Fasting, the exercise of going prolonged periods of time without food, has been practiced in many cultures for centuries as a way to restore clear thinking and optimal body function, as well as connect with one’s spirituality. Lately, it’s been touted as the newest and best method for weight loss.
There are many approaches to fasting. They can vary in length for as little as 24 hours or up to 30 days. Some fasting protocols allow only water; others allow juicing, bone broths, or specific meal timing. The more extreme they are, the more risky they are. Conversely, the more lax they are, the fewer benefits they have.
So, what is ideal? Let me describe my favorite type of fasting: intermittent fasting. It carries the least amount of risk with the greatest amount of benefit. Intermittent fasting starts with a reachable period of time when a person does not consume food. For example, to start, a person might go 10-12 hours each day without food. This is relatively easy when done overnight. It matters very little what time the last meal of the day is as long as the first meal of the next day is 10-12 hours later. Gradually, the period of fasting increases up to 16-20 hours.
The meals consumed during eating hours should be nutrient dense so that nutrition quality is not compromised leading to an increased risk of deficiencies. Meals should contain clean proteins, whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based fats. Also, meal portions should be “standard” in portion size. In other words, don’t make portions larger than you normally would eat to make up for having fewer meals in a day. But also, be certain to eat enough as a calorie intake that is too low will send the body into starvation mode. Keep in mind, too, that reduced calorie intake should be followed by reduced calorie expenditure. It’s sensible to lighten workouts to avoid injury and complete exhaustion.
Over time, people often notice improved cognitive function, sleep habits, and eating awareness. Most individuals also notice moderate to significant weight loss.
Fasting for 16-20 hours each day for a long period of time isn’t the best idea. Most people reach this goal and practice this timing for about 1-2 weeks. Thereafter, people resume “normal” eating patterns on most days of the week, but practice fasting for 1 or 2 days. Some people put these days back to back in their week, others split them up throughout the week. Either pattern is safe enough to follow indefinitely and provides the opportunity to continue with the benefits of intermittent fasting without all the tight restrictions.
People with health conditions or chronic diseases should fast only with the guidance of a doctor or dietitian who can help design the best approach. The fasting protocol can be modified to help reach specific health goals.