Confessions of a "Faster"

I am a faster. Have been for years. Probably always will be.

What's a "faster" you ask? Simply speaking, a "faster" is someone who foregoes eating solid foods for a set period of time. In other words, a "faster" is someone who practices the ancient art of fasting.

How long have I been a "faster?" I did my first fast around 1983, but didn't repeat the procedure for a few years after that. I started "playing around" with it a little in the late 1980s, trying one every once in awhile, but didn't get serious about it or start making it a regular part of my regimen until a few years ago when I began to practice it about four times a year. I fast for a week (seven full days) at a time, which makes me a moderate "faster." There are those who can go for the better part of three weeks, but I prefer the week-long variety. Also, mine is not a "hard" fast—water only—but a "soft" fast that allows me to intake fluids-mostly fruit juices.

Why do I do it? The first time I did it in 1983, it was done as a spiritual practice. At the time I was active in various pentecostal churches that taught fasting as a form of spiritual discipline and so I decided to try it. Apparently, it was a way of mimicking Christ's periodic fasts recorded in the Gospels and has been practiced by ascetics for centuries. It is also suppose to bring one in closer communion to God, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I don't remember whether it made me any closer to the Divine, but I do recall it being one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted. So difficult, in fact, that I didn't attempt it again for awhile.

Now, however, I do it for health reasons and to develop discipline. In effect, I use it as a means of purging my intestinal track of the various toxins it accumulates over time, as a means of keeping my weight in check (I have a tendency to stay twenty pounds or so overweight) and and to teach myself not to snack at night. It also makes me feel better physically and gives me a sense of control over my body that most people appear to lack. Unfortunately, these benefits tend to be short-term, but as it becomes easier to do this each time, it has an overall cumulative positive affect on my body and sense of well being. Further, at least in the short-term, it gives me energy and keeps me from experiencing that "bloated" feeling one sometimes get from constant eating. And, finally, I occasionally fast because sometimes I just get tired of eating. We humans tend to eat pretty much the same things each day with little variation and while I can't speak for everyone, sometimes I just get tired of it and feel like I want a break. Fasting gives one the opportunity to "miss" food, making it taste better when you get back to it. It's sort of like the way one can grow bored with their partner or a particular friend and just need to spend some time apart. Then, once you're together again, the relationship takes on new vibrancy-at least for a time. Food can sometimes be the same way or, at least it is for me.

But perhaps the most useful thing it provides me is a sense of control over my body. What do I mean by this? Ever since we were kids we were told that we had to have three "square" meals a day (whatever a "square" meal is) or we would die. Okay, maybe not die, exactly, but that was the way it was made to sound. We were told that by doctors. We were told that by our teachers. We were especially told it by our mother and, especially, dear old granny. It was something we naturally took as a given, much like the fact that we require water and oxygen to survive. To miss a meal, then, was tantamount to missing a session on an iron lung, and it would result in dizziness, nausea, disorientation, palsy, and probably even lead to impotency. Of course, a moment's thought tells us that most mammals can go long periods of time without eating, and since we are technically mammals ourselves, we should likewise be able to miss a couple of meals without a problem. In fact, I suspect our ancient caveman ancestors may have gone days without munching on more than a few dusty old roots they gouged out of the dirt along with a few insects, especially during those times when game was scarce or the weather was not cooperating. I know there are cases of neglected pets going for weeks without eating, while pictures of holocaust prison camp survivors surviving on a few hundred calories a day for months on end are almost legend. As such, it makes sense that we can go without eating for days or, in an emergency, potentially even weeks at a time if we have to.

But society has told us we can't do this and we believe it, and I suppose for some people, it might even be true. After all, if you don't believe you can't do something, your body will usually go along with the assumption. Kinda funny how that works. With fasting, though, you quickly learn not only that you can go for days without eating, but after a fashion you are convinced you never need to eat agin. Of course, that's no better than believing you have to eat every five hours, but you get the idea. In effect, you feel a degree of power and control over your body you never imagined possible. You suddenly aren't afraid of missing a meal as you once were, and even find willpower you never knew you had. Further, discovering that you have control over your body can lead to finding degrees of control in other areas of your life as well as you begin to understand that there are things you fear that you needn't fear after all (like needing to eat three times a day, for instance).

Okay, so say you want to give this a try. How should you go about it?

Before we start, it's important to understand that I am not a doctor or a medical professional of any kind, nor am I a nutritionist. In other words, there is nothing that qualifies me to talk on this subject from a medical/scientific standpoint with any authority. I only offer a look at my personal experiences and what fasting does for me. Your experiences may be markedly different from mine, so don't take anything I write here as gospel In fact, I'd recommend that before you consider fasting yourself you read up on the subject—both pro and con—and see if its something that makes sense to you. With these cautions in place then, and if still want to proceed, here's what I recommend.

First of all, you need to determine if this is something you should try at all. Fasting isn't for everybody and is especially a bad idea for some people. Pregnant women and diabetics, for example, should never fast, nor should people who are already at or below their ideal weight for their height. Children, being that they are still growing, should not fast (although it might not hurt them to miss a meal once in awhile). If you are on prescription medications—especially for your kidney or liver—it's not a good idea either. In fact, if you're under a doctor's care for anything, you should ask them him or her whether a short fast would be a bad idea. (Be aware, though, that most doctors are not crazy about the idea of their patients fasting and will probably advise you against it. The pros and cons of fasting are still a point of controversy within the medical community and doctors tend to err on the side of caution where fasting is concerned.)

A better question to ask is who makes a good candidate for fasting. If you are a generally healthy adult with no significant health issues who is anywhere from ten to maybe a hundred pounds overweight, this might be for you. Also, you should be an active person, as fasting—especially if one desires to get their weight under control—works best if combined with moderate exercise, so if you like to bike or hike regularly or engage in other not too strenuous exercise (like tennis or ping pong) this should work for you.

Okay, ready to give it a try? If so, here's how it works: fasting is basically just a method of substantially reducing your caloric intake so that your body begins to automatically start burning fat cells as a substitute for the calories it's no longer receiving normally. In an adult male, the minimum daily requirement is around 1,300 calories (slightly less-about 1,200-for a woman), though if you are especially active—say a jogger—that number will be higher (say, in the 1,600 range). If you have a strenuous job like digging ditches, smashing rock, or cutting down trees with the blade on your Swiss Army knife, this can be higher still-like 2,000-3,000 calories. (Olympic swimmer's caloric requirements can be as high as 5,000 calories per day!) For most of us, however, figure that you burn off somewhere between 1,200 and 1,600 calories a day. Unfortunately, most of us eat more than that (and some of us, a lot more than that), giving our body the task of figuring out what to do with the excess. Since humans are built to store these extra calories in the form of fat cells all designed to improve our odds of survival (it's a caveman thing. Trust me.) we have a tendency to add to our girth as a result, with men usually storing these fat cells around their stomachs and women in their tooshes. To make this work, then, you need to consume fewer calories than you burn up, at which point your body will start, in effect, eating itself as it dives into its caloric savings account (known as your midriff)-the result being a loss of fat and, with it, body mass and weight.

Okay, there is a couple of things to be aware of. If you don't have that much fat on you to begin with, the body will start going after the calories stored in your muscles as well, so you could end up becoming flabby in places you don't want to be. Also, once you start tinkering with this stuff, it may affect your metabolism so you could end up experiencing either bouts of diarrhea or constipation, which, while not a big issue if it's short-term, may quickly become a problem if it persists (at which point you may want to consider ending the fast). Also, if you come down with a cold or flu during the fast, it's probably a good idea to end it there as well. Fasting won't make you susceptible to getting sick, but you may need the extra calories to fight the illness. Remember, you can always try it again later.

So now that you understand the basics, the next question to ask is whether you want to do a "hard" fast or a "soft" fast. With a "hard" fast you drink only water (this is technically known as a cleansing) whereas with a "soft" fast, you also drink fluids such as fruit and vegetable juices. Which you choose will be determined by how much weight you are intent on losing. With a hard fast, since you aren't intaking any calories at all (unless you put some flavor additives or lemon slices in the water) your body will go into survival mode quickly and start chewing through the fat cells. With a soft fast, since you'll still be intaking calories, the weight and mass loss will be slower and less pronounced. It's simple math: if you need 1,600 calories a day and you are intaking 600, you'll lose 1,000 calories worth of fat cell a day. Add vigorous exercise to this, and the loss will be even more pronounced. For the newby, however, I'd recommend a soft fast. It's going to be difficult enough to keep it up as it is. Going "cold turkey" and drinking only water will be more difficult and make you more likely to give up.

The next thing to decide is how long a fast are you willing to try. This is important, for if you decide to just "play it by ear and see how I feel" you will probably not last 48 hours. You need a goal-something to shoot for that is realistic. Some people fast for just a few days while others go for up to three weeks (not recommended for the beginner). I do a week, which is enough time to purge my system and I lose anywhere from six to eight pounds. For the beginner, maybe try three days and see how it goes. You can build up the length of time as you become more accustomed to the physical demands of fasting. Also, set a firm start and stop date. I like to start my fast immediately after my Saturday evening meal and end it on the following Saturday afternoon. Regardless of whatever time you choose, try to stick to it. Finally, give yourself some advance notice. Deciding to start tomorrow morning is probably not going to work. You need to prepare yourself mentally, so give yourself a few days to think about it. That way it will be less of a shock to your system when you actually begin, because you're already mentally prepared for it. Also, it gives you a chance to stock up on the various juices you like.

Second, it's a good idea to fast during those times of the year when you can get out and about more easily. If you try this in the dead of winter and just spend the day vegetating on the couch, you'll probably be disappointed with how much effort it is and by the minimal results. Burning fat cells is much more successful if it's combined with consistent exercise (as long as you don't overdo it). Also, doing things takes your mind off the hunger. In fact, when I'm out hiking or riding my bike, I sometimes even forget that I haven't eaten a thing in four days and feel that I may not eat again the rest of my life (again, not recommended). Try reading, playing games, training your pet shark-anything to keep your mind off the refrigerator. Also, try not to watch too much television; they are inundated with commercials about pizza and Big Macs, which will only add to your misery. (Not really. I laugh at their puny attempts to entice me into joining their food cult.)

Okay, ready to start? Here's what you do.

The first thing is not to gorge yourself in the days leading up to the fast. It's easy to talk yourself into believing that since you won't be eating for a few days, you had better "stock up" beforehand, but isn't this the mentality that got you that extra twenty or thirty pounds in the first place? In fact, you can give yourself a head start by slightly reducing your intake in the days leading up to the fast. If you normally have three slices of pepperoni pizza, have two instead. If you like having two bagels for breakfast, try one instead. If you can't do even something as simple as cutting back on portions, chances are you won't be able to get through a week-long fast.

Second, make your last meal a light one. Hunger pangs are the result of your stomach contracting and the further it has to contract, the longer you'll feel those initial pangs. They will usually subside after a day or two and you will no longer feel hungry at all by day three, which will be the result of the stomach having shrunk as much as it can. You may occasionally feel pangs throughout the duration of the fast, especially if you are drinking a lot of fluids as they will force the stomach to expand, but they will be short-lived as the fluids quickly evacuate the stomach in about half an hour. (In contrast, solid foods can sit inside the stomach for hours, depending on the nature of the food and how much you ate.) Additionally, you may have bouts of dizziness as your senses adjust, but this should be mild and short-lived. (If it isn't or if you black out, stop fasting immediately. This could be a sign of something more serious that you need to have checked out by a doctor.)

The biggest hurdle will not be your body telling you it needs food, but your mind. We are used to eating almost constantly throughout the day to the point that eating has become largely habitual. Once you stop eating, it is akin to trying to stop smoking. The body will simply accept that you are not going to feed it after a day or two and largely stop bugging you, but your mind is going to be demanding to taste different things, for that is what it has been trained to do over the course of a lifetime. The hardest thing I had to face was the desire to taste something salty or sweet. It wasn't that I wanted a complete meal, but just a bite of something to ease my cravings. If you find yourself in this situation and it's driving you nuts, it's okay to permit yourself to eat a couple of crackers or a handful of peanuts or even a tiny chocolate kiss just to satisfy the craving. The key here is to have just a taste and don't eat the entire sleeve of crackers or the whole can of nuts. It may be technically cheating, but it's better than giving up entirely, and after a while you will learn to suppress these cravings. The idea here it to try not to make it any harder on yourself than it already is. Eleven peanuts isn't going to kill you and if that's all it takes to get you through the rest of the day (assuming you aren't satisfying your craving every twenty-five minutes) don't sweat it. The fasting gods will forgive you.

Another common problem "fasters" have when they start out is that on the first day, one is not only hungry all the time but may not feel good. Often I get a mild headache or just a feeling of "yucky-ness". At this point you will feel that it's all too hard and will consider giving up, but stick with it. Take a couple of aspirin and the next day you will probably feel better. By the third day you should even start to feel pretty good as the accumulated toxins in your intestinal tract are flushed out of your system, at which point you will have reached something of a milestone. In fact, in many ways the third day into the fast is the most important one, for it is at this point that you begin to grow in confidence that you can make it the rest of the way and start feeling more energy. The almost constant lethargy you normally feel throughout the day-especially after heavy meals-is gone and you begin to wonder why you didn't try this earlier. You will also begin to feel a sense of power over your body, as though you are telling it what to do instead of the other way around. Don't get cocky though, for you will still have those moments when you will feel like gnawing your own arm off, but you have crossed a line that, with a bit of determination, will see you through to the end.

One thing you will notice is that bowel movements will cease (or at least, be greatly diminished) after about three or four days. This is normal and a sign that your system has successfully purged itself of the residual food and toxins that have been sitting in your gut for the last week. In fact, you will find that you may not have another bowel movement for several days after you end the fast. It is during this time that you are effectively flushing your intestinal track and promoting good intestinal health. If you are someone who frequently suffers from constipation, see if you don't notice that problem going away after you finish the fast. It should, as you are doing long neglected maintenance on your system and, like a sports car, should run much better now that you've had a tune-up.

Of course, these elements have been my experience. Each person's metabolism is different, so you may experience thing differently. For example, you may have more pronounced headaches or get extremely cranky initially or you may feel no symptoms beyond hunger at all. It really is a crapshoot for most people, with no two experiences being the same. I am just relating what happens to me when I fast. I don't pretend to speak for anyone else or want to imply that you will have the same issues. Okay, back to the fast.

How you end the fast is as important as how you began it. In fact, it is ended in much the same way as it began. Just as you began the fast with a light meal, you should end it the same way. Do not gorge yourself, as there will be a price to pay. Remember, your stomach has shrunk to the size of your fist and has been that way all week. If you suddenly try and cram a big Mac in it you will feel like you swallowed a bowling ball. Instead of gorging, try a small bowl of soup followed by a light dinner a few hours later. You will find at this point that it will actually take very little to make you feel full. Whereas a month ago you could down ten plate-sized pancakes without a problem, now it will be all you can do to get one of them down. This is actually a good thing, especially if you are quite a bit overweight, as you can build upon this by limiting your portions from then on. Humans, by their very nature, tend to eat more than they really want. Learning how to satisfy your appetite without overdoing it can serve as the catalyst for long-term weight-loss even without fasting. Plus, you will have developed the discipline (hopefully) to refrain from snacking-or at least cut it down a bit.

One thing to remember, however, is that you are probably going to gain back a part of the weight you loss during the fast. Remember, you had two or three pounds of digesting gunk in your intestines when you started, so purging your system made you lose a few pounds right there. Some of the lost weight will come from water loss as well, so expect that once you start eating again to gain about half of what you lost back. As such, if you lose ten pounds during your week-long fast, don't be surprised if you gain half of that back within a week. This is perfectly natural. However, as I said, you are trying to do more than just lose weight here, but develop the discipline it will take to alter your eating habits in such a way as to lose real weight over the course of time. Additionally, if you are a largely sedentary person by nature, don't be surprised if you gain all of it back over the next few months (or even add to it). Weight loss is a balancing act between diet and exercise, and neither is a substitute for the other. Fasting is a tool you can use, not a solution to obesity.

Finally, how often should one fast? This is entirely up to the individual. Some people try it once, get through the entire week, feel as though they have achieved something extraordinary, and then never try it again (kinda like climbing Everest. Once you do it, the allure of doing it again is usually lost.) Others work it into their regular routine, fasting several times a year. How often you do it depends on you. If you find it beneficial, you may want to consider doing it at least a couple times a year. (I tell you the truth, it becomes a little easier each time you do it until after awhile you hardly notice you're fasting.) I'd think monthly might be a bit of a stretch, however, but I suppose if you ate healthy between fasts it might be okay. Like I said, I like to do it quarterly, but that's just me. One final note: if part of the reason for fasting has to do with shedding pounds, once you reach your ideal weight, you probably shouldn't fast anymore. Being underweight can be, in many ways, even unhealthier than being mildly overweight. Anyway, by this point you should have the discipline to eat sensibly and not need the regimen of a full-blown fast anymore. If you just need to take a break from food or purge your system, however, maybe try a three day fast every couple of months. That shouldn't effect your weight significantly.

So there you have it. Fasting can be a fairly simple tool you may use to get control of your body, but it can also be a difficult one that not everyone can or should use. Fasting will be one of the hardest things you will ever do, but with practice can also be one of the easiest things, so consider carefully before you try it. Use common sense and pay attention to what your body tells you and you should be okay. Good luck and happy fasting!