Ever considered doing a zero-calorie, or water fast? Maybe you’ve heard of it, but not necessarily thought it was doable? Or healthy? Or effective? Then this post might be very helpful for you to get an understanding of what it is, how it works and what the benefits are.
I have come to be a huge fan of water fasting, for a multitude of reasons. It’s the most powerful cleanse and detoxification that I know, it is entirely body-driven, not needing any expensive external substances or services, and it is a wonderful way to reset both your body and the mind. Many also do it to try and reverse diseases or to support and kick off a fundamental change in lifestyle, like a healthy diet or quitting smoking. The beauty in this for me is that you almost step aside and let your body take over to do what it does best when you don’t interfere: Keep your body clean and healthy.
There is tons of literature out there, but most of what you will read here is from personal experience and trying to explain in my own words what I got out of my research. I certainly don’t claim any professional expertise in this area, but whoever knows me would attest that I’m obsessed with nutrition and constantly trying to optimize the way I nurture my body in order to live life in the way I think it wants to be lived. After experimenting with a lot of different lifestyles (seriously, you name it, I’ve probably done it), I have been eating plant-based, a.k.a. vegan, since the beginning of 2017 – and have never looked back. The way it makes me feel, the agility and focus I have gained and the peace of mind it gives me have easily convinced me to stick with it 100%. To give you an example of what it has done for me physically, I beat my previous marathon record after converting, and not only by a little: By almost 45 minutes!
But this is not about eating vegan. If you want to learn more about that, I’m not the best person to educate you, my friend Kara Mosesso is. This is about eating nothing! Yep. Zero calories. Only water and tea, for anything between 6 and 10 days. Some actually go even longer, depending on how much they want, or need, to detox, and if they want to try and reverse a serious illness. As I eat very healthy and “only” need to get rid of my two main toxins coffee and red wine (yeah… lots of the ladder), I usually do 6-7 days.
Let’s approach this post by answering the most frequently asked questions that I get. Here we go.
“You are so slim! If you eat nothing at all, don’t you lose a pound per day? Will you wither away?”
Well, actually it’s not about losing weight. If you want to do it for that reason only, you are picking the wrong tool. Here’s why: Once your body has shut down your digestive system, you actually don’t really burn that many calories anymore because, who would’ve known, 60-70% of our base calorie consumption goes right into digestion. That’s right! If you eat a carrot, you actually need more than half of it to break it down and make it accessible to your body.
So, my base-line calorie need, meaning I haven’t moved one bit yet, is around 1335 kcal per day (based on my height, age and weight), and including moving and working out, it’s likely around 2,200 kcal. But during fasting, the base need is reduced to 400-550 kcal, as there’s no need for digestion! Of course, I still move and even lightly work out (more on that later), so let’s just add another 800 kcals to my base need and make it 1,200 kcal that I burn per day. One pound of fat contains around 3,000 kcal, so technically, it takes three days of fasting to lose one pound, depending on how much you move.
What you do lose though is all of, well, let’s call it the content of your digestive system and a lot of other crap that has been hanging out in your body. So technically yes, you will feel it on the scale for sure. In those 7 days of fasting, I personally lost around 8 pounds. But don’t fool yourself, a portion of this will be right back on the scale once you start eating and filling your guts – hopefully with good stuff.
“Aren’t you extremely hungry all the time?”
Actually no, but only if you do your homework. You need to get your body into ketosis, which is the survival mode in which your body goes into full fat burn. And you need to do that on day 1. The faster your body understands that there’s no food coming, it pulls the switch, shuts down your digestive system and starts burning from only within. Which means, no feeling of hunger. Not surprisingly, the current big diet trend in Silicon Valley, called the Ketogenic Diet, is leveraging the exact same effect. Before you research that more, I’m not a big fan of that, and it doesn’t sound healthy as an extended and long-term way of eating and fooling your body.
Not hungry doesn’t mean no appetite. You will have appetite and cravings. I’m sorry, but I don’t have better news. So yes, it will definitely be a little bit of a mind game, but this is actually what it is as well: A reset for both your body and your mind.
You might ask yourself: How do I get my body into ketosis? Well… let me put it like this: You will need to get rid your intestines of all their content. All of it. I want to spare you the TMI details, as I hope that you will do your own research on top of this if you’re seriously contemplating doing a similar fast, but I’m sure your head can be creative. There’s physical ways of doing it, which I find far too humiliating, so I usually take pills or drink a solution. Ask your local farmacist, they will know what to advise. After that is done, the switch happens, and your body moves into ketosis.
How do you feel during the fast?
It’s different every day! Day 1 is really no problem at all, just the discharge mentioned above is a little annoying. Other than that it’s just getting used to the idea of not eating. Day 2 you will wake up with a completely empty body, which will feel great and weird at the same time. You might feel a little light, both physically and emotionally.
Day 3 and 4 are personally the hardest for me. You will feel a little weak, your heart is pumping hard and fast, and moving will cost a lot of energy. This is ideally on a weekend, and it’s also where the majority of the detoxing begins. Excuse my directness, but you might have a little weird smell to you, you feel it on your tongue and your skin, your axles, your nose will be running. All in all, it feels like you’re a little sick – you won’t want to leave the couch much, and you will likely not want to be around too many people. Try to feel good about it though, because this is the body pushing out everything that’s bad for you.
Day 5 to 7 for me were smooth sailing, I felt completely normal as if I would eat normally, but I attribute that to the detoxification not needing too long with my healthy lifestyle. You feel fantastic, slim, light, fairly energetic, and your skin will start to look pretty amazing. These days on the final stretch are really where you can sense all the benefits pushing in, and it feels fantastic, as you are also starting to be really proud of yourself.
Generally, the mornings tend to be the hardest, and you might even get a little tipsy and jittery when you first get up. I usually have one or two situations where I get up from bed feeling like I’m close to a blackout, but that doesn’t happen if you take it real slow. Otherwise, sit back down, breathe and relax – this is entirely normal, especially around day 3. A black tea (or if you really can’t help it, a glass of juice) will help immediately.
Other than that, you will probably feel a lot more focused and it’s easy to concentrate on things. Still need to do your taxes? The time is now. Just don’t expose yourself to too much stress or drama, that will likely feel much more intense than usually.
Can you work? And even more important, work out?
That’s a great question. Everyone is different with this, and it really depends on your job and the workout you do. If you have a desk job that doesn’t involve a ton of teamwork and is at least fairly low stress, I would definitely say you can work. If you manage people, are on stages or have a lot of conflict to handle, I would personally not do it and take the time off, at least for the first 4 days of fasting to be sure. You will have some phases of physical weakness and of emotional turmoil, and you’re definitely not as thick-skinned as you maybe usually are. Especially of you do it for the first time, I would say stay on the safe side and do it during your time off.
Same goes for workout. I have no problems to go for light runs and do yoga with the exception of 1-2 days around the famous day three. You should definitely go for walks as much as you can to keep the body moving. I’ve read somewhere that if you only stay in bed and watch Netflix all day, your body might even think it can feed on your muscles if you go for long fasts. So, keep moving y’all!
How do you sit through meals with others?
First of all, I would not recommend to sit through meals with others. I personally don’t have a big problem with it (except on a few days, usually day two and three), but it can get tough to handle. It’s more a mental than a body thing – you just start craving all kinds of different foods during the fast and imagine what they would taste like if you had them right now.
I would recommend to do the fast either on your own or together with someone who is fasting as well. I’ve tried to do it once with my partner at the time who kept eating, and it was the only time I miserably failed.
Go with how you feel, but definitely make sure you have some space that you can retreat to whenever you feel it is getting a little overwhelming.
Do you need to prepare?
Kind of. But even more post-pare, as breaking the fast is equally important.
Every single source will tell you to start eating light on day 0 before the fast, lots of veggies, fruit and juices, nothing tough on your body. You will laugh, but I do the opposite and eat all the bad stuff in loads and have a great wine with it, enjoying to go rogue for a day, simply to get the cravings out of my body. Every expert will advise you against this, but I guess this is the Tim Ferriss in me, and for me it works, although it is true that it doesn’t help your day 1 homework, and your stomach will be bigger on the first two days which might trigger feelings of hunger more.
Breaking the fast is incredibly important. Your first meal wants to be planned, but don’t worry, you will think of nothing else on your last two days. It should be light, healthy and easily digestible, so no meat of heavy fats. I usually build up and start with a veggie juice and a hot glass of almond milk, then nibble on some carrots for lunch, and in the evening I will have a fresh quinoa bowl with tons of veggies etc. Lots of other people traditionally break fast with an apple.
By the way, if you have ever wondered where the word breakfast comes from, now you know. Although it’s just a mini-fast during the night, this is its origination.
Do I need anything special from the store?
Tea! In every variation. I usually have black tea in the morning, ginger tea for lunch, green tea in the afternoon and a detox combination in the evening. You will need to drink tons during the fast, so make sure you always have enough water and tea.
I also recommend some kind of heating device, like a warm water bottle or a heatable pillow, as you sometimes tend to get a little cold, and having something to warm up your feet can feel amazing.
And then, get some veggie broth and veggie (or fruit) juice. The fast is a lot better if you stick to water and tea and really do zero calories, but I won’t lie, it can be tough if you do it for the first time. Veggie broth is the best, then veggie juice, and fruit juice as the last resort. Try to manage without, but before you give up and eat a slice of pizza, try one of those three and wait a few hours to see if it gets better. The main reason why people give up is not physical. It’s all mental.
I’m sure there’s still a lot more information that could be discussed, but I hope I have given you a good first idea what water fasting is about and what the journey would look like. Although some of it might sound a little scary, I can absolutely assure you that it’s one of the biggest gifts you can give to both your physical and mental body, and coming off it, you will feel incredibly accomplished, have a stronger mind and body – and, best of all, an entirely different and much healthier relationship to the food you put in your body.
If you have any questions or feel like I have missed something, please post your questions in the comments, and I will make sure to update the article with new insights on the go.