Less is more – they are convinced of this: the twelve women and three men who are taking part in a fasting retreat in Valais. Here they eat practically nothing for a week. There are two soups and one juice every day, plus lots of exercise in the form of hiking or yoga.
What sounds like a sacrifice to many is actually a gain for the participants. A comedown. She’s not missing anything, says Karin Rohrer. On the second day of the fasting week she had some problems with her circulation, but otherwise she was doing well. It’s a nice feeling to fast here, she says.
Consciously abstaining from food is something ancient that is also practiced in many religions. More and more people are relying on the temporary meal break. Intermittent fasting in particular has become a real hype on social media.
Fasting types in comparison
Intermittent fasting: 16:8 or 5:2
Intermittent fasting is probably the most well-known form of fasting. For example, you eat normally for eight hours and fast for 16 hours. Intermittent fasting can be easily integrated into everyday life, especially for people who don’t eat breakfast often or skip dinner.
Science assumes that positive processes begin in the body after 12 hours without food. Another form of intermittent fasting is the 5:2 method. You eat normally on five days a week and not at all on two days.
During a fasting week, fasting is carried out under the professional supervision of a fasting leader or a doctor. Foods such as meat, alcohol or coffee are often reduced before the retreat and food intake is limited to soups or juices during the week. Many describe Lent as a time of retreat.
Fasting in a group can provide support. It is not possible to say in general terms whether a week of fasting or intermittent fasting is better, says fasting leader Nadja Niggl. A week of fasting can provide many new impulses, while intermittent fasting can be better integrated into everyday life.
With the so-called warrior diet, the period in which food can be consumed is even shorter – it is limited to four hours. The fasting time is therefore 20 hours. Supporters are convinced that the Warrior Diet is intended to bring even more good things to the body. Nutritionists tend to advise against this form, especially for beginners, as the risk of nutrient deficiency is high.
Intermittent fasting involves not eating anything for 16 hours (see box). Most people simply skip breakfast. Nadja Niggl, head of the Valais Lenten Week, is also feeling the trend. She is pleased that more and more people are trying out this form of nutrition and also notices that more and more younger people and men are interested in fasting.
Fasting helps me get off the express train, take a break and breathe deeply.
In the retreat with fasting leader Nadja Niggl, practically no one is concerned with losing weight, but rather with doing something good for yourself. Or, as Christoph Meyer puts it: “Get off the express train, take a break and take a deep breath.”
Some in the group also notice physical changes after just a few days. Gilberte Stegmüller says that she has fewer problems with rheumatism in her fingers: “I no longer have any stinging or pulling, and that after just a week.”
Tangible effect on health
Olaf Kaiser from Germany, who works in the practice of nutritional doctor Markus Bock, has also experienced health improvements through fasting. Kaiser has had type 2 diabetes for four years and has to inject himself with insulin every day. However, at some point the medication stopped working.
Nutritional doctor Bock therefore prescribed him 14 days of fasting with bouillon, cottage cheese and coconut oil. Olaf Kaiser lost a total of eight kilograms – and the change in metabolism also affected his blood values and diabetes.
However, these are all individual case reports and initially only reflect people’s personal experiences. Can fasting really cure diseases?
Fasting has always been part of people’s way of life, says researcher Stephan Herzig from the Helmholtz Diabetes Center in Munich: “All of our genes actually emerged at times when it was completely natural not to eat anything.”
Researchers worldwide are convinced that temporarily abstaining from food can prevent many diseases and have a positive effect on health and life expectancy. In fact, more and more studies are proving positive effects.
Too much, too unhealthy, too sweet
The problem today is the constant availability of food, says Philipp Gerber, metabolism expert at the University Hospital of Zurich. «The refrigerator is always ready and filled. We generally eat too much and too much unhealthy stuff – like too much sugar.” Fasting can be a good counterbalance here. It is clear from the studies that fasting has a positive effect on diabetes or metabolic diseases, for example. “So a meal break every now and then isn’t a bad thing,” says Gerber.
When fasting, our body uses its energy reserves. The metabolism changes within about twelve hours after the last food intake.
The brain primarily needs sugar, glucose. In order to maintain the vital glucose level in the blood, the body first activates its reserves from the liver.
After about 48 hours, the sugar stores are empty. Then the organism switches to burning protein. This leads to short-term muscle loss. The insulin level drops. The body also starts burning fat. It converts fat cells into so-called ketones. They deliver energy particularly efficiently.
Many questions about fasting are still unanswered
In addition, an important recycling process begins: autophagy. Cell waste, which accumulates again and again in many body cells, is initially surrounded by a biomembrane. This “waste bag” fuses with small bubbles full of enzymes. The cellular waste is recycled, for example into microfuel.
Basic research provides good evidence of the positive effects of fasting. However, according to the metabolism expert, many questions remain unanswered. It is therefore important to emphasize that much of the data comes from research on animals, emphasizes Gerber.
Hardly any studies with evidence of effectiveness on humans
There are not very many clinical human studies on the effects of fasting, and the statements are not clear. Researchers’ interest in studying the effects of fasting on health is only slowly emerging.
According to Gerber, a big question is to what extent positive effects can really be attributed to fasting alone and what contribution is made to reducing calories. However, there is definitely evidence that alternating hunger and eating times has a positive effect because the body changes its metabolism.
The fasting group in Valais is unaffected by the current state of science. They experience the positive effects of fasting firsthand – for example, when they are allowed to bite into an apple after a week without solid food. “Wonderful,” says one participant: “To feel the juice, to enjoy a slice of apple. Just beautiful.”
Self-experiment: What’s the point of fasting for eight days?
What happens to the body when food is deprived? And can that also be healthy? “Puls” editor Sarah Allemann put it to the test.
Series: The Fasting Diary