the London marathon at the age of 101. He actually started running in his 80s.
Despite his years, Fauja had no signs of heart disease, had never had surgery and had never taken medication. He stated that his long life and vigorous health was due to that fact that had always eaten a child’s portion at every meal.
Studies on rats and humans confirm that a lower caloric intake can lead to longer, healthier life.
Ayurveda on how much to eat
Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of health, came to the same conclusion thousands of years ago. The Ayurvedic recommendation for each meal is to eat only the amount you can hold in your cupped hands.
Ayurvedic doctors recommend that half your stomach should be filled with solid food, a quarter with liquids, and a quarter left empty. You should end the meal feeling satisfied but not full.
Ayurveda maintains that we should leave enough room our stomach for digestion to take place. If we overfill our stomach there is little room for Agni (our digestive fire, which includes stomach acids and enzymes) to do its work.
The result of overeating is toxic waste
If we overeat, food hangs around in our digestive system. Partially digested food can become toxic if it is not quickly processed. Ama, a toxic by product of incomplete digestion, gets produced. According to Ayurveda, Ama is the root cause of the majority of human diseases.
Overeating leads to increased weight
When we look around at the body shapes of people walking down any typical High Street, it is clear that many people overeat on a regular basis and are thereby reducing their life expectancy.
If overeating increases our weight and leads to illness and even premature death, what can we do about it? Ayurveda can help.
What eating habits does Ayurveda recommend?
- Ayurvedic doctors say we should always leave a meal feeling as though we could eat a little more. This practice leaves enough space in the stomach for proper digestion.
- Don’t snack between meals. After a main meal, complete digestion can take 5-6 hours. So allow a good amount of time between meals – and no snacking!
- If you feel the need to eat between meals it is usually not a real desire for food but a compulsion, which can be driven by habit, boredom or emotion. Try a drink of water or tea instead.
- Sipping warm or hot water between meals aids digestion, helps remove any build-up of toxic Ama, and can reduce the compulsion to snack.
- Only eat when you are truly hungry. Genuine hunger is the indicator that the previous meal has been fully digested and Agni, or digestive fire, has re-awakened.
- Spices, such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger, cardamom and black pepper, aid in the digestion of proteins and fats. Herbs such as mint, rosemary and fennel also aid digestion.
- Make sure that your meals have all the six tastes in them: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Taste is the mechanism nature has provided for us to assess if we have gained full nutrition from a meal. If we don’t have all the tastes in a meal our body can feel dissatisfied and cravings for, say, biscuits or a chocolate bar in the afternoon, may pop up.
- A caving for between-meal-snacks could also be due a lack of sustaining protein in your main meals.
- Take Maharishi Ayurveda Trikatu with Clove before a meal. Trikatu is Ayurveda’s most popular herbal mixture for igniting a sluggish digestion.
What about fasting?
Yet, despite our best efforts to stick with these daily Ayurvedic eating habits, sometimes we find ourselves breaking the rules. We might still sometimes eat too much at a meal, have a snack in the afternoon or eat when we’re not really ready for food. As a result, toxic Ama can build up. We can start to feel uncomfortable, perhaps feel lethargic and lacking in energy. We can sometimes feel bloated and achy. We could start putting on weight.
We may not have a specific disease, but we definitely feel some dis-ease.
Many Ayurvedic doctors would recommend regular one-day per week fasting. Such fasts help the digestion recover its strength. They also help remove the build up of toxic Ama that produces these early-warning symptoms.
Weekly one-day fast
Here is an example of a mild one-day fast: Breakfast:
- A couple of pieces of fruit. Avoid heavier fruits such as bananas and avocados.
- A little basmati rice
- A little yellow mung dhal
- A small amount of vegetable
- A little ground cumin, coriander, turmeric and ginger
- A pinch of salt
- Quarter of a lemon (or some tamarind)
Put the all ingredient (apart from the lemon) together in a pan with sufficient water and boil until properly cooked and soft. The mixture should still be quite liquid.
Put the cooked food into a blender, squeeze in the lemon and blend well.
Eat nothing else but this blended soup for lunch and make sure you leave the table feeling satisfied but not over full.
If you find you have made too much food, don’t keep it for the next meal. Throw it away. According to Ayurveda, old food is toxic food.
Same as lunch.
This is just one example of suitable food for an Ayurvedic fast day. The mixture of lentils or dhal, grains and vegetables is sustaining but not heavy on the digestion. You could try millet and red lentils, or bulgur and brown lentils, instead of rice and mung dhal.
It is best to avoid larger beans, such as chick peas, kidney beans or split peas, as these take more effort to digest.
On your fast day, avoid heavy proteins, such as milk, fish, eggs and dairy products, as these take more digestive power to process. Avoid using oils, animal fats and fried food for the same reason. Sugar is best avoided, though a little dried fruit cooked in the soup can add flavour.
What is the purpose of fasting, from the Ayurvedic perspective?
According to Ayurveda, digestion, or Agni, is central to health. A poor digestion leads to poor health and a strong digestion facilitates good health.
Agni helps us absorb nutrients from the food we eat. Its other role is to remove waste products that build up in our cells and tissues.
When the fire of Agni is low, we have low nutrition coming into our body, and poor elimination of waste. This can lead to weakness, lack of energy and low immunity.
The idea of a regular fast is to give our Agni (digestive system) a rest. This helps to revitalise and re-ignite our digestive fire and thereby improves our overall health. It also gives the chance for Agni to burn up any toxins, or Ama, that has built up in our body.
What type of fasting does Ayurvedic recommend?
Ayurveda generally does not recommend long fasts. In fact it warns that vigorous fasting can cause imbalances in the Doshas, the basic governing principles of the body.
An Ayurvedic fast has to help maintain balance within the body. Otherwise, while curing one problem, we may be laying the seeds for future problems.
Many Ayurvedic doctors recommend a one-day fast each week and this fast should be a mild one. It is best if the fast is on the same day each week.
Value the feeling of hunger
On the one-day fast you will be eating small quantities of light foods. As a result, you will probably feel hungry between meals.
Don’t be temped to snack, but value this feeling of hunger. It is the sign that your digestive fire or Agni is strengthening. When it is not busy digesting food, Agni will start cleansing any toxic backlog of Ama you have in your body. So let it do its valuable work.
If the feeling of hunger comes, sip some hot water. This will help satisfy that hunger and will help your digestive fire remove toxic Ama.
How Triphala can help your fasting regime
Besides Trikatu, another Ayurvedic remedy you can safely use on a daily basis is Maharishi Ayurveda Triphala Rose.
Triphala helps remove toxic Ama that has accumulated deep in our body tissues. It also specifically cleanses the digestive tract. In fact it is said to be a Rasayana or rejuvenator for the digestion.
Triphala will help with any fasting regime you choose by making the elimination of toxic waste from the body more efficient and more effective.