A Beginner’s Guide to Fasting
Fasting is sadly viewed as a last resort. After years or decades of failed weight loss plans, harmful prescription drugs, and inadequate health advice, we often turn to fasting with an attitude of desperation.
This is both a good and a bad thing.
The good part is that desperation forces us to try things we never thought we’d do – like not eating for a day! The bad part is that desperation can drive us to make reckless decisions that may potentially hurt us.
You might feel so frustrated with your current state that you think, “It’s all or nothing: I’m starting with a five-day fast!” That’s not to say that five-day fasts are harmful. But to undertake a prolonged fast without enough preparation and experience… well, it can be very painful. And it can be discouraging to quit a fast before you’ve seen any results.
That’s why you’re reading this beginner’s guide to fasting. You know the benefits of fasting. You’re familiar with the research that shows how effective fasting can be for numerous health conditions. So now, you want to make sure that you approach fasting in a way that makes it comfortable, fruitful, and sustainable over the long term. And that’s precisely what we’re about to teach you!
In this beginner’s guide to fasting, you’ll learn the following:
» the importance of choosing the right type of fast
» how to set smart fasting goals
» which foods can help and hurt a fast
» why getting enough sleep is essential for a fasting lifestyle
» and why you shouldn’t deprive yourself (too much!)
But first, a quick primer on what fasting isn’t
Fasting is not starving
Starvation is the deterioration of health when the body uses healthy tissue (such as organs and muscles) to sustain life. Fasting is the restoration of health when the body consumes diseased and damaged cells to promote longevity. Both occur in the absence of food. But fasting is a planned health intervention; starvation isn’t.
Fasting is not an eating disorder
Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia come at the expense of a person’s health and mental wellbeing, and they stem from the belief that food is generally a bad thing. Fasting, though it does involve periods of going without food, is undertaken for improved health and spirituality. (It does not promote disordered eating.) A core idea of fasting is that food is a very good thing – just not all the time!
Fasting is not a health fad
By definition, health fads are ephemeral: they come, and they go, having no scientific evidence to back them up. Fasting, on the other hand, has been practiced since the beginning of time for health and spiritual reasons, it’s a typical behavior in all animals, and it has 70 years of scientific research to support it.
Guideline #1: Choose the right fasting method for you
Out of the dozen-plus ways to fast, it’s difficult to know exactly which one is right for you. Should you do intermittent fasting? Time-restricted eating? Alternate-day fasting? Prolonged fasting? All this confusion can lead to indecision and uncertainty as to what you should do in your fast – which can negatively impact your results.
That’s why we’ve created a fasting methods tutorial to help you know (for certain) which one is right for you. Click here to find out your perfect fasting method based on your health, goals, and lifestyle.
As a general rule, though, beginner’s fasts should always be shorter than you think.
Guideline #2: Start off with small fasting goals
Fasting is a hormetic stressor, which is a stress that positively impacts your hormones for better health. Some amount of stress is a good thing. But if you overdo it, fasting can cause too much stress on your body: this leads to mental strain, fatigue, and elevated blood sugar levels that can essentially halt your fast (even if you haven’t eaten anything).
You have weight to lose; you have health goals that you want to achieve fast. We understand because we’ve been there! But you’re not going to reach your goals any quicker by attempting too long of a fast before you’re ready. This will only set you back.
The best approach is to set fasting goals that are smaller, and that can be done more frequently, such as time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting.
If you had your sights set on a 24-hour fast, try doing a 12-hour fast every day for a week. That’s having your last bite of food at 7:00 pm, and then breaking your fast at 7:00 am the next day (or some equivalent). This doesn’t seem like much, but it will train your metabolism to burn fat while preparing your mind and body for longer, more beneficial fasts. It also might be more challenging than you think!
Once you’ve finished that first week of intermittent fasting, increase your fasting window by four hours for another week. This is called the 16/8 fast, and an example would be fasting from 7:00 pm till 11:00 am the next day. (16 hours of fasting, 8 hours of eating.) After you’ve completed your first week of 16/8 fasts, try your first 24-hour fast – if you still feel like you need to.
Most likely, you’ll be delighted with the results you’ve achieved from shorter fasting windows. But either way, you’ll be psychologically and metabolically conditioned to handle a longer fast without the harsh side effects that could turn you off from fasting.
Guideline #3: Practice healthy eating before you start a fast
There’ve been studies on mice indicating that weight loss can occur in a time-restricted eating schedule even in the context of a junk-food diet. And no doubt: some fasting is better than no fasting. But sugar and high-glycemic-index foods are known to affect the metabolism of fat in the body negatively. So consuming these foods in the days before a fast could make for a much less enjoyable and successful fasting experience.
In addition to starting off with shorter fasts, you should also prepare your body for fasting by reducing or eliminating foods like
» processed snacks
» high-sugar fruit juices
» and white bread.
Dr. Valter Longo, director of the Longevity Institute, recommends a Mediterranean-style diet to accompany a fasting lifestyle. This includes plenty of healthy fats from sources like olive oil, sufficient protein from seafood and plants, and low glycemic-index carbohydrates such as fresh vegetables and some whole grains.
Guideline #4: Get enough sleep
Staying up too late seems harmless enough. You wake up a little groggy, but a couple of cups of coffee later, and you’re all good, right? Well, research shows that even a slight sleep debt can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes while making you crazy-hungry.
Want to make a fast miserable or even impossible? Making yourself insatiably hungry is an excellent place to start.
The reason that hunger spikes after you lose sleep is that the hunger hormone ghrelin rises as satiety hormones fall. You could do everything right in preparing for your fast – starting with shorter fasts, eating the right foods, but if you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll always feeling like pressing the ‘reset’ button on your fasts; by reaching for the closest, crunchiest snack available!
So before your fast, even if you think you function better than most on low sleep, always allow for 7-8 hours rest. Set a sleep alarm so that you’re in bed and ready to sleep at the right time. Make sure to limit blue-light and heavy exercise in the hours before bed. And try to avoid adult beverages, as alcohol is a known sleep disruptor.
Guideline #5: Don’t deprive yourself during a fast
No matter how profound the benefits of fasting are, fasting has to become a habit if you want lasting results. But how do you make a habit out of something that seems to be miserable by definition? (Trust us, fasting is not harmful – and it even becomes very enjoyable and high-energy once you’re used to it!)
For starters, many fasting methods involve eating at least some amount of food per day. But no matter if you can eat or not, you can always indulge in comforting drinks that relax you, that stave off hunger, and that makes you feel human. Even seasoned fasters will crave something sweet to drink.
Some of our favorite fasting drinks include the following:
» Matcha tea
» Apple cider vinegar in water mixed with stevia (really curbs hunger)
» Sparkling water
» Zevia naturally sweetened no-calorie sodas
» and essenced waters like Hint
Yes, these drinks will have some metabolic effect, and they may raise your blood glucose and insulin levels an infinitesimal amount – but not enough to stop the fat-burning and autophagy that happens during a fast.
So have some of these drinks ready. Indulge in them. And since you won’t be eating food, feel free to indulge other desires like reading a good back, having a Netflix marathon, calling up a good friend, or even just taking a nap. Fasting should not feel like a deprivation fest!
If you follow this beginner’s guide to fasting, fasting will be a much less stressful (and much more enjoyable!) activity for you. But even if you follow these guidelines to a tee, fasting can still be very taxing to your body – especially if you have health conditions such as low thyroid, heart disease, and liver/kidney disease. So take as much time as you need to rest. And please don’t feel obligated to finish a fast just because you start one.
If you ever experience migraine headaches, intense fatigue, vertigo, or extreme discomfort, stop your fast immediately. And to prevent any underlying health issues (such as nutrient depletion) from becoming a problem, always consult with your doctor before starting a fasting protocol.