2019: Year of the Fast
Fasting is probably the healthiest thing you can do for yourself. It’s also the cheapest healthy thing you can do. Unlike most diets and exercise plans, supplements, and, especially, trips to a doctor, fasting actually saves money. When you fast, you don’t eat.
Further, fasting is the simplest thing you can do to improve your physical and mental health. There are only two things to remember:
- Don’t eat.
- Drink some water.
Don’t eat. Drink water.
Since it’s a new year and lots of people want to improve themselves in the new year, I thought I’d repeat some of the most popular information on fasting. Which falls into about 2 buckets:
- Physical benefits of fasting
- Mental benefits of fasting
- Spiritual benefits fasting
- How to fast (simplest)
If you don’t need my philosophizing about the benefits and all, jump down to Methods for the How To guide.
I am not a doctor, and I am extremely skeptical about modern medicine. Many people, including me, have experienced nothing but good things from skipping a few meals. If you have some health condition that requires you to eat, maybe you should check with your doctor before fasting.
With that out of the way, let’s start fasting.
Benefits of Fasting
There are three major benefits from not eating:
Physical Benefits of Fasting
There’s no way I could improve upon Nat Eliason’s brilliant, one-paragraph itemization of the health benefits of fasting:
Central to the benefits of fasting is a process called “autophagy.” Autophagy is the body’s natural process of killing off, eating up, or cleaning out bad cell matter that’s built up in your body. It’s an important system for staving off many diseases, including preventing cancer development. Not only that, but reduced autophagy (the state that most of our diets leaves us in) leads to accelerated cell aging, which explains why in numerous studies on lab animals from single cells to mice to monkeys, restricting their caloric intake significantly increased their lifespan, even when that restriction was occasional (fasting every once in a while). It doesn’t stop there. Autophagy also helps with the development and retention of lean muscle, and autophagy induced through caloric restriction also slows neurodegeneration and is one of the few things that can lead to the production of new brain cells. This research suggests that fasting can protect you against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinsons. This is also likely why epileptic and autistic people respond very well to fasting. On top of all of that, periodic fasting helps with reducing chronic pains, rheumatic diseases, high blood pressure, and anything related to inflammation. Fasting also improves your insulin sensitivity, meaning your body can better process Oreos instead of sending them to your waistline when you decide to cheat. Then there’s the obvious fat loss benefit. After day two (maybe earlier) your body has nothing to run on but your own fat. The water weight you lose will come back quickly, but that fat loss is real. You can expect to lose ~1-2 pounds per day, but consider this a nice benefit, not the primary motivation.
That’s about the best summary of the physical benefits of fasting you’ll ever read.
Now for the mental benefits.
Mental Benefits of Fasting
Mental clarity, focus, calmness. Those are the immediate mental benefits of fasting. Your brain just works better without food. As Nat Eliason put it:
All of the claims about mental clarity were true—my mind has never felt so “unclouded.” There was zero brain fog all hours of the day. I had all the benefits of meditation, but without needing to meditate.
But there’s more.
You build resilience and authority over your own body. That’s a mental thing. You take control over your passions and actions. When you go 120 hours without a calorie, you exert ownership of yourself in a way you never have before.
Plus, fasting for three to five days proves that you don’t need three meals a day, let alone six. Most Americans have a dangerous relationship with food. They think they must eat every 4 to 6 hours or something bad will happen, maybe to their children. This 3-or-more-meals-a-day myth was created by doctors like Ancel Keys and promoted by the government and other doctors out of a combination of malice and ignorance. (Most doctors aren’t evil, they just aren’t curious enough to find out if what the authorities tell them is true or not.)
Aside from the first 48 hours when your body is switching from sugar to stored fat as its primary energy source, you will feel better during your fast than you have felt in years.
Spiritual Benefits of Fasting
Finally, we get to the good stuff.
Jesus celebrated his baptism and public ministry, not with a party at Mary and Joseph’s house, but with a 40-day fast in the desert.
A common theme throughout the Bible, old and new, is that fasting helps us discipline ourselves and humble ourselves before the Lord, making our prayers more effective. It helps us get out of our own way.
And this is why I like Nat Eliason’s fasting advice so much. Here’s what Jesus said about fasting:
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." —Matthew 6:17-18
Many articles on fasting tell you to, essentially, look gloomy, disfigure your face, don’t bathe, even skip work. For example, here’s Dr. Edward Group’s advice:
Fasting is a time for rest, not exertion. Don’t plan on running any marathons during your fast. You shouldn’t even go to the gym. Your body will want to sleep more than usual — let it. Listen to your body; you may need 12 hours or more of sleep each night, and naps during the day. Do not be alarmed; this is part of the process. Relax and embrace it.
Here’s what Nat said about making lifestyle adjustments while fasting:
I said screw that and went about life as usual. The only changes I made were not using my standing desk and not working out, but I still averaged ~2 miles of walking and 10+ flights of stairs a day, most of it in sub-zero temperatures.
Okay. But I do work out. I’ve done many 4- and 5-day fasts without missing a minute of work and without missing my workout routine of three 70-minute heavy lifting sessions a week. I might not shoot for a new personal record on a lift, but I do the workout. Besides, as we’ll see in the how-to, you can minimize the pain of transitioning to running on fat by burning up your body’s glycogen stores as quickly as possible. And the best way to do that: exercise.
Methods of Fasting
There are three methods of fasting that work best for me:
- Daily intermittent fasting
- Five-day water fast
- Five-day mimicking fast
I recommend experimenting with them in order. Intermittent fasting will prepare you for the five-day fast. And the mimicking fast works best after you’ve trained your body to burn its own fat with a few three- to five-day water fasts.
Daily Intermittent Fasting
This is so simple. Skip breakfast. Consider skipping lunch. Eat one meal a day.
- Monday and Tuesday: consume no calories from 8:00 p.m. until 12:00 p.m. (noon) the next day. You can have black coffee, unsweetened tea, and water, but no cream, sugar, or food. It’s not that bad, believe me. I am not mentally tough and I can do it.
- Wednesday and Thursday. Same as Monday and Tuesday except stretch yourself to dinner.
- Friday: Eat normally.
- Next Week: Repeat.
This method alone will help you lose weight and save money. Plus, it prepares you for the next step.
Five-day Water Fast
This is even easier.
You know what you did Monday and Tuesday from 8:00 p.m. to noon? You do the same thing from 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday until 5:00 p.m. or so on Friday. In other words, you eat dinner as usual on Monday and you don’t eat again until dinner on Friday.
In the meantime, you drink 64 ounces of water a day. All the coffee and unsweetened tea your heart desires. If you take daily vitamins and minerals, continue to do so.
I agree with Nat that any kind of water is fine, but I’d recommend avoiding drinking exclusively distilled or reverse osmosis filtered water. Your body needs electrolytes.
Some people tell you to slowly introduce food over two to three days, called “refeeding.” I never had a problem with eating whatever after five days. Nat agrees with me:
Because I think people are too careful with fasting. Numerous sources suggested waiting two or more days before reintroducing meat. If you were in the wild, and you hadn’t eaten in four days, and you managed to kill a deer, you wouldn’t go forage for berries before eating it to “work yourself up to it.” You’d eat the damn deer.
Also, occasional shocks are good for your body, that’s the whole point of fasting in the first place. If you treat your body like glass then it will stay like glass. This is the same logic behind bodybuilding, hormesis, vaccinations, cold therapy, and any other process where we inflict small damages to increase the strength of the system (what Nassim Taleb calls “Antifragility“).
If you’re wondering why I suggest starting the fast after dinner on Sunday, it’s simple: it’s much easier to forget about food at work than at home. If you don’t work out, you will experience some hunger pangs on Monday and, especially, Tuesday. Work is a great distraction.
Also, this schedule pretty much prevents you from doing what Jesus tells us not to do: getting all freaky looking so everyone knows you’re fasting. Instead, just go about life as usual except don’t eat. It’s not that hard.
That’s all there is to the 5-day water fast. This is the backbone of fasting. It offers weight loss, mental clarity, focus, reduced risk of diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and diabetes, and it’s guaranteed to cut your food bill for a week.
Five-Day Mimicking Fast
I think most people call this a “fast-mimicking diet.” But that’s too many words. Just call it a mimicking fast.
In this diet, you consume only about 400 to 600 calories a day. To keep it simple, I follow Damien Blenkinsopp’s method published on his blog, The Quantified Body:
For simplicity sake, you can just run all 5 days that way.
(Note: Sizes of Avocados vary depending on origin. Florida origin avocados are larger, and California origin smaller for example. If you’re using the smaller variety, it will be 3 avocados per day).
Then you need to take care of the micronutrients. For that you take 4 tablespoons of broad spectrum greens powder (a supplement made from dehydrated vegetables).
So your day ends up looking like this.
- Morning: 1 Avocado + 2 tablespoons of greens powder
- Evening: 1 Avocado + 2 tablespoons of greens powder
That takes all of the thought out of it.
I get my greens powder from Walmart. It’s a little expensive at $14 for about 21 servings. But, combined with avocados, this diet costs you a lot less than eating three meals a day.
Plus, you’ll lose about five to seven pounds in five days.
I want to make 2019 the year of the fast. In 2017, I followed the schedule below and felt great. In 2018, I didn’t. As a result, I was sick with one cold after another from October 8 to December 21. This year, I’m getting back on the plan.
- Intermittent fasting every week
- 5-day water fast once a year (usually in January)
- 5-day mimicking fast once a quarter after that
If you have other ideas or thoughts, please share them in the comments.