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Water fasting for weight loss: does it work?

Many people consider using a water fast for weight loss. Unfortunately this often ends in failure, and sometimes even leads to weight gain afterwards. This video and newly extended article takes a look at the key issues you should think about before beginning such a fast. Understanding the potential pitfalls and… (more below)

limitations of water fasting can help you to make your own weight loss program a success!

How much weight loss can you expect from a water fast?

A lot of people have unrealistic expectations about how much weight they can actually lose through a water fast. Burning fat means losing weight, so theoretically it should be possible to lose hundreds and hundreds of pounds, simply by continuing to fast.

Things aren’t quite this simple, though.

The actual amount of weight loss during a water fast varies considerably from person to person. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that on average most people lose about 1 lb. (0.5 kg.) per day. So for a 10-day fast, you can expect to lose approximately 10 lbs (5 kgs). On top of this, it’s normal to drop an additional 2-4 lbs (1-2 kgs) in the first day or two, as food remaining in the gut empties out. (Of course, these additional pounds will be quickly regained once you’re eating again.)

After the first 10 days or so of water fasting, the amount of weight loss per day decreases. As your body’s ketosis becomes increasingly efficient, you simply don’t need to burn as much fat in order to derive the same quantity of energy. Sooner or later, you can expect a weight loss closer to about 0.5 lbs (0.25 kgs) per day. In other words, it becomes a law of diminishing returns. You have to put in more time fasting in order to experience the same amount of weight loss. So instead of needing approximately 20 days to lose 20 pounds (10 kgs), most people need 25-30 days. To lose 30 pounds (15 kgs), usually 40+ days is necessary.

If you’re truly determined to use a water fast to lose hundreds of pounds, it’s going to take a very long time.

To be brutally honest, most people don’t have the willpower to fast for several months – even if this is theoretically possible. However, even with the necessary motivation, it’s probably not a good idea. Fasts much longer than about 40 days run an increasing risk of incurring serious problems. Most commonly, electrolytes can slip out of balance: an issue which usually reveals itself only subsequently, during the refeeding process. On the extremely rare occasion that someone has died from water fasting, it is usually cardiac arrest caused by electrolyte imbalance.

There are a few documented cases from the 1960s when this actually happened. These all involved research studies investigating the use of an extremely extended water fast in order to lose weight over several months. Fortunately, we understand more about the physiology of fasting today – but it’s precisely because we do understand the biochemistry better now that such long fasts are almost always avoided.

Diet after your water fast sustains the weight loss

I can’t stress enough how important it is to get your diet right after a water fast to lose weight. Quite simply, if it’s the fast which takes the pounds off, it’s your subsequent diet which keeps them off!

There are no two ways about it. In order to enjoy lasting weight loss, you’ll have to change your eating habits. It’s not rocket science. If it was your old eating habits which got you into trouble in the first place, then returning to them after your fast can only result in a slow but steady return to your old weight.

Before you begin your water fast, you need to ask yourself the question: ‘Am I truly ready to change my diet?’ If the answer isn’t an emphatic yes, your fast is likely doomed to failure.

Plan ahead

Before you begin your fast, it’s also important to know what your subsequent diet will be. There are so many possibilities: from vegan to paleo, and everything in between. So long as the number of calories going in doesn’t exceed the number of calories you expend, then there’s no metabolic reason you won’t succeed. However, equally important is to know that your diet is going to be psychologically sustainable and emotionally rewarding over the long term. Otherwise, you’ll just give it up and things will spiral out of control. So whatever diet you pick: don’t choose it during the fast, hoping blindly for the best. Instead, test it out for a while before you begin, so you already know that your body resonates with it!

There are two further reasons to make friends with your post-fast diet. First, once hunger has fully re-established itself after your fast, you may well want to eat more. Unless you already have a lot of fasting experience, it’s completely human to want to ‘compensate’ for the lack of food during the fast. So following a diet which provides a good sense of comfort makes it easier to stop eating as soon as your body is full. Second, everything in the body runs more efficiently after a fast. This means that your metabolism actually requires fewer calories than before the fast in order to power you through the day. Yes, you’ll need to eat a little less than before. So it’s crucial to feel fully comforted by what you do eat.

Exercise after your water fast burns extra calories

Almost as important as your diet is the addition of some kind of exercise program after your fast. (Note: this is not to be confused with exercise during the fast, which is generally something to be avoided. See my video/article: ‘Can I work out during a water fast?‘)

If keeping the pounds off after a fast boils down to finding a balance between calorie intake and output, then clearly exercise is the single most important means to increase calorie output. Aerobic, cardiovascular forms of exercise tend to burn the most calories, so activities like swimming, running or cycling (in this order) are the most efficient in controlling weight. If your fitness level precludes running, then even walking provides a good solution, so long as you keep your breathing and heart rate elevated for a sustained period. Work within your limits – but do work! And, as is also true for diet, choose a form of exercise that you enjoy.

A further benefit of a sustainable exercise program is that, over time, it raises your metabolic rate. Essentially, metabolic rate is the rate at which you burn calories, regardless of whether you’re moving or not. This means that even while you’re asleep you’re burning calories more quickly than if you don’t exercise. In addition to cardiovascular exercise, strength training also benefits your metabolic rate.

Fasting for weight loss and facing food addictions

Sustainable weight loss is achieved through three fundamental elements: (1) the water fast itself, (2) a healthy diet after the fast and (3) regular exercise after the fast. Impacting on the first two of these is the issue of food addictions.

There are both physical and psychological food addictions. On a physical level, certain foods like refined sugars and flavour enhancers initiate biochemical changes in the brain which ‘reward’ us for eating the given food, so that we want more. On an emotional level, food addictions come into play the moment we’re no longer eating purely to sustain our physical nutrition. We all suffer from them: eating for comfort, eating to relieve boredom, eating to soothe anxieties. (For more details, see my article: ‘Overcoming addictions through water fasting.’)

Obesity = Unhealthy diet = Food additions

People usually become overweight because they’re eating an unhealthy diet. Unhealthy diets are driven by food addictions. It’s that simple. This means that if you’re overweight and want to fast to lose the extra pounds, you’re going to have to face those addictions: both during the fast itself and afterwards, by eating a healthier diet.

Are you truly ready to face your addictions? I won’t lie to you. It won’t be easy.

Facing these addictions means experiencing withdrawal symptoms, whether physical (headaches, low energy etc.) or psychological (cravings). Truly freeing yourself from the psychological factors underlying such addictions also means opening up on a deeper level. If you allow your deeper self to speak to you, water fasting helps to bring forth and heal the emotional wounds which led to your addiction in the first place.

Are you ready to face these wounds – and the pain caused by them? If the answer is ‘no’, it’s going to be very difficult to successfully carry out your water fast and sustain weight loss afterwards.

Facing food addictions with an eating disorder

Fasting for weight loss causes even more problems for those with an eating disorder. Given that the degree of addiction and associated psychological complications is usually much more involved in such cases, water fasting can easily exacerbate the problem. I’m not suggesting that water fasting can’t help someone with an eating disorder lose weight, but it must be done with a high degree of caution (and preferably supervision).

There must be no illusions here. For anyone with an eating disorder, a fast for weight loss means a direct confrontation with the eating disorder itself.

Are you truly ready for this? If not, it’s all too easy to face the underlying issues and fail, slipping further into the cycle of addiction. So instead of losing weight and helping to heal the eating disorder, you actually end up deepening both problems.

Final thoughts

Most of this article has presented a cautionary tale of the pitfalls and potential dangers of trying to water fast in order to lose weight. Rightly so: too many fasts of this kind end in failure. However, this isn’t to say that it can’t be done. In order to put the odds in your favour, though, you do need to know where the problem areas are and how to plan for them – doing so well before the actual beginning of your water fast.

So be realistic. Don’t jump into this on the spur of the moment. And don’t allow any idealistic, well intentioned goals to overshadow your true capabilities. Instead, take your time, plan it out:

And make a success of it!


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Can I work during a water fast?

Whether or not to continue your job during a water fast is one of the most important decisions you can make. On the one hand, some of us have the luxury of being able to take time off work. In this case, is it really worth doing so? On the other hand, many of us don’t have much choice at all. So if you do have to work through your fast, how will it feel? This video and article covers… (more below)

(1) what to expect if you do continue working through your fast and (2) how to make the best of it.

When you should never work during your fast

Although most people are capable of continuing their job at least to some degree, there are a couple of circumstances in which you should never work through your fast.

The first is if your job involves heavy physical labour. The simple fact is that you won’t have the strength to do it beyond the first 24-36 hours of a water fast. The ketosis-based (fat burning) metabolism which sustains you after this point is biochemically incapable of providing enough energy to power your muscles to their full strength. End of story. Keeping in mind that most jobs which involve heavy physical labour also involve a risk of injury if something goes wrong, it’s imperative not to endanger yourself by working through your fast!

The second is if your job involves responsibility for the safety of others – even if your job is sedentary, involving no physical stress at all. I would argue that the mental clarity which many people experience during a water fast means that you may well be able to execute your job even more safely than in everyday life. Instead, the problem occurs if – despite the odds – something actually does go wrong. Given general public misconceptions, it’s almost certain that the water fast will be blamed for any accidents or shortcomings, and you’ll end up taking the wrap for water fasting on the job.

Fortunately, though, most of us in today’s world don’t have jobs which entail heavy physical labour or the responsibility for the safety of others. In theory, then, there’s no reason why most of us shouldn’t think about working through the fast.

Disadvantages of working during a water fast

Unfortunately, if you do end up continuing your job during a water fast, there is definitely a long list of disadvantages. It’s important to be aware of these before deciding how to proceed:

Low energy levels

If there’s one thing which people experience while water fasting, it’s low energy – and this will obviously affect how you feel on the job! There are several reasons for this. The first is ketosis itself. Not only is ketosis incapable of providing a lot of power to the muscles. Many people also find that it doesn’t provide enough energy for simple physical tasks either, and the end result is that you feel chronically drained. Instead, you’d rather lie around on a sofa all day, which unfortunately doesn’t fit most job descriptions!

Beyond this, water fasting lowers blood pressure. Although in itself this is usually something positive, facilitating detox, it also tends to cause lower energy levels. This is true especially for people who already have low blood pressure to begin with, or for those whose blood pressure has fallen significantly since the start of the fast.

Finally, by its very nature, the process of cleansing causes lower energy levels. Detox is hard work! Since your body is working overtime on the inside, it means that there’s less energy available on the outside – and that includes doings things like your job. In addition, detox can also cause brain fog (although increased mental clarity is certainly a possibility, especially for those who already have some fasting experience).

Low stamina

Beyond a lack of energy in itself, the extent to which you can apply those lower energy levels is almost certainly going to be time-restricted. In other words, it’s going to be hard to get through a whole day at work without taking breaks from time to time. Alternatively, it’s possible that you’ll feel fine pushing through a full eight hours in one stretch, but then you’ll pay the price the next day.

Energy for work = less energy for detox and healing

If detox is hard work for your body on the inside, leaving less energy on the outside, then the opposite is also certainly true. Forcing yourself to expend energy working through a fast means that there’s less available for detox and healing. For me, this is the crux of the matter, and there are no two ways about it. No matter how you look at it, a water fast is an incredibly powerful means to cleanse and heal, but I’ve coached too many clients not to notice the difference: taking time off from work leads to more powerful results.

Dealing with people at work

If you’re fasting for more than a couple of days, it’s just a matter of time before people at work notice that you’re not eating. They’ll start asking why. Dealing with colleagues’ questions, concerns and in many cases disapproval is only going to drain your energy reserves further.

Accessing deeper levels of the fast

Water fasting should be a holistic process, healing physical, emotional and spiritual levels of being. Because working through a fast makes such demands on your physical energy levels, because it forces you to keep your attention focussed outwards into your job environment, it makes it virtually impossible to access deeper levels of the fast. The kind of introspection necessary to cleanse and heal emotionally and spiritually simply cannot happen when you’re tied down all day by mundane issues dictated by your job.

Risking an early end to the fast

I’ll say it right now. Of all the factors leading to breaking off a fast before its intended completion, work load and job pressures are probably the most important. In many cases, it’s simply too much to ask of yourself. So if you do have to work through a water fast, it’s crucial to recognise this and to take whatever steps are necessary to put the odds a little more in your favour. We’ll take a look at these in the last section of this article.

Advantages of working during a water fast

I can think of only two possible advantages of working through a water fast. The first is for those whose single goal is weight loss. Any job’s physical activity and emotional stress – even if this is just the positive emotional stress of sustained concentration – accelerate the rate at which you burn calories.

The second advantage is that working during a fast distracts you from the fact that you’re fasting in the first place. If you’re hungry, your job is likely to distract you from the feeling. If you’re bored by not eating, your job will keep your attention focussed elsewhere.

Distraction can definitely help people who haven’t yet learned to deal with the challenges of water fasting. On a deeper level, though, distraction is only a temporary solution. Distracting yourself from hunger still means that you’ll have to deal with it later. You’re only delaying the inevitable. And when the part of you which is feeling deprived by not eating finally has enough, it’s going to rise up against you with full force.

The problem with distraction goes even further. Ultimately, distraction away from whatever you’re doing is a form of denial.

In the long run, the only solution to the hunger and boredom of a water fast is the exact opposite of distraction. You have to stare them both in the eye and go as deep as you can into the feelings they provoke. In time, with experience, you’ll learn that hunger is just a physical stimulus – in other words, something which we don’t have to react to emotionally. You’ll learn to let go of your boredom, surrendering to the fast and the deeper state of being it opens up inside you.

Practical solutions for working during your fast

If, in the end, you do have to work through your water fast, there are several ways you can minimise the negative impact of your job.

Reducing work load by planning ahead

It may sound obvious, but the most important thing you can do is to try and reduce the amount of work you’ll actually have to do during your fast. This almost certainly means planning ahead, so jumping into a fast on the spur of the moment usually isn’t the best idea. If you can finish some of your work ahead of time, before the fast actually begins, or delay some of it until after the end of the fast, it can make all the difference in the world. Many people find they’re incapable of continuing their job at a 100% workload, but they’re fine at 70-80%.

One important consequence of partially reducing your workload is that it enables you to take short breaks when necessary through the day. Many people find they can get through the day without any issues, so long as they can take a 10-15 minute break every couple of hours.

Using weekends, holidays and vacation time

Again, it may sound obvious, but, except for the longest fasts, judicious planning around weekends and holidays can significantly reduce the number of work days during your fast. Three-day fasts can be planned around weekends, starting the fast on Friday (last meal Thursday evening). This way, the weekend will already have arrived by the time you exhaust your glycogen supplies and energy levels drop. If you break the fast Sunday evening or early Monday morning, your energy levels should return in time for the beginning of the work week.

Ten-day fasts can be planned to begin on one weekend and end on the following weekend. In other words, four out of the ten days can take place at home and not at work.

Beyond this, many national holidays are scheduled in order to create long weekends. Take advantage of these! And in the worst case, it might also be worth considering using some of your vacation time if necessary.

Working from home

Work is work, but if you’re water fasting it can feel psychologically much easier if you can do at least some of it from home instead of the office. You don’t have to get in your car and drive. You don’t have to meet colleagues. You can do it literally from the comfort of your own home. It’s also much more comfortable to take little breaks lying on your own sofa or bed, instead of being propped up in an office chair, on full display to everyone.

Caffeine

I would always suggest fasting without caffeine whenever possible. Caffeine accelerates your metabolism when a water fast is all about the exact opposite: slowing it down in order to cleanse and heal. However, if you find that you simply can’t stay focussed enough to get through the day, it might be worth considering an occasional cup of green tea in emergency situations. Black tea and especially coffee should be avoided because they are acidic and stimulate digestion, whereas green tea is mildly alkaline. I would also stress that caffeine should be taken only occasionally in order to maximise its effect. Regular caffeine usage results in the body acclimatising to its effects, thereby counteracting its benefits.

Electrolytes

Under normal circumstances I would always advise against using electrolytes. As much as they may make you feel better, they reduce cleansing and healing – something I’ve witnessed time and again among those clients who choose to use them. However, precisely because they do reduce cleansing (and therefore detox symptoms), precisely because, as mineral salts, they do raise low blood pressure (thereby increasing energy), electrolytes are also an option for emergency situations in order to get through the day. When taken under these circumstances, the problem with electrolytes is that they tend to stay in the blood longer than caffeine, and their effect can last days rather than hours.

Get support!

When so much is stacked up against you by working during a water fast, it’s really important to be able to rely on supportive family and friends to help get you through. Lacking that, a water fasting coach can also make a world of difference.

Final thoughts

When water fasting, so many circumstances lie totally beyond your control. You can’t control physical detox symptoms. It’s extremely difficult to control your emotional reaction to such physical discomfort, especially when it may last days. It’s equally difficult to control your reaction to psychological factors, such as withdrawal from lifelong addictions to specific foods as well as eating in general. And let’s not even mention being able to control your spiritual reaction to taking away all the ‘excitement’ of food, and simply having to ‘be’ during your fast. In short, a water fast is much more likely to take you for a ride than the other way around!

With all this in mind, the decision about whether or not to work is probably the most important thing you can do to take at least some control over the circumstances surrounding your water fast. Whatever you choose to do, I hope that some of the ideas above will lead to a smoother and more enjoyable experience.


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21 day water fast: one-month follow up

fullsteamahead (1200x800)I’m writing this 38 days after the end of the fast.  Why now?  Because yesterday I finally ran a solid half marathon in the hills at my usual pace and with no sore muscles today.  Because the day before that I reached my usual number of push-ups for the first time since finishing the fast.  Because earlier in the week I stood on the scales and found that I’m fully back to my pre-fast weight again… Read More

21 day water fast: one week follow up

traffic jam (1200x800)A lot has happened physically over the last seven days.  My digestion is moving pretty smoothly again, though I’m lacking almost completely in appetite.  Already during the first two or three days following the fast, my stomach was working well, digesting and passing on food to the intestines.  From here, though, I could feel my intestines trying to draw out and absorb every last possible gram of nutrition.  In doing so, a kind of digestive traffic jam began to build up as my body slowed down the forward progress of food to achieve this goal… Read More

21 day water fast: Day 21

gratitude-sunrise (1200x800)I woke up into the darkness, with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude: for the universe, for Réka and the opportunity to be here – as well as for the fast itself.  I sat down to meditate, with the expanse of gratitude laid out as a back-drop to everything in my mind.  It felt and continues to feel like an inner smile expanding from all directions in and around my heart.  Everywhere, almost as if my body were breathing the mantra: ‘thank you, thank you, thank you…’

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21 day water fast: Day 20

honey (1200x800).jpgToday is the last full day of fasting.  By the evening I’ll already be into Day 21.  The feeling, which came to me as I woke up this morning, is that of when you’re about to say goodbye to an old friend whom you know you’re not going to see for a while.  There’s an element of regret in parting from each other, but you know that your friendship is stronger than the time and distance you’ll be spending apart.  And besides, you know you’ll meet again… Read More

21 day water fast: Day 18

end-traffic-sign (1200x800)Driving into town yesterday provided a reference point about how my consciousness has naturally and gradually opened from a more focussed perspective.  In retrospect, the whole trip itself provided another, deeper reference point, because since then – in breaking the solitude and continuity of being here at the cottage, as well as in buying the food which will break the 21 days of pure water – I keep finding myself thinking about the approaching end of the fast… Read More