If you tell people you plan on not eating for a day, many will act as if you have an eating disorder. "You better be careful." "Don’t get yourself sick." "That’s not good, if you want to lose weight then you need to exercise."
Conventional wisdom has us looking down on this ancient, practical, and basic spiritual and physical practice for no good reason. People prefer to hear about someone joining Weight Watchers, or buying a treadmill, or cooking from a Biggest Loser cookbook. That’s because they want to imagine the solution to their problem can be solved by some secret, paid-for method that they either haven’t yet found or can’t afford.
If someone’s poor physical and spiritual health is due to them not being able to find and purchase the right product, that fully deflects their culpability and allows them to live as righteous victims. In that case, they aren’t gluttonous sinners who lack self-control and discipline. They are just poor ignorant seekers who haven’t found the narrow way (product).
That’s why free, common sense advice gets lost in a sea of expensive gadgets, strategies, and supplements, and dismissed as too simplistic and too idealistic.
Here’s the truth, though. Not only is intermittent fasting safe and healthy, but it works. It works on a physical level by helping you lose fat and it works on a spiritual level by helping you cultivate self-discipline and gratitude for what you have.
Have you had trouble losing fat by conventional means? Six small meals a day sound like a huge hassle? Try intermittent fasting.
Another Brief Disclaimer
As I’ve said before, I’m not a doctor and I don’t pretend to be. I make suggestions based on my own anecdotal experiences and those suggestions shouldn’t be taken as a personal medical recommendation. Discuss it with your doctor.
What is Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting is a phrase used to describe a wide variety of fasting protocols cycled with a period of non-fasting. An intermittent fast can refer to skipping breakfast, eating only one large meal per day, or drinking only water over a three day period. It can be practiced to whatever degree you’re able and willing to practice it.
The Physical Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
The most obvious and desirable benefit of intermittent fasting is fat loss and body weight maintenance. Intermittent fasting is a form of dietary restriction and, as such, reduces the number of calories consumed in a given period. If you’re overweight, this will result in weight loss, depending on how extreme and how consistent your fasting is. If you’re already a healthy weight, intermittent fasting is an excellent method for maintaining that weight.
Aside from weight loss, studies show that short-term fasting triggers the process of autophagy. During this process, the body will break down dysfunctional proteins and organelles and rebuild them in better form when you break the fast. This rejuvenates the body as a whole. Fasting is also known to lower LDL and triglyceride counts and may reverse diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
A study on rats in the 1930s and 1940s found that regular 24-hour fasts increased the lifespan without stunting growth. The best response in male rats was seen in fasting every other day while the best female response was seen in fasting every eighth day. Fasting also had the greatest effect (and fewest negative side effects) in increasing neuronal plasticity and promoting neurogenesis of all dietary restriction. This means a big increase in brain health.
Fasting also keeps your energy at solid levels and improves your mental clarity. When eating regularly (especially if you’re eating a good amount of carbs and sugars), you tend to get tired after a few hours and your thought processes become weak. While fasting, especially after you’ve adapted to it, you become less dependent on food, your energy levels are consistently higher, and you can process thoughts at higher levels over a greater period of time.
Spiritual Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Most of the people writing about intermittent fasting do so from a physical health perspective. And why wouldn’t they? That’s where the money’s at. People want to lose weight and they’re looking for that magic bullet. But I would like to add that, while the physical benefits are incredible and worthwhile, the greatest benefits of intermittent fasting aren’t physical, but spiritual.
In such an affluent country as the United States, with the abundance of cheap food available, it becomes easy to abuse the eating process. Comfort and convenience go hand-in-hand with obesity and misery.
Fasting allows you to stop taking food for granted. The first time I tried fasting I abstained from everything but water for six days. In that time, I developed a reverence and appreciation for all the food I had access to and for its intended purpose. While fasting, I believe you also acquire a refined sense of smell, or at least I did. Good or bad, every smell had 100x the intensity that it usually did. During that first fast, I was not tempted to eat much of anything, but smelling fried foods became an event. Even the air seemed fresher. Enjoying all the scents just make you more grateful for everything.
The biggest spiritual benefit of intermittent fasting is its ability to cultivate self-discipline and defeat gluttony. There is no greater characteristic of a man (and no characteristic more lacking in this generation) than the ability to say no and to mean it. A man inundated with excess and still able to say no is an upstanding and refined sort of man. Besides, it’s been proven that the ability to say no—that is, the ability to delay pleasure and reward—correlates with a man’s future success. A man who can put off temporary pleasures will surely excel at his longterm endeavors because he will be wholly focused on the longterm goal rather than his temporal pleasure.
Also, for a nation that purports to be Christian, the words of Christ in Matthew 6 are too often overlooked:
"And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18, RSV-CE)
Christ doesn’t say if you fast, but rather when you fast. Fasting ought to be a regular spiritual activity because it is only through fasting from food (and from comfortable things in general) that we are able to transcend corporeal passions, including not only gluttony but also lust.
Popular Methods of Intermittent Fasting
As I mentioned above, the intensity and duration of an intermittent fast can be adjusted to suit your comfort level and ability.
I gave the example of my six-day fast, but you definitely don’t have to fast for six consecutive days, and I would personally recommend against it. I’ve witnessed far better results, physical and spiritual, from consistent, regular short-term fasting. At the end of six days, it’s much easier to revert to gluttony. If you do some form of fasting every day or a few days a week, that builds a sustainable habit.
Whatever the case, there are a wide variety of methods people use for their intermittent fasts. I’ll go over a few of the most popular:
The Meal-Skipping Method
This will certainly be the easiest for those who have never fasted before. Remove one meal from your day (like breakfast) and then eat normally during the others. You might even remove both breakfast and lunch and only eat dinner. Do I think this is the best method? Not personally, but it’s a good first step.
The Window Method
This one is somewhat related to the meal-skipping method, but it’s got a different philosophy behind it. You eat every day, but only within a certain time frame. For example, you commit to fasting for 16 hours per day, so you can only eat within an 8-hour period, maybe 9am to 5pm. You eat nothing outside of that window. The numbers can be adjusted according to your comfort level. You could just as easily do a 12-12 fast, a 20-4 fast, or an 18-6 fast. It’s up to you. This method is a step up from the meal-skipping method and probably the easiest method to sustain.
The Once-A-Week Method
With this method, you commit to a full 24-hour fast for one day per week. During that time, you drink nothing but water or perhaps some non-caloric beverages like tea or coffee. This one might sound incredibly tough for those who have never fasted, but it will probably surprise you. Personally, if I was a beginner, I’d go straight for this method. It feels more like a real fast than meal-skipping or feeding windows. You get the full effect of fasting.
The Multiple Day Method
This one is just like the once-a-week method except you commit to two or three non-consecutive full fasting days per week. For example, you might choose to fast on weekends; Mondays and Wednesdays; or Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. This just magnifies the effect of the once-a-week method.
The Alternate-Day Method
Similar to the multiple day method, the alternate day method consists of non-consecutive 24-hour fasting periods. Unlike the multiple days method, you don’t choose which days to fast. It’s an endless cycle of fasting and non-fasting for 24-hour periods. In my opinion, the alternate day method is the best for weight loss. You get the most fasting days in while still eating a good amount on the off days. Although, I do admit it’s tough to build a strict alternate-day habit, especially if you have events or appointments that conflict with your fasting days.
The Consecutive Day Method
For this one, you would exceed a 24-hour fast. This could mean a 36-, 48-, or 72-hour fast. It’s possible to fast longer, but three days seems to be the most popular duration for a consecutive-day fast. I don’t know if it has more physical benefits than the alternate or multiple day methods, but it can certainly have more spiritual benefits if you’re intentional about it.
My Experiences with Intermittent Fasting
If you would like to fast, from personal experience I can tell you the easiest way is to first get yourself into ketosis. As I mentioned in The Portly Gentleman’s Guide to the Keto Diet, when your body gets into ketosis it becomes fat-adapted. That means instead of trying to burn glucose (carbohydrates) that you’ve eaten, it burns the fat you already have stored. This results in accelerated fat loss (especially when fasting), but it also puts you in control of your hunger.
The hunger you experience isn’t desperate and painful. It’s merely a light and forgettable sting of emptiness that you don’t notice most of the time. This is obviously a beneficial side-effect for the aspiring faster.
Here’s an excerpt from a post I wrote when I was fasting a few years ago:
I’ve been in ketosis for a while now and I began incorporating fasting into my routine about a week ago. My intention was to fast Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, though I’ll probably move to the alternate day method. However, when you’re fasting you might choose to play it by ear like I have this week.
I started fasting Monday morning and it was effortless since I’m in ketosis. I woke up Tuesday morning and didn’t feel particularly hungry so I said, what the hell, let’s see how long I can fast today. I got through the entire day without eating. When I woke up this morning, same thing. I’m not tempted by food and I recognize that while I’m fasting, my body is using all this excess fat I have stored, which just encourages me to push onward.
Will I keep the fast through the entire third day? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a very low pressure decision and I’m in control of it. That’s one of the benefits of fasting in ketosis. You completely avoid the desperation of hunger and remain fully in control of your body.
The Results of Intermittent Fasting
When I dropped from 252lbs to 195lbs between December 2011 and July of 2012, fasting was a thing I did occasionally for no particular reason. It just sounded beneficial. I wasn’t well-acquainted with intermittent fasting and purposeful fasting until late in the game. From July to August of 2012, I lost around 24lbs in one month due to avoiding sugar and fasting intermittently. I ate one big meal a day and couldn’t be bothered with food the rest of the time.
Again, an excerpt from an older post:
I recently restarted the keto diet and fasting. I began keto at 208lbs around one or two weeks ago. Two days ago on Monday morning, I weighed 204lbs. And this morning, after two and a half days of fasting, I weighed in at around 197lbs.
I’m happy with these numbers, but I’m not surprised or amazed. When people ask me how I manage to lose weight so fast, I always describe to them something I think of as "The Bloat". I’m fairly good at discerning fat gain from "other" gain. Just because you’ve gained weight doesn’t mean you’ve gained fat. Before I started ketosis this time around, I had a few heavy eating days while we we’re on a trip to the beach town of Tarituba, Brazil. I knew that my clothes we’re fitting a little tighter when we left, but I knew it wasn’t actual fat gain. All I needed was a couple days of good eating to get it back down. That’s what the initial numbers represent: my body adjusting to a new level of food intake plus the loss of some water weight.
I weigh 197lbs right now. Do I believe that is a "real" weight loss number? No. I seriously doubt you can fast for just three days and get a "real" number because as soon as you start eating again the number will go back up. Will you have lost some amount of fat? Probably, just not that much.
It’s important to stress that the physical benefits of intermittent fasting are cumulative. If I fast three days and stop, it won’t lead to anything substantial. But if I commit to fasting three days a week or fasting every other day for the next 6 months, you better believe I’ll see some amazing "real" results.
Some Resources for the Journey
Are you considering intermittent fasting? You should be. No man ever got to be a better man by staying comfortable and giving in to every little desire and whim that swept him away. Intermittent fasting is a good way to inject a bit of discomfort in your life, and that’s what we all need if we’re going to get any better. I’m big on small acts of asceticism. That’s why I recommend intermittent fasting. (Of course, as I mentioned above, I’m not a doctor, so it doesn’t really matter what I recommend. Ask your doctor.)
You should read a few articles on the topic and perhaps peruse some fasting forums before you make your jump into intermittent fasting. Be sure to check out these resources: