This is 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 showed 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 very astutely used the forum 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 (same as mine).
Given that I’ve gained a fair amount of knowledge on fasting with my fasts (one in Feb, and another 7-day fast in Apr which I didn’t blog about), I thought I’ll create a guide on how to fast with success.
Disclaimer: Please note that 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 the fasting articles at PE. I’ve already covered fasting quite extensively, including what fasting is, why fast, benefits of fasting, and more.
- Fasting 101: My Fasting Experiment (The Whats, Whys and Hows)
- Fasting Q&As: My Interview with Loren Lockman
- My 21-Day Fasting Logs
- My Post-Fast Logs
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 fasts, 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 fasts.
6 Indicators of a Successful Fast
To know whether you’ve fasted with success or not, here are 6 criteria to cross-check with:
- You achieve your fasting objectives by the end of the fast.
- You are able to fast for the duration you set (unless in cases of danger or emergency).
- You get the maximum healing benefits throughout your fast.
- You are able to transition in/out of the fast safely (i.e. no issues entering the fast and re-feeding post-fast).
- Your dietary habits and lifestyle improve 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 tell, fasting isn’t just about abstaining from food for a period of time. Fasting is about holistically changing our lives for the better, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. All of them are linked together.
There are fasting junkies out there who use fast as a tool for weight loss, but do not make the effort to improve their lifestyles post fast. They then jump back into fasting after that to lose the weight they’ve gained. This becomes a pattern in the long run. Doing this can be detrimental since (a) you lose a chunk of muscle each time you enter the ketosis (fasting process). Repeated fasting within a short time frame means wasting away your precious muscles; and (b) you don’t solve the real problems, which are bad eating habits, driven by an unhealthy relationship with food.
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, as well as emotional detox. It provides an opportunity to reset poor eating and lifestyle habits. When used properly, it can jump-start and transform your life for the better. However, fasting itself will not accomplish this for you — it’s up to you to make that happen.
Fasting is also not the only tool to help one improve their 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 healthy people in this world who have never fasted before. There are also people who keep fasting and use fasting as a crutch and probably ruin their health in the process. You see where I’m going here.
In general, you should not use fasting as a fix for emotional eating or bad dietary habits or issues. Namely because I’ve seen too many people do this and they do the whole thing wrong — they use fasting as a quick-fix solution, to run away from their eating issues, and repeat the cycle all over again whenever they “screw up” on their diet. I recommend that you work on addressing your eating issues instead, starting with my 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 Fasting Experiment. 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 on what I wanted to make 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. These drove me on through the 21 days. Whatever “obstacles” that came up during the fast, such as light-headedness, feelings of nausea, etc. were irrelevant. It was a matter of how to address them vs. forgoing 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 for fasting, the easier it’d be. The only reason why you’d feel overwhelmed by obstacles is because you lost sight of your objectives.
If you’re like most people, weight loss is likely one of your fasting objectives. This is perfectly okay – I also saw my fast as a convenient way to lose excess weight. At the same time, I want to highlight that fasting is a lot more than just a weight loss tool. It’s an avenue to work out your relationship with food, address emotional baggage, detox your body of the toxins that have been stored from years of poor diets, and many more. Set the intention to work through them during the fast, if you can.
2. Get yourself in the right state of mind before you fast
Go into your fast with the full intention to succeed in it. This includes:
- Immersing yourself with 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 end up dealing 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 the 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 all 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 danger.
If you are already hesitating about your fast before you begin, suffice to say that’ll 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 your fast, the deeper the healing. The first few days of your fast is just inducting 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 in the fourth day that the healing begins. It starts by burning the most recent toxins from the food you ate, then works backwards from there.
This means if you fast for 3-5 days in hopes of experiencing physical (and emotional) detox of fasting, you might as well not proceed with the fast, because you’re not going to experience much benefits in the area. If anything, 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 #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 different insights from my fasting logs. If I didn’t go for a 3-week fast, I wouldn’t never 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 (Our normal, every day 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 day to 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 where 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) so as 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 increases 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. Even if you have a lower weight at the end of your fast, a good portion of that will be muscle loss, and that’s not good at all.
Not only that, 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 all 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.
5. Stop psyching yourself out
If you’ve read and internalized all the fasting resources I’ve posted, you shouldn’t have a problem with this. Seriously, about 99% of the barriers with 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”, but seriously, all these are just in their minds.
If you truly understand that fasting is a natural way the body uses to heal, that every average human of normal body weight can go without food for 40 days (more if you’re heavier), that you’ve all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals you’ll need to survive during these 40 days, that the signs you’ve been conditioned to associate with hunger since young are not true hunger at all, and that true hunger comes from the throat and not anywhere else, then there’s no reason to think you’ll be any form of danger during the fast. The only exception is if you are underweight or severely underweight, or if you do not fit the criteria for people who can fast.
Mental beliefs can be more resilient than physical barriers. The only person who can release you of those false beliefs is yourself. The only thing I can do here is to let you know that I’ve gone for 21 days and 7 days separately without food, and I’ve not died during those times. In fact, I’ve emerged better than ever each time. If you check out the fasting resources in Fasting Experiment, you’ll see that it’s perfectly normal to go without food for 40 days, as far as fasting is concerned. In fact, longest known fast for a human is 132 days (Wiki). Many people have fasted, benefited immensely from their fasts, and proceeded to have their lives post-fast.
I’ll also like to point out that it’s much easier to fast than to stick to a restricted diet, such as a mono-fruit diet or juice-only diet. With fasting, you just don’t eat. Plain and simple. Just don’t put anything in your mouth and channel your thoughts into other things. When you stop eating, you stop getting reminded of food. You may have thoughts of eating at first, but it stops after the first few days. But with a restricted diet, you continue to be reminded of food and what you can eat/cannot eat.
6. There’s no need to tell others about your fast
If you’ve been convinced of the benefits of fasting and you’re keen to try it out, the biggest barrier you’re going to face next isn’t the detox, the discomfort or the abstinence from food. It’s having to deal with reactions from others.
Fasting is already tough enough by itself (think of the light-headedness, lethargy, physical detox, emotional detox, etc) – there’s really no need to make it harder by telling others. If your family and friends are people who are knowledgeable about non-mainstream lifestyles like veganism and raw veganism, 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 will likely react violently, even disapproving you from doing so.
Ideally, I’ll agree it’s good to inform your loved ones and friends and loop them in on what’s going on in your life, but reality is the mainstream society isn’t ready to accept fasting as a form of healing yet. Majority will go berserk and panic if you even remotely bring up the idea of not eating for 1 day. Lifestyle-related endeavors that go against the societal norms tend to invite the most violent reactions from others, because they touch on deep-set beliefs cultivated since young. When you introduce a concept that’s outside of their comprehension, they’ll defend their beliefs without a desire to consider other modes of thought.
If you want to make your fast an easy one, I recommend you keep it to yourself. To fast or not to fast is your decision to make – you don’t have to inform others or get others’ approval on what you’re doing with your body. Don’t let others’ opinions stop you from moving on in your personal goals. If you do that, you’re just living your life for others, not yourself.
Even in the case where 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. It’s just a matter of how you manage it. Like I mentioned in #1, if you’re clear on why you want to fast and you have a strong reason driving you to do it, it’s a matter of how to overcome the obstacles before you, vs. letting the obstacles stop you.
7. Don’t see fasting as a quick fix – It is not
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.
Has fasting changed my life? Yes, it definitely has. Has it helped me to restore a healthy relationship with food? Yes, it definitely has. Has it helped me to achieve my weight loss goals? Yes, it has as well. Fasting has also helped me to detox a lot of junk from my system – Not just physical detox, but also to an extent emotional detox as well.
However, all this only took place because I went into fasting recognizing it as a method of healing, and 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.
If I hadn’t done any of that, the fast would have been nothing but another passing event in life. It may have helped me experience some weight loss in the duration of the fast, but the weight loss wouldn’t have sustained post fast. It may have brought my attention to unresolved emotional issues, but these would have remained unresolved because I didn’t consciously process them. It would also have given me better physical complexion, but it wouldn’t sustain too since I would have gone back to my poor dietary habits.
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. Do not expect fasting to solve your problems — it’s not a solution in itself. It will, however, provide an opening to work through your issues with weight/food/life, after which it’s up to you to work through them. (See #8)
8. Drill down 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 5 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 anger, 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 independent of the event itself.
- After you understand how that emotion came about,
- Get closure
I’ve written more about this in related 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 Reenacting Today?
9. Give yourself maximum bed rest
During your fast, give yourself maximum rest. This is absolutely critical and I can’t stress enough about this. I’ve explained the rationale in #4.
The whole point of clearing your schedule in #4 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. And 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.
The first time I fasted in Feb 2010, I kept a very light schedule. However, I found even the simplest activities, such as going out, buying things, etc. were draining. Lethargy aside, 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. Hence during my subsequent fast, I cancelled almost all my appointments and rested the bulk of the time. Bed rest was my #1 priority.
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 use fasting 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 to 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 3 key guidelines post-fast, all of which were diet-related:
- To stick to a completely vegan diet. I was no longer interested in consuming dairy (eggs, milk, cheese, etc) and animal-derived products.
- To consume a diet that’s as healthy as possible. No more fried, oily or deep-fried food and as little processed food as possible. I’ll also eat raw vegetables and fruits as much as I can.
- To eat based on my caloric and nutritional needs. This means firstly, matching or eating lesser than my daily energy expenditure. Secondly, the calories should be nutritional calories, not empty calories (say, white bread, white rice, pasta, instant noodles). My aim is to eat foods 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 circumstantial reasons (say for example, when vegan food is not available and only vegetarian food is an option), it’s an ideal to work toward. Because of that, my diet and eating habits have significantly improved post fast as well. And it’s constantly progressing.
The point of setting the 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 1 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. It had been cultivated as a habit.
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. One can never be too healthy – there’s always room to be healthier and fitter.
Image: Meditating at beach
If you've found this useful, join my free newsletter where you'll get articles like this delivered to your inbox every week, plus updates I don't post on the blog.