Fasting, the act of abstaining from food and drink for a defined amount of time, is a practice that has been employed to promote physical and spiritual health for thousands of years. An absolute fast is one in which no food or water is consumed, while other types of fasts allow water, juice and other fluids. Read on for information on how to choose the fast that’s right for you and incorporate it into your lifestyle.
At a Glance: Fasting
Start healthy, and get a doctor’s advice if you have any medical conditions. See pictures and details.
Clear out all prohibited foods from your kitchen. See pictures and details.
Start with an 8-hour fast, or gradually reduce food intake. See pictures and details.
Distract yourself with friends, gentle walks, and restful activities. See pictures and details.
Track your progress to make future fasts more effective. See pictures and details.
Stop if you feel ill. See pictures and details.
Break the fast with water, then a light meal. See pictures and details.
Getting Ready to Fast
Determine what type of fast to do. People fast for many different reasons: to achieve spiritual clarity, to prepare for surgery, to lose weight and any number of other reasons. The way you prepare for and carry out the fast will be largely dictated by your reasons for doing it, so do some research on the type of fast you want to do.
Medical fasts are often prescribed before a patient is scheduled to undergo surgery or another procedure for which anesthesia will be administered. Medical fasts usually last 12 – 24 hours before the scheduled procedure, and can involve abstaining from food and drink or just food.
Detoxifying fasts are meant to cleanse the body of accumulated toxins. They are commonly done after the holiday season, a time of heavy alcohol drinking and consumption of heavy and sugary foods. Detoxifying fasts usually allow juice and other liquids, but not food.
Intermittent fasting is a practice designed to help the body battle health issues or burn fat. Some believe that abstaining from food and drink for periods of 12 to 36 hours helps people lose weight over time. Spiritual or religious fasts are designed to give the mind time to reflect on spiritual ideas while the body abstains from food. The specificities of religious fasts are often dictated in religious texts, and the fasts are carried out to honor ancient traditions. For example, Muslims fast to celebrate Ramadan, a month during which food and drink aren’t consumed from dawn until sundown. Observant Jews also fast on certain days of the year, most notably on the holiday of Yom Kippur, which is an absolute fast lasting 25 hours.
Get physically prepared to fast. Everyone’s body responds differently to fasting, and if you’ve never done it before it can be difficult to predict how it will make you feel. Take a few weeks to get physically prepared before launching into a major fast. You’ll have a better chance at succeeding with the fast if you know what to expect.
Talk to a doctor if you are concerned about how fasting might affect your health. Undergoing a fast, especially an absolute fast, can take a dangerous toll on your body if you have a preexisting condition. Get a physical to make sure your body is strong enough to handle limited consumption of food and water.
If this is your first fast, you might want to gradually phase out a few foods first to get used to the feeling of deprivation. For example, wean yourself off of foods containing sugar and white flour a week or two before you start a detoxifying fast, so that your body won’t be suffering from major cravings on top of hunger pangs.
Plan to start a fast in your best physical shape. Your body will deal with deprivation better if you start off well hydrated, so drink plenty of water. Eat healthy, nutrient-rich meals in the weeks leading up to your fast. As the first fasting day approaches, make sure your body is free of alcohol and drugs.
Ready your kitchen for fasting. If you’ve got temptations lying around the house, fasting will be a much harder experience. Get your kitchen ready in the following ways:
Toss out or stow away all prohibited foods and drinks. Don’t have candy or a bottle of wine sitting out on the counter; either throw it away or put it in a place where you won’t be reminded of its presence.
Clean out your refrigerator. Empty it of anything that might tempt you during the fast, especially pre-prepared food that’s easy to eat.
If you’re doing a juice or liquid fast, stock the refrigerator with the ingredients you need to make your drinks.
If you’re doing an absolute fast, plan to avoid the kitchen altogether. Make sure everything is cleaned up and put away so you’ll have no reason to enter the kitchen or handle food.
Doing the Fast
Start small. It is a good idea to start with a short amount of time and see how it feels before you launch into a 24 hour fast for the first time ever. Try an 8-hour fast on a weekend day when you don’t have much to do. Skip breakfast and lunch (or have broth for lunch), and drink plenty of water throughout the day. Finish the evening with a light, healthy meal. During the fast, be aware of how you feel hour by hour. Does the fast make you feel weak or ill, or do you enjoy the lighter feeling of not digesting food?
Reflect on how you feel the next day, since the benefits of a fast are often not felt until after it is over. Do you have more energy? Do you feel refreshed and ready to try again, or does the thought of doing another fast fill you with dread? Let this short fast help you make your decision to either make fasting a regular part of your life or resolve not to do it again.
Be determined. At first you’ll just feel hungry and thirsty, but fasting soon has other effects on your body and mood. You may be cranky, angry, or sad for the first few days as your body releases toxins and deals with cravings. As you deal with the inevitable physical and mental pain that comes with fasting, remind yourself why you wanted to fast in the first place, and focus on crossing the finish line.
If you’re fasting for spiritual reasons, turn your thoughts toward the higher power or religious teachings that made you feel drawn to the act of fasting. Try reading the religious text that inspired you to fast, or reading accounts of other people’s fasting trials. You may also draw strength from talking to other people who are fasting for the same reason.
If you’re fasting for health reasons, imagine the toxins that have accumulated in your body getting flushed away. By fasting, you’re giving your body the chance to purify itself before you begin eating food again. Read up on the medical benefits of fasting to help you stay the course.
Distract yourself. Fasting can lead to fantasies of large banquet tables laden with silver platters full of all the food you can’t eat. Daydreaming will only increase your cravings, so find ways to get your mind on something besides ice cream and hamburgers.
Spending time with a friend or a family member doing something unrelated to eating is a great distraction, as long as he or she knows not to suggest that you go out to dinner afterward.
Exercising is normally a good way to distract yourself from eating, but in this case it might make you hungrier. Go for a light walk or plan an excursion that doesn’t require burning too many calories.
Don’t watch too much TV, since the commercials may tempt you with images of food and people eating. Try reading a book or working on a craft project instead.
Sleep as much as you want. Sleeping time counts as fasting time, so if you’re doing a multi-day fast, getting plenty of rest can help you get through the hunger pangs.
Keep track of your progress. If you’re fasting for more than a few hours, keeping track of your progress can help you stay on track. Write down how you feel at each stage of the fast. You’ll be able to look back and see how far you’ve come, and it will give you incentive to keep going.
Pay attention to patterns that might clue you in to ways you can make fasting easier. For example, if you felt strong cravings after taking a walk, try not to burn as many calories through exercise.
Write out your feelings if you feel cranky or angry. Journaling is a great way to get negative emotions out of your system, and it might help you keep them at bay long enough to finish the fast.
Be open to good feelings, too. Some people report feeling euphoric after a few days of juice fasting, once the toxins have left their system. Keep note of the day when your feelings start turning from negative to positive, and your body begins feeling the healing effects of fasting.
Stop if you feel ill. If you begin feeling weak, dizzy, lightheaded or nauseated during the fast, drink water and eat something immediately. Continuing the fast may compromise your health. See a doctor to determine what went wrong before you try fasting again.
Don’t force yourself to fast through extreme feelings of anger or cravings that make you feel sick. Instead of fasting, you may need to wean yourself off of the foods that affect you this way.
If you simply don’t like the feeling of fasting, there’s no reason you can’t stop. You can always try again, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t work out the first time.
Breaking the Fast
Start by drinking water. Drink plenty of water before breaking a fast to make sure your body is hydrated and ready to take food again. Even if you did a liquid fast, the first thing you should do on the day you’re ready to break it is have a glass or two of water.
Eat a light meal. Don’t break a fast by feasting on heavy food, since your body has grown used to taking in very little. Your stomach will have shrunk, so you may not be able to take in much at first. Have a small meal of healthy vegetables and some protein to get your body acclimated to digesting food again.
Avoid eating food that’s difficult to digest, like beans and other legumes. Save these for a few days after you’ve completed the fast.
Don’t drink alcohol the day you complete a fast, since your tolerance will be very low and it might have an adverse effect on your body.
Some fasts, especially religious fasts, require that you break the fast with certain foods. Conduct research beforehand so you know how you’re supposed to break your fast.
Be prepared to have an upset stomach. When you first start eating solid food, your body may produce gas or diarrhea until it gets used to digesting food again. Don’t be alarmed if you have an upset stomach for a few hours after reintroducing food to your system.
Feel the benefits. Whether you fasted to lose weight, to cleanse your system, or to get in touch with your spiritual side, you can congratulate yourself on a job well done when the fast is complete. You may feel the following positive effects when your fast is over:
An increased energy level.
An improvement in your mood.
Reduced cravings for sugar, caffeine and alcohol.
Many of the benefits of fasting relate to psychological well-being and willpower. As such, your attitude toward fasting matters, and you’ll be more likely to benefit from it if you enjoy it.
Fasting can leave some people feeling irritable, unhappy, uncomfortable and liable to compensate by overeating at the end of it. Fasting isn’t for everyone, no matter what you read about its alleged benefits.
Do not fast if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
If you have a medical condition, you may not be able to fast. For example, if you have type 1 diabetes, fasting will require careful monitoring and your doctor’s complete approval.
If you do this often for weight loss, you might have an eating disorder. Speak to your doctor.
Some organizations believe that fasting has negative effects on health. Conduct research to make sure you are aware of the potential consequences before you try it.
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Sources and Citations
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