Fasting takes many forms, including a time-honored way to show respect during periods of religious observance, get in closer touch with your spiritual side, jump-start a weight loss program, prepare your body for a medical procedure or make a political statement.
Methods of fasting range from avoiding all solid foods while drinking juices, smoothies and broths to taking in nothing but water. The best way to ensure an effective fast is to plan ahead, and, especially, to gather all the ingredients you will need to maintain your fast ahead of time so you won't be tempted to go off-list during an emergency grocery run.
Basic Facts About Fasting
Fasting is simply the practice of depriving your body of food for a set amount of time or until you achieve a particular goal. There are many different types of fasts, and many reasons for practicing any of them — but your main concerns when fasting and dieting for health is to make sure that you are not depriving yourself of crucial nutrients and that your plan is actually doable.
The healthiest and most effective fasts do not require actual starvation. According to the experts at Bastyr University, dropping to as low as 500 calories per day when fasting can lead to uncomfortable hunger pangs and irritability, and can make it harder to concentrate and complete tasks.
Very low calorie diets, in which you consume 800 calories or fewer per day and that are not designed and supervised by a medical professional, may also cause your body to burn lean muscle mass rather than melting fat. This might make you appear thinner, but it also means you are not building strength. Because lean muscle tissue burns more calories when you are at rest, losing it can slow your metabolism, making it even harder to drop those extra pounds.
Rather than attempting a fast that is dangerously low in calories and lacking in nutrition, plan your fast to contain 500 calories fewer than you normally take in, and make sure that you include fruits, vegetables and protein in your liquid diet. Have a smoothie or broth every two hours or so to keep yourself from getting too hungry, and supplement those with water or other beverages to make sure that you stay fully hydrated.
Intermittent Fasting vs. Fad Liquid Diets
Intermittent fasting has been touted as a way to keep your mind sharp, regulate your weight and even extend your lifespan. The basic premise of this fast is to either eliminate solid food and drop your normal calorie count for two days per week, or eat within one eight-hour period per every 24 hours. For example, explains Texas Medical Center, you would eat only between the hours of noon and 8 pm. This regimen is one that can be maintained indefinitely.
If you decide to choose the option of two consecutive days to fast, understand that it is not the fast itself that is beneficial — it is the change from regular eating to fasting and back again that seems to provide the benefits, which include increased mental focus and possible increased longevity. Simply limiting your caloric intake drastically will not work as a long-term weight-loss strategy, because your metabolism will adjust and start hoarding every calorie.
Fad liquid diets should be avoided, because they do not offer complete nutrition. The lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup craze may help you drop water weight, but after that your body will start to burn lean muscle mass. This diet is also very low in essential nutrients, and any weight you lose while on it will come right back once you resume your normal pattern of eating.
Stay away from commercially packaged shakes as well, because most contain huge amounts of sugar and can also be high in sodium. Your best bet for a liquid fast is to make smoothies at home, where you can control the calorie count and the quality of the ingredients.
Liquids to Drink While Fasting
Water is the most important liquid on your list. Every single organ in your body uses water. Your blood cells carry water and oxygen to your organs, including your brain. The more water in your bloodstream, the smoother your blood flows. Water helps keep your skin supple and it also helps regulate your mood, according to the American College of Healthcare Sciences. One of the first signs of dehydration is irritability, which can not only make it harder to stay on your fast, it can place an unfair emotional burden on the people around you.
Drinking plain water can get boring, so aim for 8 to 11 cups of water per day. Vary your liquid consumption with other healthy choices such as:
- Unfiltered apple juice.
- Pure fruit juices with no added sweeteners, colors or flavors.
- Sodium-free or low sodium sparkling water.
- Soy milk and nut milks.
- Decaffeinated teas and tisanes.
- Vegetable, chicken or beef broth.
Apple cider vinegar fasting alone is not a good idea, because it does not provide your body with a full range of necessary vitamins and minerals. Unfiltered apple juice is a far better choice, because it contains a bit of fiber along with vitamin C. Juices with no added sugar, artificial colors or flavors provide pure nutrition without the chemical additives you are trying to avoid. Fruit juices are very high in natural sugars, so it is a good idea to add protein such as yogurt to your liquid diet to help slow down the insulin response.
Sparkling water or club soda can liven up a steady stream of plain juices. Add a generous splash of cranberry, mango, pineapple or grapefruit juice for a refreshing beverage that gives you all of the the bubbly carbonation of soda without the chemicals or the calories. Read the labels to ensure that your beverage of choice is marked low sodium or sodium free.
Most fasts require you to give up dairy, which can be a challenge if you love the creaminess of an ice-cold glass of milk or prefer your tea a little less bitter. Soy milk and nut milks are delicious substitutes for dairy. They are also a good addition to smoothies, because the protein in soy and nut milks helps slow the absorption of the natural sugars in fruit, and they can also help you feel full for longer than a smoothie made of fruit alone.
Only dried leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant can technically be called tea. Any other infusion of water and leaves or herbs is called a tisane. Tea, whether it is black, green or white, contains powerful antioxidants that help fight the free radicals responsible for certain types of cancers and the visible signs of aging.
A cup of decaffeinated tea or a tisane sweetened with honey or agave syrup is also soothing, and can help ease nerves that are jangled by giving up all of your usual treats. Drink them iced during the day for a refreshing change from plain water.
Getting enough protein during a fast can be a challenge, so adding broth to your regimen is a smart move. Vegetable broth is an excellent choice for vegetarians and vegans, and can be powered up by adding in a bit of nondairy protein powder. Chicken and beef broths are both high in protein; bone broth, which is simmered for between 24 and 48 hours, contains protein and collagen in more concentrated amounts. Making your own helps you control the sodium levels, though low-sodium and sodium free broths are available commercially.
Tips, Hints and Things to Keep in Mind
When you are on a fasting diet for religious, spiritual or health reasons, there is usually some leeway allowed. This is not true if you are required to fast before a medical procedure. According to the anesthesia experts at the University of California, Irvine, the reason you must fast before any procedure involving an anesthetic is to keep you from aspirating the contents of your stomach. The best way to ensure this does not happen is to undergo the procedure with a completely empty stomach.
Avoid all solid foods for at least eight hours before your procedure and all clear liquids for at least two. If you are pregnant, have diabetes or any other issues with blood sugar, consult your physician before starting any type of fast.
If you are fasting for weight loss, keep in mind that your initial loss will be mostly water. This is especially true if your normal diet involves a lot of simple carbohydrates and salt. Starchy carbs bind with water when they are stored in your body. Salt also causes you to retain water, so keep an eye on how much salt you take in during and after your fast.
It is best to avoid alcohol when you're on any type of fast. Not only is alcohol pure sugar, but because it suppresses inhibitions, impairs your judgment and encourages cravings for salty, fatty foods, you might find yourself fasting successfully for one day and then eating everything in the refrigerator with extra cheese on top after a cocktail or two.
The best way to maintain any weight loss you may have achieved after your fast is to eat a diet high in leafy green vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. Watch your portion sizes, and make sure you stay hydrated. Include both aerobic exercise and weight training in your fitness routine and you may be able to avoid seeing those extra pounds creep back on.