Fasting for Life: Medical Proof Fasting Reduces Risk of Heart Disease, Cancer, and Diabetes - Francis E. Umesiri (2016)
Part 2. Fasting for the Whole Person
Chapter 11. DIFFERENT PLANS
The purpose of fasting is to loosen to some degree the ties which bind us to the world of material things and our surroundings as a whole, in order that we may concentrate all our spiritual powers upon the unseen and eternal things.
—OLE HALLESBY (1872–1961)
NORWEGIAN AUTHOR AND THEOLOGIAN1
Fasting is abstaining from anything that hinders prayer.
—ANDREW BONAR (1810–1892)
LEADER IN SCOTTISH REVIVAL2
ALTHOUGH I HAVE DISCUSSED THE NEED FOR organizing a sustainable fast designed for your lifestyle, many readers may still wonder, “How? When? What kind of practical fasting plans are available?” In this chapter I will review some common fasting programs. Keep in mind the kind that incorporates prayer and spiritual development. No matter what type you choose, make prayer and meditation an integral part of it. Following is a menu of possibilities. You may start with one and move to the next. Or you could try different plans to see which one works best for you.
Plan A: Sustained reduced energy intake
This approach involves cutting daily energy intake by 20 percent. After a sustained period—say two to three months—cut back further, to 30 percent. See how long you can sustain this approach. If after a few months you feel like increasing your energy intake slightly, that is fine (you live to fight another day, so to speak). Remember, this is a lifestyle. You may choose a more modest, incremental plan. Say, start with a 10 percent reduction, and then increase to 15 percent, 20 percent, and so on.
Still, when we have followed a fasting program at our church, many people raise such questions as, “What exactly do I need to cut off in order to achieve a 30 percent calorie restriction?” or “How do I calculate my calorie intake?” A quick online search will reveal several calorie calculators that are handy for daily use. Yet I caution against using them as a strict guide; each person is different. In addition, most of these were designed as weight-loss calculators. Plus, not every person has the same energy needs. Indeed, your energy needs will vary from time to time, depending on such factors as the stress of a major deadline project at work, or energy expenditure for a home improvement project.
However, the kind of fasting I advocate is a holistic, lifelong plan. You know how much you exercise, how much you eat, how often you eat, and how much snacking you do between meals. This is about you, so keep it simple—the simpler it is to follow, the more likely you are to stick with it. Cut back about 20 percent of current consumption, and go from there. That won’t take a scientific calculator. After all, most calorie calculations don’t last a lifetime. A habit as simple as checking the total calorie label on food packages will reveal a lot about your calorie intake.
The key to any plan is portion control. For example, start by cutting the size of the portions you eat at each meal by 20 percent. If you still seek some calorie guidelines, recognize that on average, a healthy person’s daily calorie requirement tends to be about ten to twelve times his or her body weight. For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, your calorie intake should fall between 1,800 and 2,160 calories per day. If you consider that the average sixteen-ounce sugary drink contains about 210 calories, that is roughly 10 to 13 percent of your daily caloric load.
Plan B: Alternate-day fasting
There are two kinds of alternate-day fasting.
For the first kind, choose one day in the week to do a partial fasting: skip breakfast and lunch and then eat dinner. Say you choose to fast on Mondays and eat as you would normally on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday and Thursday, repeat the cycle.
Another type of alternate-day fasting is to go a full day without food, drinking only water. In other words, don’t eat from Monday morning until you break the fast on Tuesday morning and eat regular meals that day. On Wednesday, you start the cycle again. The advantage of alternate-day fasting is that, as studies I have already examined show, it offers significant health benefits. Also, this kind of fasting is useful when you want to incorporate prayer and spiritual meditation into the fasting period—it allows you enough time of separation and concentration to focus on prayer. The downside is the inability to sustain this kind of fasting for life. Most people who do this tend to do it for a season and then move on to other more sustainable forms.
Plan C: Intermittent fasting
Due to the challenges of maintaining alternate-day fasting for a long period of time, intermittent fasting tends to be the preferred form for many people, including Christians. Intermittent fasting means fasting intermittently but consistently. The most common version of this is fasting on certain days (on Wednesdays and Fridays, for example) while eating normal meals every other day. Some people choose Fridays and Sundays because of the opportunity the weekend offers to slow down and spiritually renew. Again, individual circumstances vary. Fasting Mondays and Fridays may work for you; it could be Tuesdays and Thursdays. Make it your plan. It doesn’t matter the day (or days) you choose, since you have to base your choice on convenience and functionality.
Follow this two-day partial fasting plan for as long as you are able; it may be for years. Then, if possible, increase to three alternate days in the week. If this approach works for you, make it permanent. I know some people who have trained themselves to fast twice a week consistently. But there is not any kind of “law” about this. In other words, if you skip a week here or there because of circumstances, holidays, or a vacation, the world won’t end. The goal is consistency, not perfection. Just keep at it.
If you are new to this discipline, choose a day to start when you may be relatively free and are able to slow down and allow your body to adjust to the stress. Choosing to start your fast on a day that you are facing work pressures or other deadlines may pose more of a challenge than you imagine.
Plan D: Partial multiday fast
Partial multiday fasting involves eating only dinner and skipping breakfast and lunch for several days at a time. Often, this involves a three-day or a seven-day fast, or even longer. In scientific terms this qualifies as intense calorie restriction. Many Christians adopt this kind of fasting, especially when they choose to give themselves to prayer and meditation. This fast offers ample time to receive divine wisdom and grace.
However, this fast is best engaged when you have time to be away from work or other strenuous activities. For many people, this may be during a long weekend, such as a Saturday-through-Monday holiday time frame. I suggest that you not start with this kind if you are new to fasting. It is often better to graduate to this kind after practicing intermittent or alternate-day fasting. During this kind of multiday fast, you should drink lots of water to stay well hydrated (forget what you may have heard about abstaining from even water to follow a “pure” fasting routine).
Plan E: Complete multiday fast
Complete multiday fasting includes everything involved in partial multiday fasting, except there is no food whatsoever. Not even fruits, nuts, or vegetables; this is a plan of complete calorie restriction. This is what some people call “dry fasting,” except that you should stay hydrated by drinking water. Most people who follow this plan tend to do this for three to seven days. This is not for the faint of heart. Even in Scripture people engaged in this kind of fast only when they were desperate and devoted all their time to seeking God in prayer. Examples are the nation of Nineveh after Jonah warned of God’s judgment (Jon. 3:1–10), or Israel after the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir threatened to wipe them off the face of the earth (2 Chron. 20:1–4).
I have found that this kind of fasting is practiced more in developing countries than in the United States. Your hunger for God or for His supernatural intervention has to be so intense as to engage fully with God. It is a fast that screams, “God, I need Your help more than words can express!” This is a fast that is devoted to prayer, quietness, and spiritual renewal. It is a kind of fasting you do when you are on a retreat, away from life’s noisy chatter and distractions. Minimize activity when doing this fast, and drink water often.
I certainly do not recommend you attempt this kind of fast unless you have followed other less-demanding kinds. If you are going to go beyond three days, I recommend first consulting with either your doctor or someone who is experienced in fasting. Studies suggest that this kind of intense calorie restriction has a far greater hormetic effect on the body, usually in the days after the fast itself. Of course, the disadvantage is the difficulty involved in going for several days without food, which is why relatively few people do this kind.
Plan F: Fruit and vegetable fast
Fruit-and-vegetable fasts are becoming more popular. Not only does this type of fast supply needed nutrients, but also the compliance rates are much higher. There are several kinds of these types of fast, but their common theme is feeding only on fruits and vegetables for a certain period of time. A fruit fast can be for one day or several days at a time. You can embark on a partial or full fast. A partial kind includes eating only fruits and vegetables for breakfast and lunch, and then a full meal for dinner. This is often the most convenient form of fasting for beginners. It is a good way to train your body to let go of its cravings for food and chemicals. However, you can choose to do a complete fast, which means nothing but fruits and vegetables throughout the fasting period. Scientifically speaking, for a fruit fast to have the same effect as chronic caloric restriction (such as a three-day complete fast), it needs to be prolonged. Whether it is partial or complete, sustaining a fruit fast for a relatively longer period gives the body enough time to kick into hormetic mode. This is why the more common versions of fruit and vegetable fasts are often for seven, ten, twenty-one, or forty days.
When this fasting lasts for a minimum of twenty-one days, it is popularly known as a Daniel fast, which I discussed previously. As with any method, you should adapt this to your schedule and lifestyle. For example, you could start with three consecutive days in a month when you eat nothing but fruits and vegetables, and drink lots of water. Then you may graduate to doing this for a whole week once a quarter.
Another thing to note about fruit fasts: you need to be intentional about including sources of good HDL cholesterol. In previous studies of Christian fasting fruit fasts proved consistently deficient in this characteristic; it tends to reduce total levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. While that is good, the downside is how it tends to also lower the supply of the HDL cholesterol. A good way to counteract this is by including some nuts; peanuts, walnuts, and cashew nuts are rich sources of HDL cholesterol. Another good source is olive oil.
Water and fasting
Should you drink water while you fast? Yes, yes, and yes. When I first started fasting several years ago, several people told me that in order to do complete, “dry fasting,” I shouldn’t drink any water. So, in those days I embarked on three or more days of complete fasting without a drop of liquid nourishment. Bad idea, since that is not healthy. Fasting is a spiritual discipline, not an exercise in spiritual recklessness. Your body needs water to survive; for the average adult, water constitutes between 50 and 65 percent of body mass. Water is the main solvent for most solutes and chemicals in the body. Also, water maintains a good temperature balance within the body.
This begs the question: why would we deny the body water during a period of significant stress? Besides, staying adequately hydrated during fasting helps with the detoxification process as the body excretes toxins through urine and sweat. After all, we are not fasting to earn God’s blessings. Fasting helps to condition us to receive from God and to renew spirit, soul, and body. So, the idea that drinking water is somehow equivalent to eating and therefore reduces the effect of fasting is at best born out of human self-righteousness—in other words, what the Scriptures sometimes refer to as the “arm of flesh.”
Breaking your fast
How do you break a fast, especially a complete fast or prolonged fruit fast? Start with fluids, such as a cup of juice. Also, introduce soft food, such as custard or yogurt. Then, slowly introduce solid food. Whatever you do, go easy on your food intake after fasting. Rushing your body with lots of solid foods after a fast may create shock to the system and result in stomach irritation and/or constipation. You need to gradually retrain your body to come off the stress-hormesis mode it entered during fasting. Balance and moderation is the key.
One constant temptation after a fast is to gorge on food and choose oversized portions. Resist this temptation! It goes to the heart of the discipline fasting is meant to help instill. Let your moderation be made known—to yourself—after fasting, and slowly increase portion size over a period of time until you return to your regular portion.