A few years ago, I was in the throes of dramatic weight loss and a shift in my lifestyle in regards to health and fitness. At the time, I had hit my heaviest weight, topping out at 337 pounds, and I was dealing with migraines, hypertension, and a constant state of fatigue. Facing other difficult circumstances forced me to take a hard look at how I was treating my body and what the long-term consequences were going to be. I ended up settling into a severe caloric restriction for about three months, combining that with an hour of steady state cardio six days a week. By the end of the three months, I had dropped from 335 to 265. I felt better, having more energy and suffering almost no headaches at all, and have been able to maintain that weight ever since, for the most part.
Exercise became a normal part of my life, though I still have periods when life gets in my way and I choose to take time off from the gym. I got into weight training, spent a short period working with heavy bags, tried my hand at HIIT, and a few other short-lived ventures. As far as training is concerned, I found my niche with free weights. Despite having a bad shoulder due to an injury during my high school football days, I find a sense of peace when I put on my headphones and lift heavy things.
Diet, on the other hand, has never become a consistent aspect of my life. Severe caloric restriction was only a temporary solution, and I have yet to find a practice in my diet that makes me feel good without making me feel completely deprived of all things sacred and wonderful (I’m looking at you, Five Guys). Still, I’ve learned a lot over the last few years, and have managed to find one thing that seems to work, not only on a physical level, but on a mental and spiritual level as well. That one thing is fasting.
My shift in lifestyle led me to consume a steady stream of articles and blog posts about all things fitness and nutrition, and fasting is one topic that continued to come up again and again on virtually every website or magazine I flipped through. I had always viewed fasting as a spiritual practice for the radicals of religious devotion, but it turns out that there are some serious benefits to fasting on virtually every level of our being. I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve learned through my reading and through trial and error just what those benefits are. Over the next two or three posts, I’m going to share some of my own insights and some of what I’ve learned, and hopefully these things will inspire you to give fasting a try.
In this post, I just want to take a look at what fasting really is, where it comes from, and the different methods that you might consider trying. Later, I’ll examine why you might want to try fasting and what benefits you could potentially experience as a result.
I’m not sure anyone really knows when exactly fasting originated, but it has been around for thousands of years and has been practiced by virtually every civilization, culture, and religion in some form. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was a proponent of fasting as a means of fighting illness, saying that to eat when you’re sick is to feed the sickness. Pythagoras endorsed the practice of fasting. Paracelsus, another father of modern medicine and the founder of toxicology, called fasting the “physician within.” Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, Gandhi, Julian of Norwich, and even the Suffragettes of the early 20th century practiced fasting. It has been a part of nearly every major religion throughout history, other than Zoroastrianism.
So what exactly does it mean to fast? First of all, don’t confuse it with starvation. Starvation refers to going without food or nutrients due to a lack of resources; starvation is not a choice. Some don’t even like to use the term jokingly when they fast, as it seems to reveal a lack of compassion for those in other parts of the world who suffer miserably without the sustenance their bodies require. Fasting is not a forced practice, but a choice to deny yourself of something for the purpose of achieving something else. In most cases, this pertains to religion. Christians fast in an effort to draw near to God; Buddhists fast during times of intense meditation; Jews practice fasting on specific calendar days and in times of mourning. However, fasting is not exclusive to religious practice. Some individuals or groups, such as the Suffragettes, have fasted as a means of protest, and there have been many people throughout history and even today who fast simply for the health benefits.
Whatever a person’s reasons, the most basic definition of fasting simply implies going without something that is important to you for the purpose of expressing a deep conviction or pursuing a specific end. Religious fasters may be seeking a closer walk with their deity or a higher level of spiritual enlightenment, while non-religious fasters may simply be looking to shed weight or overcome specific health conditions, such as hypertension. Numerous stories can be found of people who have even overcome a cancer diagnosis through fasting. Whether you want to take these stories with a grain of salt or do the research yourself is up to you. Still, historical evidence overwhelmingly supports the claims that fasting from food for a determined amount of time can have positive results on a person’s mind, soul, and body.
I don’t want to get into the benefits of fasting here (that will be a separate article), but if all of this sounds a little intriguing to you and you’re considering fasting, here are a few types of fasts you may look into.
If you’re more interested in the health and fitness side of fasting, intermittent fasting may be for you. Intermittent fasting or IF for short, simply means that you fast for a predetermined length of time and follow it with a shorter period of time in which you eat, then repeat the cycle. The most popular practice I’ve seen, both online and with several of my friends, is to fast for 16-18 hours a day and eat during the other 6-8 hours. For example, you may start eating at noon, have lunch, an afternoon snack, and a healthy dinner that ends around 8:00 pm. You then have nothing but water until noon the next day. By doing this, about half of your fast is spent sleeping, and you’re only skipping one meal of the day.
A more extreme version of IF – called the Warrior Diet – was devised by Ori Hofmekler and is based on what he terms “survival science,” taking cues from the hunter/gatherer tribes of prehistory, as well as warrior cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome. Those who practice the Warrior Diet fast for twenty hours of the day and get all of their nutrition/calories during a four-hour period at the end of the day. There is a lot more to this method, including the effects of training, what might be allowed if you need to eat during your fasting period, and other considerations. But this approach is meant to ignite certain reactions within the body, such as ketosis and autophagy, which I’ll discuss more in the next article. If you want to know more about the Warrior Diet, check out Ori’s website at https://www.orihofmekler.com.
IF doesn’t have to mean spending every day hungry. British journalist Michael Mosley developed the 5:2 Diet, which takes a different approach to the concept of intermittent fasting. Instead of building a fast around hours, this fast is built around days. Simply put, a person who practices the 5:2 Diet eats a normal, healthy diet five days out of the week. The other two days would be fasting days, when one would eat fewer than 500 calories for the entire 24-hour period. The goal is to balance the total calories for the week so that one might avoid a caloric surplus. I’m not entirely convinced this method can be strictly defined as fasting. I guess it depends on how you get your 500 calories on those two days. Either way, the 5:2 Diet has gained some popularity over the years. If it sounds appealing to you, check out https://the5-2dietbook.com/basics.
Finally, if you find you’re more interested in fasting as a spiritual practice or a one-time event rather than a lifestyle or health choice, you may consider a long-term fast. In the strictest sense, this would mean going for a significant amount of time without food, and it should only be practiced after talking with your doctor to determine if you have any health issues that may be complicated by a long-term fast. I’ve met people who go without food for 72 hours at a time. Others may fast for 7-10 days twice a year. I even know of one man who fasts for 21-30 days at the beginning of every year to achieve “mental clarity and spiritual connection.”
Whatever your goal, take the time to do some research and find what will work for your situation. There are multiple factors that will affect the difficulty of your fast. For one, you will experience a drop in energy levels. If you have a strenuous job, you may want to consider taking time off during your fast. Another thing to consider is your lifestyle. Do you go out to restaurants socially? Will friends and family be understanding and considerate of what you’re doing? If you’re like me, you do most of the cooking at home. When I’m fasting, cooking for others can be excruciating, at least mentally. The smells alone can be overwhelmingly tempting. Whatever your situation, don’t just dive head first into a fast without taking the time to plan and adjust where necessary.
So, if I’ve piqued your interest in the subject of fasting, stay tuned. In the next article we’ll discuss the benefits of fasting, which go much deeper than just weight loss.
See you soon.