I am a big fan of variation in diet and eating. I think this is more in synch with nature and humans have obviously adapted quite well to the cycles of feast and famine. Unfortunately we modern humans have attempted to outsmart nature and created a situation where we are now overfed but undernourished with all food types abundant year-round.
There is little that is natural about the way we eat, let alone what we eat, and a huge part of that is how often and how long we feed ourselves each day. According to a survey conducted by the Salk Institute, the average American has a 15-hour eating window per day!
It is no wonder fasting (not eating) is making such traction these days.
People are now realizing that the constant gazing (3 meals + 3 snacks) has not served us well - I will go on the record and say that if you do feel the need to keep feeding yourself all day long you are in need of a nutritional and lifestyle overhaul unless you are a certain kind of professional athlete - the 0.0001%.
This article is not just about a shorter eating window (Time-Restricted Eating)
but moving to longer fasts of 24 hours or more.
Before we start here are the lessons I learned from fasting over these past few years.
Why had I believed that I needed to eat every day of my life? Talk about being stuck in a rut!
Now I don't fast for weight loss - that is not my goal - I'm in it for the other benefits such as Autophagy (cellular clean up), Detoxification, and hopefully cancer prevention (encouraging studies).
I have spoken about this on the blog before, but it bears repeating: if you are eating a Standard American diet (SAD), your body is burning mostly glucose, and getting your body to switch over to burning fat can be a challenge. Therefore the "sugar burner" will experience more hunger during a fast and they will find it harder to sustain. Just like you would never go from walking to running a marathon, I do not recommend that you go from eating every few hours to trying an extended fast.
Summarized here is what I have learned through clients and personal experience in how to train for longer fasts in 9 steps.
Step 1: Reduce with intent to eliminate
If you don’t really have any eating schedule and are a mindless snacker this is where you’ll have to start- you need to become aware and set a firm limit. Reduce with intent to eliminate snacking, first by compressing your eating window to a 12 hour period each day. Absolutely not a morsel of food to go into your mouth outside of this window. Pick your best 12 hours - usually from dinner to breakfast-- it can be from 6 pm to 6 am, 7 to 7, 8 to 8, etc. Once this is easy to do, then cut out all snacks. Three meals a day and no more!
Step 2: Narrow the Feeding Window
Now work to reduce the time of your eating window and increase the time of your fasting window. So only eat within 11 hours a day, then 10, then nine then eight, etc. Some people may only eat two full meals a day and find it easy to control hunger for the rest of the day with coffee, tea, and water.
Step 3: Cut and Shift
Along the way cut out all sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods. Not only are they lousy for your health, but they make it a lot harder to switch from glucose to fat burning. Build up to eating a “fat forward” diet from whole foods as much as possible and limit carbohydrates to those that are lower starch content aka lower carbohydrate vegetables.
Step 4: Reduce Alcohol
Reduce or eliminate alcohol intake. This should really go without saying but, if you are attempting a longer fast I imagine your goal will be to clear toxins from your body so learning how to go without alcohol is a must. Alcohol is very hard on the digestive tract and will be very damaging to your health when not eating foods.
Step 5: Curb Cravings
It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time! You can use coffee, bone broth, tea, and water to control your hunger outside your eating window - think of these as training wheels that you can remove for your first “real” long fast. Some will consider this “snacking” if you have calories but drinks are a practical solution to get over the hunger hump.
Step 6: Experiment First
Once you can manage an eating window of six hours a day, then try a one day fast. I recommend dinner to dinner but some like lunch to lunch the following day. Some do this every day and it is known as OMAD (One Meal a Day).
Step 7: Go further
After you surprise yourself with how easy the one day fast was, then you can do a 36hr, 48hr, 72hr or longer fasts. But be clear to why you are doing it. Have a support system and if you are under the care of a doctor for a medical condition please consult with them too.
Step 8: Don’t be reckless
Many people are excited to go longer and it is almost like a badge of honor these days to go for the seven-day water fast. Some find a seven day fast to be much easier than a three day fast claiming the hardest part is always the first few days. The idea is that the lack of glucose intake forces you to tap deep into your reserves and burn fat and generate ketones and that can lead to loss of appetite. The longer fasts typically work for those who are carrying more mass much better than those who don’t have a lot of stored energy reserves (i.e. body fat).
Step 9: Make Adjustments
The wonderful thing about fasting is that you can stop whenever you choose. There is no failure but only the opportunity to learn. If you find that a one day or three-day fast is too hard you need to reassess your carb intake, your reason why, and recruit some support. Keep eating only real food, nothing processed and get your fat content up and your carb content down and it will become easier.
When you are ready to do a fast, pick a time with no parties, no travel, and no horrible stress. Make it easier for yourself!
When you are done with your longer fast, break it sensibly by sipping on some bone broth to ready your digestive system to receive food after the vacation you gave it. Eat a small protein based meal before adding a carb load back to the system as you do not want to put yourself on a blood glucose roller coaster.
Resume eating within a six to 10-hour eating window so you can more easily maintain your fasting benefits. I recommend keeping your eating window to 12 hours max for life as there are now plenty of studies (granted most are animal studies) that are showing the benefits of this approach.
If you are fasting for weight loss I would recommend the book "The Complete Guide to Fasting" by Dr. Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore.
Have questions? Feel free to reach out. Want to share your progress, challenges, or success?
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-Dr. Jerome Craig