This is the last part of my fasting series, including a detailed journal of my 21-day fasting experience and my personal tips on fasting. If you’re new to fasting, get the full background here: Fasting Experiment. Access all articles: The Fasting Series.
Ever since I wrote about my 21-day fast in Feb 2011, many readers and clients have shown an interest in fasting too. I even had a friend quietly embark on a 17-day fast (to my surprise) after he read about my fast. Some readers have used the PE forums for their fasting endeavors, by posting their fasting logs and using it as a platform to get accountability and support. As a result, they’ve also successfully completed their water fasts, with some as long as 3 weeks.
Given that I’ve gained a fair amount of knowledge on fasting with my fasts (one in Feb, and a few 7-day fasts later which I didn’t blog about), I thought I’ll create a guide on how to fast with success.
Disclaimer: This guide is only provided for informational purposes. I’m not a fasting expert or medical doctor and I’m only sharing my experience with fasting. Fasting has its risks. You agree that you use this resource at your own risk.
First of all, if you haven’t, check out my fasting articles at PE. I’ve already covered fasting very extensively there, including what fasting is, why fast, benefits of fasting, and more. Read here: The Fasting Series
In this article, I’ll not repeat anything that has already been covered above.
Before You Fast
It goes without saying that before you embark on any fast, you should do your research first. Ultimately it’s your onus to read up, assess the information, and make the decision for yourself. Everything I share here is based on my best knowledge from my extensive reading on the topic and my experience with the fasting process. Do your research and proceed at your own risk.
Be sure to check if you fit the criteria for people who can fast before you start any fast.
6 Indicators of a Successful Fast
To me, a fast isn’t just about abstaining from food for a certain period of time. I see six criteria for a successful fast:
- You are clear about your fasting objectives and you achieve them by the end of the fast.
- You are able to fast for the duration you set (except in cases of danger or emergency).
- You get the maximum healing benefits during your fast. You shouldn’t be running around doing multiple things during your fast. You most definitely shouldn’t be exercising to “lose more weight”; that’s against the true nature of fasting.
- You are able to transition in/out of the fast safely (i.e. no issues entering the fast and re-feeding post-fast).
- You permanently improve your diet and lifestyle post-fast.
- You keep your weight loss post-fast (unless you deliberately want to regain the weight if weight loss isn’t your objective).
As you can see, fasting is so much more than just weight loss or a quick fix. Fasting is about holistically changing your life for the better: physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. This happens by being conscious about how you approach your fast.
What Fasting Shouldn’t Be About
Regarding criteria #2, fasting for the duration you set (except in cases of danger or emergency) means you don’t set a 10-day fast and break your fast after 5 days because you are craving for an apple pie. You also don’t repeatedly break and resume your fast with a few bites to soothe a craving — when you eat something, you have broken your fast. Eating or drinking anything with calories means breaking a fast. If you want to eat throughout your fast, then don’t fast. Work on your diet instead.
I have seen online fasters who claim to embark on a 21-day or 28-day fast but they can’t control their cravings and decide to eat something in-between, only to supposedly continue their fast the day after. That’s not fasting at all and is in fact very dangerous. You are likely losing unnecessary muscle in this process. It takes a few days of fasting for the body to enter fat burning mode, and when you eat something, your body is triggered to get its energy source in this order again: immediate food intake, glycogen reserves, your muscles, and finally fat storage. Read my original fasting post for the order in which our body gets its energy.
After writing this series, I got many questions on fasting and came across many aspiring fasters online. While I wrote this series with the best of intentions, I realized that there are many people who seek fasting for the wrong reason. Thanks to the media, this unfortunately includes girls who hope to use fasting as a quick weight loss tool. They claim to fast for holistic benefits/self-cleansing/etc., but they are really fasting to remove excess calories that they took in after a meal gone wrong.
This is dangerous because you can quickly enter a vicious cycle of binge eating post-fast and then turn to fasting to quickly lose the excess weight that you gained. You also lose a chunk of muscle each time you enter ketosis. Repeated fasting also means wasting away precious muscles. Plus you don’t solve the real problem which is a skewed relationship with food.
My Negative Reliance on Fasting
I was actually this way for a period after my Feb 2011 fast. While I had lost my excess weight and achieved my ideal weight with the fast, I regained my excess weight later on (gradually between late 2011 and early 2012) for a period of time. This led me to be frantic and seek out fasting to lose the extra weight gained, because fasting was the way through which my original excess weight was lost. As it turned out, my fast revealed a chunk of my emotional issues with food, but I still had other deeply embedded problems with food that needed further digging. These were problems deeply linked to my self-image, my inner psyche, and all the years of conditioning (regarding food) that my parents instilled in me when raising me. My fast helped me see the tip of these issues, but more work had to be done.
I have since addressed those issues, lost, and kept the weight off — this time through healthy eating, not fasting. I would say that my weight slowly crept up between a few months after my original fast and early 2012, to finally reach and exceed my weight pre-fast. In between, I would attempt to go on 7-day fasts (sometimes shorter) to lose excess weight. These didn’t last because I had deeper food issues to be resolved. My first fast had already served its purpose, and the other fasts had become crutches, not enablers. In total, I went on a few short fasts after my original 21-day fast, which to me is excessive. Many people live healthily without fasting at all, so there is no reason someone should keep fasting in a short period of time if not for a specific health reason. At the same time, I was working on my emotional issues, and (in 2012) I finally decided to stop fasting altogether and work on my issues from within. I slowly lost my excess weight between April 2012 and end 2012 and never regained it.
Since 2013 I have been at my ideal weight of 56-58kg. The weight changes +/-1 kg as part of normal weight fluctuations, but I no longer struggle with my weight or emotional eating. Most importantly weight really isn’t that important to me anymore — being healthy is. I no longer have erratic eating or binge eating episodes and I share more on how to resolve this in my emotional eating series and my emotional eating course. Weight is just the effect of our diet intake, while what we put into our mouth every day is really the key.
Like I detailed in Fasting Experiment, fasting can be a tool to improve your life, beyond weight loss. It provides an outlet for physical detox and emotional detox. It provides an opportunity to reset poor eating and lifestyle habits. When used properly, it can jump-start your life for the better. However, fasting itself will not accomplish this for you — it’s up to you to make that happen.
Also, fasting is not the only tool to help improve your life — there are many other ways to do so, such as simply by practicing healthy eating, living well, and making a commitment to live a better life. You do not have to fast to be healthy. There are many healthy people who do not fast. There are also people who use fasting as a crutch and develop many negative effects from their yo-yo fasting patterns. You get where I’m going.
In general, don’t use fasting as a fix for emotional eating or bad dietary issues. While my original fast was done right and achieved its aims, I later fell into a trap of turning to fasting as a quick fix, before I quickly snapped out of it. I have seen too many people do this and they do the whole thing wrong — they use fasting as a quick-fix for their eating issues, and repeat the cycle all over again whenever they “screw up” their diet. I recommend that you work on addressing your eating issues instead, starting with my in-depth emotional eating series.
12 Tips To Achieve Fasting Success
For those of you interested in fasting, I’ve specially written these 12 tips to help you make the best out of your fasts. I’m writing this on top of what I’ve already shared in the past fasting articles, so be sure to read them first.
Whether you’re interested in embarking on a fast now or sometime in the future, you’ll find these helpful:
1. Know your objectives for fasting
Your objectives for fasting will be your anchor throughout your fast. Without clear objectives, you lack a clear anchor to keep you rooted in the fasting process. This applies not just for fasting, but for everything else in life too.
Before I started my fast, I did an exercise where I worked out my reasons for fasting and what I wanted to get out of it. I wrote about them in detail in the Fasting Experiment post. I’ve read about the healing benefits of fasting, and I wanted to experience that for myself. I knew I had an unhealthy relationship with food, and I wanted to use the fast to sort that out. I also wanted to lose excess weight, and it was a great opportunity to do that via fasting. I knew that it was up to me to make the best out of my fasting experience.
After I identified my fasting objectives, I saved them in a fasting guidebook to remind myself if need be. But because I had already worked through my motivations for fasting in detail before my fast, I didn’t have to refer to them at all after that. I knew what I was doing this for, and what I wanted to get out of it. Nothing distracted me from the fast, and the only thing I was on the lookout for was any physical danger signs that would require me to break the fast.
Why do you want to fast? What do you want to get out of it? Identify these reasons, then write them down so you can refer to them throughout your fast. The clearer you are of your motivations, the easier it’d be.
2. Get in the right mental state before you fast
Go into your fast with the full intention to succeed in it. This includes:
- Immersing yourself in fasting resources
- Reading fasting logs by others (Here’s the introduction to my 21-day fasting log)
- Eating your favorite food before you fast so that you don’t deal with such cravings mid-way
Before I started my fast, I did a lot of reading on fasting online. I scoured through others’ fasting logs on Youtube. I downloaded all their videos and referred to them on the corresponding days of my fast so I could compare notes and get an idea of what was going to happen that day. I ate to my heart’s content before starting my fast, so I would not get any food cravings in the first few days. (Some fasting resources recommend eating light meals of fruits before fasting, though I don’t think it makes a difference — it just means your digestive system gets to take a break earlier.) I blogged about my fast on Day 0 to get mentally prepared. I saved links to fasting resources in my bookmarks bar so I’d see them whenever I was surfing.
Doing these put me in the correct state of mind. Hence by the time the fast started, I was ready to nail it. The whole fast was a seamless experience because of that (as far as continuing/completing it was concerned). At no point did I ever think of prematurely ending the fast for any reason other than physical hunger/danger.
If you are already hesitating about your fast before you begin, suffice to say it will probably become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I recommend you prepare yourself fully before embarking on it, because it’s not good to start and prematurely end a fast. With fasting, the real healing benefits are experienced when you go deep into it. The deeper, the better. If you keep fasting and terminating your fasts mid-way, you just end up burning a huge chunk of muscle each time (see next point).
3. Go for a fasting duration for as long as you can manage
The longer the fast, the deeper the healing. The first 2-3 days of your fast is just getting into ketosis, and healing doesn’t take place. If anything, it’s a chance for your digestive system to take a rest. It’s when ketosis starts on the third or fourth day that the healing begins.
This means if you fast for 3-5 days in hopes of experiencing the physical (and emotional) detox of fasting, you might as well not proceed with the fast, because you’re not going to experience real benefits in the area. From my best understanding, a 3-5 day fast is more detrimental than beneficial (in terms of weighing out overall pros vs. cons), because you burn muscles during the first few days of the fast, which isn’t justified by the (little) fat you burn in ketosis, since you’re only in ketosis for 1-2 days. (Read more in point #4 below and Q5 of my fasting interview with Loren Lockman.)
During my fast, weeks 1 and 2 were predominantly physical detox. It was at the end of Week 2 that emotional detox kicked in. Past, unresolved issues that I didn’t even know were there reared their heads. From there, I was able to tackle them one by one (see #8). You can read about my fasting journey and my different insights from my fasting logs. If I didn’t go for a 3-week fast, I wouldn’t have gained so many benefits from my fast.
4. Clear out your schedule before your fast
In Fasting Experiment, I explained the 5 sources our body gets energy from:
- Daily food (Normal, everyday routine)
- Glycogen from the liver (When we’ve not eaten for a while)
- Glycogen from our muscles (After glycogen from liver runs out)
- Ketosis (Fasting)
- Starvation (eventually leading to death)
In the first to the third day of our fast, our body shifts from getting energy from glycogen in our liver to glycogen in our muscles. From the third/fourth day onwards, our body enters ketosis mode, where it gets energy from our fat storages. Where we remain sedentary and get maximum rest, it’ll continue to rely on fat storages for energy. Over a 30-day fast when a person rests throughout, he/she only loses a maximum of 1-2 pounds of muscle mass (Source).
However, if you do not rest while fasting, the situation changes. Since fat is the least efficient fuel source in our body (glucose is the most efficient source, followed by muscle, then fat), your body is unable to get energy from your fat reserves in time for you to use it. What results is that your body burns precious muscle (not fat) to meet your energy uptake. At any point you use more energy than can be supplied by your fat reserves, your body will burn muscle to make up for the energy deficit.
Which is really bad because you don’t want your muscles to get burned — you want to preserve them, especially since it’s not easy to gain muscle! Muscles increase your endurance, promotes healthy bone density, reduces the risk of falls and fractures, and increases your BMR (basal metabolic rate), which helps you in your weight loss efforts.
Not only that, but you don’t experience the full healing effects of fasting. The whole point of fasting is to burn all the toxins in your fat reserves so your body can heal. If you aren’t burning your fat reserves, you aren’t burning your toxins, and you aren’t benefiting fully from your fast.
The end result — you sabotage your fasting efforts.
If you want to embark on a fast, give yourself maximum rest. Call for a vacation, push out your appointments, and don’t schedule any activity during your fast. Tell others that you’re not available during the period. Leave a minimum 4-5 days buffer to recuperate post-fast. Get to your work when you return. It’ll help you get the best out of your fast.
While I kept my activity to a minimum during the fast, I was still doing some light activities such as walking to meetup locations and coaching as part of my work. They were generally manageable but I was very tired when doing them in Weeks 2 and 3 of my fast. In retrospect, it would have been better if I did absolutely nothing and just focused on resting.
5. Don’t psych yourself out
With the exception of real physical danger and severe detox symptoms during a fast, many fears surrounding fasting are mental. Many people say things like “Fasting is not for me — I can’t even last half a day without food!”, “I don’t have the discipline”, “I get a headache if I don’t eat after X hours”, “I feel weak without food”, “I’ll die without food”, etc., but these beliefs are in their minds.
Bear in mind that an average human of normal body weight can go without food for 40 days (more if you’re heavier) and with all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed to survive. The signs we have been taught to associate with hunger are not true hunger, and true hunger comes from the throat and not anywhere else. Unless you are not underweight or severely underweight; you have some pre-existing condition that may make fasting dangerous for you; or you fit the criteria for people who can fast, then fasting should be generally safe. You should of course do it in a safe environment, with full rest and a professional overseeing your fast if possible.
Mental beliefs can be more resilient than physical barriers. The best way to work through them is by reading the fasting resources in Fasting Experiment and educating yourself in this area. When you are not battling your own (irrational) fears, you can channel this energy into resting and recuperating during your fast.
6. There’s no need to tell others about your fast
When you resolve your internal barrier, the next biggest barrier you’re going to face next isn’t detox, discomfort or abstinence from food. It’s having to deal with reactions from others.
If your family and friends are people who are knowledgeable about non-mainstream lifestyles, they’re probably open to alternative healing methods like fasting. However, if they aren’t, they might not be receptive to the idea of fasting, and would likely react violently, even disapproving you from doing so.
Ideally, it’s good to inform your loved ones and loop them in on what’s going on in your life, but the mainstream society isn’t ready to accept fasting as a form of healing yet. Most people will go berserk and panic if you bring up the idea of not eating for one day, and I find that it’s tiring to deal with violent, fear-based reactions from others. Fasting is already hard enough by itself (think of the light-headedness, lethargy, physical detox, emotional detox, etc.), and to deal with negativity from others is even harder. Lifestyle-related endeavors that go against the societal norms tend to invite the most violent reactions because they touch on deep-set beliefs cultivated since young. The general person will defend their beliefs without a desire to consider other modes of thought.
If you foresee that people will not supportive, it may be better to keep it to yourself. If you live with others, there are ways to work around that. For example, LynetteM, one of the forum members, did a 19-day fast without her husband knowing it. I did my 21-day fast without my family knowing it either. The best is to have a loved one know that you are fasting so that he/she can watch out and care for you, but if you find that telling others may invite more resistance and issues than not, that maybe you want to restrict the people you tell this to.
7. Fasting is not a quick fix
If you’re jumping onto fasting and expecting it to be the key to transforming your life, I’m sorry to say that it’s not going to be.
Fasting has helped me uncover the tip of my issues with food. It has helped me achieve my weight loss goals (though I later permanently lost and maintained my weight through daily eating habits). It has helped me detox a lot of junk from my system — not just physical detox, but also emotional detox. It has definitely changed my life on some level, knowing that I can survive without food for some time (hence changing how I see food), and knowing that many mainstream beliefs surrounding food are pretty much false.
However, all these happened because I went into fasting recognizing it as a method of healing, not a holy grail. I recognized the bulk of the work was on me in the end — that I needed to process my issues during my fast, that I needed to sort through my problems, and that I needed to change my eating habits post-fast, to maintain the benefits.
Fasting itself isn’t meant to be a quick fix. It is a great way to usher in quick weight loss, physical detox, emotional detox, and reset unhealthy eating habits (+ lifestyle), but it’s not your one-way ticket to a magically improved life. Things will not magically disappear and get improved by just not eating. Fasting will, however, provide an opening to work on your issues with weight/food/life, after which it’s up to you to work through them. (See #8)
8. Drill into emotions you experience during the fast to get complete closure
When you’re fasting, you may experience emotions, including feelings of anger, sadness, rage, irritation, self-hate, cravings, and so on. This is especially so if you’re going into a deep fast, say more than 2 weeks.
You can either block out these emotions and sleep through them, or you can work through these emotions. The former wouldn’t help you to get closure on the root issues, but the latter will.
Here are four steps to work through them:
- First, identify the emotion you’re dealing with. Sometimes different emotions may hit you all at one go. Identify as many of those emotions as possible, then pick one to work on, say anger or annoyance. You can deal with the other emotions are you are done with this.
- Next, understand where this emotion stems from. So if you feel angry, ask yourself why you feel angry. You’ll get answers like “Because the world sucks” or “I’m just angry”, but that’s just the first level answers. Go deeper into your answers by probing them. After doing this a few times, you’ll get answers linked to events from your past.
- When that happens, understand how exactly that event gave rise to this emotion. Events are just objective occurrences; the emotions we tie to these events are due to our interpretations of the situation and are independent of the event itself.
- After you understand how that emotion came about, get closure
I’ve written more about this in these articles:
- Is It Possible To Let Go of Unhappy Past Forever?
- Create Real Change In Life: Address Root Cause vs. Effects
- What Childhood Stories Are You Replaying Today?
- My History with Anger and How I Let Go of It (series)
9. Give yourself maximum bed rest
During your fast, give yourself maximum rest. This is absolutely crucial and I can’t stress enough about this. I’ve explained this in point #4 above.
The whole point of clearing your schedule is to get maximum rest, so don’t try to include other activities even if they may seem light and simple. This includes things like playing (video) games, running errands, strolling, house work, working, watching TV, shopping, traveling, talking on the phone, and so on. All these take up more energy than pure bed rest. Just lie on your bed, close your eyes, and rest as much as you can. Conserve your energy and let your body use them for healing. Everything else can wait. Don’t waste them on unimportant things which you can attend to after your fast. This goes without saying, but the absolute last thing you should do is to exercise — it’ll be counteractive to whatever you’re trying to achieve in fasting, which is to heal. There was a member in the PE forums who played basketball while on a 7-day fast (in a bid to lose weight), and needless to say it is damaging and counter to the nature of fasting. While you may feel okay, remember that your body is burning precious muscle to keep up with your increased activity. This is not what we want in a fast.
When I fasted in Feb 2011, I kept a very light schedule. However, I found even the simplest activities, such as going out, buying things, etc. were draining. While I was able to manage them fine, I realized these prevented me from experiencing the full benefits of fasting, because any activity other than full bed rest resulted in precious muscles vs. fat being burned. If I were to do it again, I would have kept it to a zero-activity schedule, with the exception of gentle walks out in the park as and when I want to get some air.
10. Break your fast carefully
Some may think that the challenging part of the fast is entering and going through it. It’s actually not true. The most challenging part is breaking it — properly. The longer your fast, the trickier it is to reverse it. This is especially so for fasts longer than 7 days. Your digestive system would have gone into a deep slumber. It would also be very clean, and hence very sensitive. If you read my post-fast logs, you’d know I had a tough time breaking my fast — it wasn’t till Day 4 onwards that my stomach began digesting the food.
If you just dump any food into your system post-fast, thinking your stomach can digest it right away, you’re wrong. There are people who have been hospitalized and even died because they did not break their fast carefully.
Refer to Q15 of my interview with Loren on how to break your fast safely.
11. Set clear guidelines to follow post-fast
As I mentioned in #7, don’t see fasting as a one-stop solution. Rather, see it as the start to living a better life. If you’re just trying to fast to lose weight/detox/etc. without intending to change your diet/lifestyle post-fast, then you can’t hope to maintain those benefits post-fast. The path to a better and healthier life is a journey, not a one-time event. You can only achieve that by continuously making it happen.
If you have conducted your fast properly, you would have reversed the negative effects of your pre-fast lifestyle (such as weight gain, bad complexion, emotional baggage and toxins from your past diet). You would also have developed a renewed perspective on the role of food in your life.
Like any change agents, water fasting is just a platform to jumpstart the process. The most important thing is what one does after the fast to maintain the positive benefits. Without proper follow-up plan and commitment to change, everything will simply revert to the way they were in the past. Some people use fasting as a quick fix for their problems, and end up looping through the same issues after their fasts are over. These people would no sooner become fasting junkies, and this isn’t what we want.
Now, the question to you is — How can you maintain these benefits post-fast? What do you need to do differently? How can you ensure that things will be different this time round? See your fast as a reset button to live a better life. Don’t go back to your past eating habits and bad lifestyle habits. Make a list of guidelines you’re going to stick to post-fast.
After my 21-day fast, I set two key guidelines which were diet-related:
- Committing to a healthy diet, or at the very least consuming a diet that’s as healthy as possible. No more fried, oily or deep-fried food and as little processed food as possible.
- Eating based on my caloric and nutritional needs. This means first, matching or eating less than my daily energy expenditure. Second, as much as I can, the calories should be nutritional calories, not empty calories (say, candy bar, cookies, etc.). Ensure that my food intake is high in vitamins and minerals.
By setting these guidelines, I had a roadmap on what to do after my fast. Because of that, I was able to know when I was off-track/on-track in my eating habits, and when to intervene and put corrective measures. Even if I may not be able to adhere to my guidelines 100% of the time due to the circumstance, it’s an ideal to work toward. By doing so, I eventually broke out of my emotional eating issues (as I shared in my emotional eating guide) and lost my excess weight permanently.
The point of setting guidelines isn’t to stress yourself out and whip yourself if you veer offtrack. It’s to give you a roadmap to live a better life. Don’t see them as destinations but directions to work toward.
12. Commit to your post-fast plan
After your fast, commit to your post-fast plan. Your ability to commit to it will determine whether you’re able to maintain the benefits you gained during your fast.
For the first month after my fast, I tracked my calories every day. Doing so helped me get an idea of the quantity of food I should consume to meet my caloric and nutritional needs daily. I also weighed in every day, so I’d know if my calorie count was in line with reality. After 1 month of doing this, I became familiar with how much to eat and what to eat, so there was no need for me to do that daily. (Read my article: Develop a Good Habit in 21 Days)
Even though there were times when I fell off the wagon, I kept returning to my guidelines and figuring out what went wrong. Eventually, I found out that I still had deeper issues to resolve with food, which I later did as I shared through my emotional eating series. I now support others in overcoming their emotional eating issues through my emotional eating course. It’s amazing how toxic our food culture is today and how it has caused so many people to grow up with food problems. I’m glad to say that my fast and work here have helped many to uncover their food issues, and to regain a healthy relationship with food — the way it should be.
As long as you commit yourself to a healthier life post-fast, you’ll do well. Healthy living is an ongoing journey, so keep setting new health goals and don’t stop striving for them.
That’s all for my fasting series, and I hope you have found it useful. Whatever you choose, remember that fasting isn’t the be all and end all to your problems. If you have decided to fast, then use these resources to guide you. Remember that a fast is only going to last for a duration. What you do in your daily life, this is what’s going to stick with you. Don’t get obsessed with fasting but focus on what you do in your daily life as part of living a truly healthy life.
If you have found this series helpful, be sure to check out my How to Stop Emotional Eating series, which goes in-depth into my relationship with food and how I addressed my issues with food.
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This is the last part of my fasting series, including a detailed journal of my 21-day fasting experience and my personal tips on fasting. If you’re new to fasting, get the full background here: Fasting Experiment. Access all articles: The Fasting Series.