The Ultimate Guide to Fasting for Weight Loss and Wellness
Updated: Jun 21
“The discipline of fasting breaks you out of the world’s routine”
- Jentezen Franklin -
If you’re reading this post, chances are you have been following the “Eat Less, Move More”-conventional advice distributed in the name of sensible dieting advice, and are still stuck. You still struggle with the same amount of weight (or perhaps even more) than when you first started on your weight loss journey.
You probably have heard your fair share of comments that you should only try harder, or you’re not doing enough. The fact that you regained all that weight is because you just didn’t have enough willpower - officiating yourself as the failure.
What would you say if I told you about a practice that’s been part of human history for centuries? So no, it’s not a fad diet. It has been proven to reduce hunger and cravings; stabilize your metabolism and in some cases even elevate it, and has led to thousands of people successfully maintaining their weight loss?
What if this tool could be the missing link between your current state and an effortless relationship with food and fat loss?
What Is Fasting
At its core, fasting is the voluntary practice of abstaining from food.
This decision could stem from religious, spiritual, or health reasons and has been practiced for centuries. In essence, you are fasting whenever you are not actively consuming food. Many people don’t realize that we all fast during the time we are asleep until we eventually break-fast, whether that is when you first get up or only later in the day.
At any given time during the day, you are either in a fed state (eating or digesting the food you’ve just consumed), or a fasted state (not eating). To put it simply, you’re either getting fuel from the food you are eating or fuel from the stored food on your body. Our bodies have been designed beautifully and intricately to sustain those two scenarios - that’s why you don’t die every night in your sleep.
Since the 1970s with the implementation of the food guidelines in the United States and the subsequent recommendation to eat multiple small meals during the day, people have been spending much more time in the fed state than in the fasted state than ever before.
Before then, the norm was to eat three square meals a day, minus all the snacking between meals. When you tried to get a snack between meals, your mom would advise you against it, saying you’ll spoil your dinner. And if you were to ask for something after dinner, you would be met with the same matter-of-fact advice: “You should have eaten more at dinner time”. And that was that.
You hardly ever saw obesity and diet-related illnesses on the same scale you see today.
Getting back to a fasting-focused lifestyle, however, that might translate to your particular circumstances, would be a call to live a much simpler, healthier, and happier life, taking a cue from how our ancestors used to live.
Who should Fast
Although fasting could be a natural part of everyone’s life, some seasons in one’s life require one to be more focused on getting enough nutrients in for support through that period.
It is important to consult with your physician before beginning any new diet, or making changes to your current eating routine, especially if you are currently on medications that might be affected by when you eat or that are connected to your blood sugar levels.
People who should not be experimenting with fasting, or fasting for long periods would include the following:
People suffering from malnourishment
Individuals who suffer from eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa.
Types of Fasting Schedules
There are a few different fasting schedules that people have found useful in developing a fasting-focused lifestyle. I have listed them in increasing order of fasting time:
12 hour fast
A balance between the fed-and fasted-state, this routine will have you eat for 12 hours of the day while staying fasted for the other 12 hours. This would have been the most common way of eating in the 70s and earlier. How this will look in day-to-day life, is perhaps having dinner at 7 p.m., going to bed, and then having breakfast at 7 in the morning.
16:8 hour fasts
When fasting 16:8, you would be fasting 16 hours, leaving 8 hours for meals. As you can imagine, this would already start to tilt the scales from eating less throughout the day compared to when you are eating. As an example of this fasting schedule, you might skip breakfast and keep your meals to lunch and dinner.
20:4 hour fasts
Fasting for 20 hours leaves you with a 4-hour eating window. A lot of people find this manner of eating highly effective when it comes to weight loss. This might mean that you skip breakfast and lunch and open your eating window at around 4 pm and finish eating at 8 pm.
23:1 or One Meal a Day (OMAD)
Fasting for 23 hours could be considered eating one meal a day, leaving you an hour of eating until satisfied, and then fasting until your window opens up again the next day. This could easily work with most schedules, whether it means having breakfast and skipping the other two meals, going from dinner to dinner, leaving you to work through breakfast and lunch, and eating dinner with the family. This regime particularly works well with people who are quite busy during the day because it opens up your schedule to get a lot more done when you would have had your meals in the past.
Alternate Day Fasting
As the name suggests, this particular way of fasting means fasting one day and then eating normally the following day. Rinse and repeat. There are some widespread opinions about this regime. Some find the flexibility of this fasting schedule a relief, while others feel that having some weeks with 4 fasting days is a bit tough.
5:2 day fasts
The 5:2 routine means eating normally for 5 days a week and then fasting for 2 days each week. A lot of people find it easier to schedule a 2 day fast right at the beginning of the week while your motivation is still high, leaving you with more flexibility towards the end of the week.
44-72 hour fasts
Experimenting with 2-3 day fasts (and longer) will allow you to start experiencing the added benefit of autophagy. Autophagy is the body's way of cleaning out damaged cells, to regenerate newer, healthier cells, according to Priya Khorana, Ph.D., in nutrition education from Columbia University. “Auto” means self and “phagy” means eat. So the literal meaning of autophagy is “self-eating.”
Any fast longer than two or three days could be considered an extended fast. The world record for the longest fast is 382 days which stretches our expectation of the upper limit of fasts. With more and more people realizing the benefits and possibilities of a fasting lifestyle, the fear around longer fasts, and fasting in general, is slowly but surely dissipating.
How to start fasting
Every person’s starting point might differ from the person next to them, but the following step-by-step list could help you get started and also help you progress up to the level where you’re comfortable and see the results you were hoping for:
Reduce grains, sugar, and industrial oils. This will help you experience reduced cravings and increased energy levels, which would make fasting a bit easier to cope with.
Cut out snacks. This might mean eating a bit more at mealtimes at first to hold you through until the next meal.
Skip one meal. Start experimenting with pushing out your first meal until a later time until you feel you can hold out until the following meal.
Skip two meals. Perhaps open up your eating window a bit earlier before your third meal if you feel it could make it easier for you.
Eat one meal a day. Be sure to eat until satisfied and not to overeat for fear of not being able to keep until your eating window opens up again.
Eat whole and minimally processed food most of the time. Think things that don’t require labels because you can recognize what food it is yourself (eggs, meat, fish, veggies, fruit, avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, etc.). This will help with staying satiated for longer.
Start experimenting with longer fasts and see if you want to make it part of your lifestyle. This could mean longer fasts once a year, once a month, or even weekly or several times a week.
What happens to your body during a fast
When practicing fasting, your body moves through the fed-fast cycle, which is characterized by changes in your metabolism and hormone levels.
The fed state kicks off as soon as you start eating and a few hours afterward as your body absorbs and digests the nutrients you’ve consumed. During this time, blood sugar levels and the subsequent insulin increase. Insulin is the hormone responsible for transporting sugar from your bloodstream into your cells. The amount of insulin released depends on what you eat (amount of carbs consumed), how much you ate, and how sensitive your body is to insulin. Extra glucose (sugar) is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. Glycogen is your body’s primary form of stored carbs, and it can be converted back into sugar as a source of energy as needed. During this time, levels of other hormones, including leptin and ghrelin, also shift. Ghrelin is a type of hormone that stimulates hunger, and its levels decrease after you eat. Meanwhile, leptin, which has an appetite-suppressing effect, increased after eating.
Early fasting state:
Between 3-4 hours after you’ve eaten and around 18 hours of fasting, your blood sugar, and insulin levels start to decline, causing your body to start converting glycogen into glucose (sugar) to use as energy. Eventually, your body will slowly run out of liver glycogen stores and start searching for another energy source. This intensifies lipolysis (a process in which triglycerides from fat cells are broken down into smaller molecules that can be used as an alternative source of fuel).
From 18 hours to 48 hours, your glycogen stores in the liver have been depleted, and your body begins breaking fat energy stores instead. This results in the production of ketone bodies, a type of compound produced when your body converts fat into fuel. This also causes your body to transition into ketosis, a metabolic state in which your body uses fat (a stable and abundant fuel) as its primary source of energy. By reaching the fasting state, your insulin levels have been reduced significantly which could lead to impressive results, such as boosted insulin sensitivity and a 20% reduction in blood sugar levels.
Long-term fasting state:
Fasting has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity, help with weight loss, reduce inflammation, and even promote mental clarity. With time in ketosis, our cells use a process called autophagy to remove metabolic waste from cells. Weak or sick cells are targeted, and the body can recycle immune cells that are old or damaged and even help create new white blood cells by stimulating stem cell activation.
Why you should fast
Regular fasting has many benefits. Although it’s been practiced for millennia, it’s only been studied scientifically in the last century or so. Some of its many benefits include the following:
It works with every diet.
It boosts cognitive performance.
It protects from obesity and associated chronic diseases.
It reduces inflammation.
It improves overall fitness.
It supports weight loss.
It decreases the risk of metabolic diseases.
It heals your metabolism
It balances your hormones.
How to break a fast
For you to know how to break your fast properly, I would first like to give you an idea of how important insulin is in your weight loss journey.
Insulin gets secreted once you eat to deal with the rise in blood sugar levels. Its job is to transport the excess glucose from the bloodstream into cells (some to the liver and the rest to fat storage). As long as your insulin levels are high, the longer you’ll stay in fat storage mode. Once the blood sugar has sufficiently lowered, insulin levels drop, moving you into fat-burning mode. Therefore glucose drives insulin, which drives fat storage. Having constantly elevated insulin levels (when you eat constantly or ultra-processed and refined carbs), means your body has to secrete even more insulin to do the same job it did previously with much lower levels.
Of the three macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat), carbs have the most significant impact on insulin which poses a problem for those wanting to lose weight. Keeping your carb intake low in general is a good idea to increase insulin sensitivity and thus improve your ability to lose weight.
But even more than that, when you first break your fast, it is of paramount importance to break your fast with something that would have as little impact as possible on your insulin levels. That would mean first starting with a protein (meat, fish, eggs, etc.) or healthy fat (nuts, seeds, avocado, cheese, etc.) before moving on to the rest of your meal. This will lower the overall effect of insulin on your body and improve your weight loss efforts in the long term.
Overall, fasting just seems right.
Fasting could be one of the greatest tools in your arsenal to see significant improvement in your weight loss and overall wellness. It’s like a reset button for your entire body, presumably across a large spectrum of maladies and dysfunctions. It puts your body into repair mode – at the cellular level – and it can restore normal hormonal function in the obese or overweight. Now, you don’t have to fast, but it’s something to consider.
Have you tried fasting yet? Let me know how fasting has worked – or hasn’t – with your lifestyle in the comment section!