A common belief exists that fasting will lead to bodily harm. This view is changing as new fasting research is presented to the public. Consider giving your body a break and allowing it to focus on enhancing and building up other organ systems, instead of constantly being in digestion mode! (This is especially true for high performance athletes.)
First off, let me clear the air by making sure you understand that I am definitely not suggesting you perform or train in a fasted state, as this can be potentially dangerous, especially if you’ve never experimented with fasting. This would be a great shock to your system.
We are also not encouraging extremely young athletes to experiment with fasting– children under the age of 13 are not considered high performance athletes, and should focus instead on refining and maintaining a stable and healthy diet.
Instead, what I am suggesting is the information presented here by considered by elite athletes on non-training days and/or in the off-season where your body is not subject to as much stress.
As always, consult with your physician before beginning any type of “unconventional” dietary/nutritional protocol (trust me, people will give you weird looks when you mention that you fast regularly).
A great place to start is with Dr. Alan Goldhamer, a chiropractic physician based out of California who specializes in fasting and treats patients from all around the country with incredible results.
Let’s start here, since there has been a major increase in the popularity of intermittent fasting over the past several years up to the present day.
Why all the hype? What is it? A friend of mine joked that it sounds like one of those up-and-coming heavy metal bands.
Intermittent fasting isn’t a new concept, but is “new” for the general public. Many religious practices incorporate this form of fasting, the most popular of which is the Islamic holiday of Ramadan (where Muslims refrain from the consumption of any food or drink from sunrise or sunset).
The main idea behind intermittent fasting is to reduce caloric intake, but to do so by eating and drinking within an 8-hour (most common) time frame and therefore abstaining from food and drink for 16-hours.
Reducing caloric intake has been shown across a wide range of species to decrease the rate of aging. This includes the slowing of physical degeneration, increasing longevity (i.e. lifespan)1, and preventing diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which are very common in the elderly.2 Significantly reducing caloric intake may also protect against tumor growth (and thus cancer).3
An important but noteworthy observation is the impact of fasting on preserving, and even enhancing, brain function and losing fat.
When fasting, your body makes the switch from using glucose as its primary energy source to using ketones, which have been shown to provide glucose4 and are more efficiently used by the brain.5
Ketones require fat to be created and when you are fasting there is no dietary source of fat coming in. Therefore, when fasting the body relies on your fat stores to produce the ketones. This is one of the simplest ways to lose fat because you are now burning that fat and using it as energy.
What does this all mean to basketball players?
An athlete’s body is exposed to repeated stress, not only from training and competing, but also from constantly eating food every day. Do you think your body is able to constantly digest food, recover your muscles, tendons, and ligaments, focus on competition, and perform at a high level during practice, day in and day out, for most of the year without breaking down?
This is not how we evolved as humans. You assume that if you refrain from eating for one day, or even simply reducing the amount that you eat, that you will experience serious health issues. Do not underestimate the ability of our bodies to adapt.
Our brain is actually incredibly efficient at dealing with situations where less food is coming in, hence the switch to ketones for fuel. We did not evolve by eating 3-4 meals a day, every single day, for our whole life. In fact, this may cause more harm than benefit.
Based on the research presented in this article, it becomes clear that an athlete’s game can be elevated by engaging in something as simple as not eating. (Again, as mentioned in the introduction, this only applies for high performance athletes on days with limited training.)
If the lessons from this article are combined with overtraining, you may well be on your way to creating a situation where you regularly take full days off from training (yes, one day every week with zero training) and on those days off you incorporate a style of fasting (my personal favorite being a full water fast).
This combination may bring about a situation where you are experiencing optimal recovery, fat loss and muscle preservation (ideal for basketball), and improved brain function (leading to better decision making).
Of course, the ultimate goal is to not only enhance performance, but to enhance longevity of athletes. And according to the studies above, an important factor (that we are able to freely influence) when it comes to anti-aging is fasting.
We want athletes to play for as long as possible, at the highest level possible, with as little injury as possible. However, it is up to the individual athlete to snap out of routine, get out of a comfort zone, and try something new that is heavily researched and supported.
Are you a high performance athlete? Try fasting today!
To learn more, visit Healthy Basketball.
- Masoro, EJ. Calorie restriction and aging: an update. Experimental Gerontology. 2000 May; 35(3):299-305.
- Bruce-Keller AJ, Umberger G, McFall R, Mattson MP. Food restriction reduces brain damage and improves behavioral outcome following excitotoxic and metabolic insults. Annals of Neurology. 1999 Jan; 45(1):8-15.
- Kritchevsky D. Influence of Caloric Restriction and Exercise on Tumorigenesis in Rats. Experimental Biology and Medicine. 1990 Jan; 193(1):35-38.
- Cahill GF & Veech RL. Ketoacids? Good medicine? Trans Am Clin Climatol Assoc. 2003; 114: 149–163.
- Pierre K & Pellerin L. Transporters in the central nervous system: distribution, regulation and function. Journal of Neurochemisry. 2005 Jul; 94(1):1-14.
Continue reading Fasting – Don’t be scared!
Dejan Matijevic is the founder of Healthy Basketball, a current medical student in Tempe, AZ, and a Human Kinetics graduate (University of Windsor). Dejan has had a passion for basketball for over a decade, and is committed to growing the sport the right way. Follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.