Fasting the Right Way
This kind of cleanse and detox has its
place, but you should exercise care.
By Linda Melone
Frequent travel for work and an erratic schedule left Renee Rice, 31, of Minneapolis, feeling less than happy about her eating habits and the extra five pounds she’d gained. She decided a cleanse and detox fast might help her lose weight and feel better. “I regularly practice yoga, so this isn’t far from something I might normally do,” Rice says.
Rice embarked on a three-day juice fast, drinking only six raw and organic juices a day, no food, caffeine or alcohol. At the end of the first day Rice was hungry and irritable. “My husband was supportive but didn’t want to be around me,” she recalls. “And I didn’t want to be around him, especially when he was cooking.”
The second day Rice developed a bad headache. “I thought it was from lack of caffeine, but I only have one cup of coffee a day so I knew it was a result of the fast,” she says. She toughed out the headache, which lasted all day, drinking juice but refusing to take any pain medications; the headache eventually abated. After two days she no longer felt hungry.
By the third day she noticed clearer skin and lost the five pounds she’d been struggling to drop. “I felt great!” she says. “I had loads of energy and slept much better. Before the cleanse I would wake up maybe once at night, but on the cleanse I was sleeping very deeply and waking up totally refreshed.”
Rice credits a group of friends who did the cleanse with her for motivating her to stick with it. “We joked in the beginning about how we couldn’t wait to dig into a big burger after we were done,” Rice says. “But now that we’re done, I really don’t want that burger. I just want more plants if it means I’ll feel this good.”
A Menu Of Fasts
Although many spiritual practices include fasting (defined as abstaining from or reducing intake of food or drink for a period of time), it has recently become more popular as a way to detoxify and cleanse the body. The typical western diet, high in processed foods, refined grains and chemicals, is often blamed as contributing to chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Proponents of fasting believe taking an occasional “break” from eating gives the body, particularly the digestive tract, a chance to rest.
But while the right plan may be beneficial, a reckless approach can do more harm than good. It’s important to find a plan that best suits your needs and takes into account your current health and prior experience with fasting.
ere are many different types of fasts, but most people choose one of three main types, says Giovanni Campanile, MD, medical director of the Atlantic Health Center for Well Being and chair of Integrative Medicine at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey. “These include long-term fasting, intermittent fasting and caloric restriction, where you lower your calories on an ongoing basis,” Campanile says.
Debate surrounds the effectiveness of each approach. Data shows chronic calorie restriction preserves DNA and extends lifespan, but these effects have only been seen in animals, not people, says Campanile. “In general, occasional fasting provides many benefits. It may reduce cancer risk, help prevent heart disease and diabetes, and some studies are now looking at its role in benefiting mental function and prevention diseases such as Alzheimer’s.” A study in Cell Metabolism (2/14) found fasting extends longevity by reducing oxidative damage and inflammation, which protects against obesity, hypertension, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
Currently receiving attention in the press, intermittent fasting is touted for its health benefits and possible role in extending longevity. Intermittent fasting involves cycling periods of fasting with non-fasting. One example, alternate-day fasting, a type of intermittent fasting, involves a 24-hour fast followed by a 24-hour non-fasting period.
Another version involves eating only one meal a day. A study in Nutrition Reviews found that time-restricted feeding, a key component of intermittent fasting, decreased body weight, lowered concentrations of triglycerides, glucose and LDL (bad cholesterol), and increased HDL (good cholesterol).
Some people think humans are physiologically designed for intermittent fasting, says Campanile. “In Paleolithic times we went for long periods without food, but today it’s used…to help with fat burning and diabetes management. It may even lengthen our telomeres,” the part of chromosomes that determine longevity.
Going for defined periods of time without food in an intermittent fast has its pros and cons, says J.J. Virgin, PhD, nutritionist and author of The Virgin Diet (Harlequin Nonfiction). “Most studies show intermittent fasting improves fat loss. One study (Nutrition Journal 11/12), for example, showed that when combined with calorie restriction and liquid meals, intermittent fasting helped obese women lose more fat and decreased their cardiovascular disease risk.
“Between constant snacking and meals, your digestive system becomes compromised. So an intermittent fast gives your overworked digestive system a much-needed rest for recovery and repair,” says Virgin. “When you restrict food for a certain period of time, you will usually, but not always, take in fewer calories.”
Going through periods without eating also enables your body to tap into its fat stores. “Every time you eat you elevate insulin levels and potentially store fat,” says Virgin. “So restricting food to a certain time period during an intermittent fast reduces how often you raise your insulin levels, therefore encouraging fat cells to release fat for fuel.” Virgin also feels an intermittent fast can help you step back and observe your relationship with food.
“When you no longer gravitate to comfort foods, for instance, you may need to confront emotional eating and determine what leads you to do that so often,” Virgin says. “We are also afraid of being hungry, and really being with that feeling when you do an intermittent fast can create a new mental and even spiritual clarity about your relationship with eating—it may reveal some deeper truths.”
On the downside, Virgin cautions that intermittent fasting could trigger or worsen eating disorders in people predisposed to them. It may cause sleeplessness, anxiety, irregular periods and elevated cortisol in others. As a stress hormone, the latter can ironically cause weight gain, says Virgin.
Water and Juice Fasts
Undertaking a water fast, in which you drink only water for a few days up to a week, is not an approach most medical professionals recommend. “Unless it’s for fewer than 24 hours, a water fast depletes your body of electrolytes, essential fats, amino acids and other things it needs to run efficiently,” says Taz Bhatia, MD, certified nutritionist, acupuncturist and medical director of the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine. “You put the body in a starvation state, which you can handle physically for only short periods of time. I do not recommend water fasts.”
Juice fasts aren’t as rigid, and some juice fasts are beneficial, says Bhatia. Juice fasts typically consist of green juices and grapefruit juice you drink throughout the day; they typically add up to approximately 400 to 500 calories daily. “They’re fine for maybe one to three days at the most,” says Bhatia.
Some people have done juice fasts of 10 to 20 or more days, a practice Bhatia frowns upon. “Extended juice fasts of this length are not healthy, because you’re not getting some of the key things you need, such as protein, and you’re lowering your metabolic rate and putting the body into a prolonged starvation mode,” she says.
Approaches and Precautions
Those who have never tried fasting before should start with a simple program, says Campanile. “I recommend my patients include a fast as part of their day—make sure you go through a 12-hour period without eating. This helps with fat burning and increases metabolism.”
The tactic works most easily if you stop eating at night and then resume eating 12 hours later, he suggests. An example is to stop eating at 7 p.m. and break your fast the next morning at 7 a.m. In addition, Campanile recommends occasionally skipping one or two meals as another type of “mini fast” instead of an overall dramatic calorie restriction that leaves you chronically hungry. A three-day fast that starts on a Friday and ends on Sunday is often a good way to get started, as it takes advantage of a more flexible weekend schedule and lets you see how your body reacts.
In addition, Campanile recommends keeping activity to a minimum—nothing strenuous—and staying well hydrated throughout the fast. The first day or two will likely be hardest as your body adjusts. “Once you get over that initial 12 to 24 hours you’ll likely feel a boost of energy due to glucose and fat metabolism,” he says.
Headaches are normal but severe headaches are not and should be a sign to discontinue the fast. Skin issues and rashes, sometimes joint pain, diarrhea or constipation are normal reactions as your body detoxes, Campanile says. “Often the more you need a detox the more likely you’ll experience these symptoms.”
Fasts are not for everyone, however. Those who should not fast are anyone under 18, people with diabetes (especially those who need insulin), pregnant women, people with GERD (fasting may cause an acidic stomach), anyone with a chronic disease, those with anemia or anyone who has inexplicably lost weight in the recent past. Check with your healthcare practitioner before embarking on any fast.
A one- to three-day juice fast for a healthy person should not create any ill effects, but a longer or more extreme fast should be medically supervised, says Campanile. “Fasting, especially intermittent fasting, may be something to consider as part of an overall good nutrition program.”