You read that right. For 24 hours, I didn’t eat a single bite of food… and survived. I know, it’s crazy to think that one would choose not to eat food, especially for such an long period, however, there is a method to my madness.
My job is to be on the front line of training, nutrition, and health, to better serve the needs of clients and help them reach their goals more efficiently (quicker, safer, more sustainable, etc). It’s my responsibility to have a wide array of tools at my disposal assist clients in their health and fitness journey. This means different programs, protocols, and approaches to training, dieting and habit change.
Part of this responsibility as a coach is not only to have the research and knowledge to explain what a diet or training program is, but also have experience of actually using the program personally. This gives me an intimate understanding of the program and the process of implementing it. By putting myself through various programs and protocols, I can confidently and expertly apply those protocols to the clients and situations where they’re most applicable.
In this journey to improve my coaching, trying various styles of eating and training, I came across intermittent fasting several years ago. I have used various forms in the past, but never something as drastic or long as a 24 hour fast.
My thoughts were that this could be used as a tool for people who wanted to lose weight, enjoy more meals throughout the week, and could forego eating for a set period of time. It’s a way of restricting heavily for a short period of time, to allow more leniency and flexibility for a longer period of time.
While I don’t believe that fasting, especially lengthy fasts like this one, are for everyone, I do believe there are some applicable situations. It’s important to decide for yourself, with the help of a health professional, if something like this is right for you, based on your current lifestyle and capabilities. Keep in mind, fasting is not a magical weight loss fix, but just a tool designed to assist in the weight loss process.
If you’d like to read more about my experience with a 24 hour fast, what I learned, and how to implement it for yourself, continue reading. And if you’d like to learn more about fasting, as well as other topics on nutrition, training, fitness, and health, check out The Strong Together Community where we discuss all manner of health related topics and focus on getting better, and stronger, everyday.
First and foremost, I am slightly masochistic and enjoy challenging myself mentally in strange ways. As much as I love the physical aspect of certain challenges, like sports and crazy adventures, the mental aspect of those challenges give me a sense of satisfaction I can’t explain.
So, I decided to fast for 24 hours to challenge myself and prove that I could do it. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that anything you set your mind to can be accomplished.
Beyond that, were actual tangible and beneficial reasons that I wanted to go through this extended fast. As they say, experience is the best teacher, so I wanted to experience an extended fast to learn as much as I could about the process.
There are a long list of theoretical and hypothesized benefits of extended fasts. I say theoretical because many of the studies that have shown these benefits have been done on animals, or only in short-term monitoring periods. Because there isn’t much research in lengthy trials on human subjects, it’s hard to definitively say these are benefits that will play out in humans, or over the long haul.
The possible benefits include:
- Cell Autophagy: the cleaning up and recycling of old cells
- Neuroprotection: protection against neurogenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s
- Improved Heart Health: reduced blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol and risk of cardiovascular disease
- Increased Growth Hormone Secretion: increased metabolism, growth, weight loss and strength
- Improved Insulin Sensitivity: better blood sugar regulation and lower blood sugar levels
- Blunted Hunger Hormone: less feelings of cravings and likelihood of binge eating
- Improved gut microbiome: improved digestion, metabolism and hormones in relation to digestion
- Reduced Inflammation: less pain and chronic inflammation, reducing the risk of several diseases
As wonderful as these benefits may seem, the biggest benefit to fasting comes by shrinking the eating window and reducing the possibility of overeating. It’s been used as a tool for weight loss for this reason.
In fact, in a small pilot study comparing the effects of a daily calorie restricted diet versus a 5:2 fasting diet, where participants ate as they pleased for 5 days and then ate 500 calories for the remaining two days, results for weight loss and health markers were similar. This is a promising outcome, especially for those who find it easier to restrict themselves heavily for 2 days, rather than moderately for 7 days.
Fasting is another option for weight loss that takes away some of the awareness needed in a portion control or calorie counting approach. For this reason, I wanted to experiment with longer fasts and alternate styles of fasting, to see how they worked for myself and how clients could implement them if they choose.
I also wanted to do a 24 hour fast to fully experience true, physical hunger.
How many times in your life have you gone 5 or 6 hours without eating and thought, “OMG I am STARVING!!!”?
We all have and I think it’s pretty normal to think and feel this way, at least by industrialized society standards. However, regardless of what your mind is telling you, you’re not starving and likely haven’t felt the effects of true hunger or starving in your life, or at least recent memory. So, I wanted to go through this 24 hour fast to get in touch with the mental and physical aspects of hunger and gain a better understanding of what hunger really is.
I fasted for 24 hours to challenge myself, test out a possible alternative to traditional calorie restricted dieting, and gain a deeper appreciation for food and understanding of hunger. Those 24 hours, while difficult, were extremely rewarding and valuable in terms of the insight that I gained from the process.
Wasn’t it Awful Not Eating for that Long?
While it was certainly a challenge to refrain from eating during the 24 hour period, it was surprisingly easier than expected. I attribute much of this to the fact that I made a decision, a pact with myself so to speak, not to eat for 24 hours.
As of late I have been doing my best to make promises to myself and then stick to them. This has been in an effort to improve my confidence and momentum in current goals that I’m working towardl. There’s something powerful about making a promise to yourself and then fulfilling that promise. It’s rewarding. It’s fulfilling. And it makes you want to continue doing it.
The 24 hour fast was just another one of those promises made in a long list that I have been making and sticking to.
The hardest part about the 24 hour fast was the constant thoughts surrounding food. Immediately upon waking, my first thought was to eat. While I do feel this way a couple of times per week, this isn’t a norm for me, so I imagine it was a result of wanting what I couldn’t have. It’s human nature to want what you can’t have, which is why I avoid overly restrictive diets as they can lead to issues like binge-eating and other issues.
The most surprising part of the whole process?
I did NOT get hangry. If you know me well, or ask anyone who does, they will tell you that I am one of “those people” who need food consistently throughout the day. There’s a reason why anytime I’m a bit irritable, in a bad mood, or just off, my girlfriend asks me when I last ate. I am the walking, talking definition of hangry.
During the fast, the first 16 hours of the process went by super easy. 7-8 hours of this was sleeping, of course, but the remaining hours weren’t a struggle at all. It wasn’t until I reach the 19 or 20 hour point that I really started to notice any serious signs of hunger, mental or physical.
At this point, I started to hear and feel a bit of stomach rumbling that’s consistent with being physically hungry. I also began to feel less energetic and a bit drained, almost like I had been out in the sun for too long. Concurrent with these physical feelings, were the thoughts and feelings surrounding hunger and food that became much more apparent and stronger.
Prior to the 20 hour mark, I had very little thought about food. I can attest some of that to putting up a mental block, and some of it to staying busy, but in a general sense I don’t think the fast affected me too much up until this point. Once I hit that 20 hour mark, things began to change a bit mentally and physically.
My thoughts turned to food and became a bit obsessive. It reminded me of when I was prepping for my first physique show and all I did during the last couple weeks of prep was obsess over food via the foodporn hashtag on Instagram.
Sidenote: if you are tying to stick to a diet, I don’t suggest checking this out. However, if you want to drool over unbelievably amazing looking and sounding food, this is where you want to be.
Back to the story at hand. So, at about the 20 hour mark my mind and body both began noticing that it hadn’t been fed in nearly a day. I started thinking about what I was going to eat, how it was going to taste, and how long until I could eat again. What had been a fairly smooth and easy process, became much more difficult in a flash.
Thankfully, I knew that it was only a matter of four short hours before I could eat again and that giving in at that point would make me feel worse (for breaking the promise to myself), than sticking it out. So, I spent the next four hours drinking water (Mio flavor enhanced!), entertaining myself (Netflix and chill, anyone?), and doing my best to ignore the overwhelming thoughts of food in my head.
Those last four hours took longer than the first 20 combined, but I was happy when they were over and happy that I completed my goal of fasting for 24 hours. The entire process wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought, certainly didn’t kill me, and made my next meal arguably the greatest tasting meal I’ve had in quite a long time (they were tacos if you were wondering).
What Did I Learn?
My biggest takeaway from this longer fast is that food, hunger, and eating is as much, and likely more, mental than physical. It is a constant thought and feeling that we don’t tend to notice, until we restrict or don’t have access to it.
When your access to food is restricted, it becomes a constant thought on your mind. When will you eat next, what will you eat, how long will it be until you can finally eat. It can be a bit stressful and overwhelming.
This further backs up the idea that restrictive diets don’t work. The more you restrict, the more likely you are to having those racing and overwhelming thoughts about the foods that you’re restricting, it’s a part of human nature.
Through this process, I realized what hunger truly feels like. Not the hyperbole, “I’m starving!”, but true, physical hunger. While it’s not something I care to experience frequently, and I didn’t experience it to the extent that many in less fortunate situations do, it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined it would be.
I had this idea that I would be curled up in a ball, holding my stomach, and unable to do anything productive or active. In reality, this wasn’t the case. I was highly productive for the first 16-18 hours, got in an hour workout with my outdoor Sunday group, and didn’t deal with anything too severe physically.
The fast went against nearly every one of my preconceived notions.
Instead of feeling like crap physically, I actually felt pretty great. Rather than feeling run down, drained, and in a brain fog, I was pretty clear-headed, and had normal levels of energy (until the latter stages). And despite thinking that I would be a big, hangry (and possibly emotional) mess, I dealt with fast pretty well.
The fast taught me plenty about myself, but even more so about food, hunger and the link to thoughts and emotions. This is knowledge, that while I’ve read about and known, didn’t have the same weight as when I experienced it myself. I’m now better equipped to walk clients through the mental aspects of food, hunger, and weight loss so that they can achieve their goals in the most efficient, comfortable, and sustainable manner possible.
How Can You do an Extended Fast?!
If you decide to implement an extended fast, like this 24 hour fast, or one even longer, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure your success, as well as your health and safety.
Most importantly, it’s vital that you check with your doctor before beginning any new diet or health protocol, especially with something like an extended fast. Everyone is different and while there are plenty of possible benefits, there are also numerous possibilities of negative side effects.
So, before you decide to challenge yourself with an extended fast, or use one to help you use weight, first check with your doctor to make sure you’re in a healthy position to do so.
After you’ve got the OK from your doctor, now it’s time to focus on how to implement the fast and make it work for you. This means doing a bit of math, planning out you week (not just the day), and setting your mind to the task.
You read that right, I said plan out the week before the fast. This will set you up so that you are in the best position possible to fast for an extended period. Much like your performance on game day is a product of the week(s) leading up to the game, your success during an extended fast will be a product of the work and planning you put in over the prior week.
The important thing will be figuring out how you’re going to breakdown your eating. Some people choose to eat a bit more the other 6 days building up to the fast, some choose to eat the same and use the day-long fast as a way to increase weight loss (I’m less of a fan of this style), and some people choose to use the fast as a way to enjoy a day or two of heavily increased eating.
I fell into the latter category.
I decided to take the additional calories from the day of fasting, and split them between the two days prior. Since I fasted from Saturday at 7pm to Sunday at 7pm, this meant that Friday and Saturday were days where I got to enjoy a pretty hefty increase to calories. For a bit on the specifics of my calorie breakdown during the week of the fast, check out the chart below:
|24 Hour Fast Week|
All I did was take the 3250 calories from Sunday, and subtract the 750 that I was going to eat that day, leaving me with 2500 calories leftover. I then took the leftover 2500 calories, split it in half, and spread those out over Friday and Saturday, giving me 4500 calories to eat on each day. This allowed me to stay at my maintenance level calories for the week, which was my goal, while consuming a lot more food on Friday and Saturday.
If you wanted to use this process to lose weight, you could reduce the number of calories that you ate throughout the week by a couple hundred each day, or reduce the number of calories eaten on Friday and Saturday by 500 each. This would create a sufficient and healthy deficit that would influence weight loss.
Now that we’ve covered the math portion, aka the boring stuff, let’s touch on some ways to make the fast more enjoyable, or at least easier to get through.
- Stay Busy: Line up tasks, projects, and things for yourself to do. This will keep your mind off food, off the amount of time you haven’t eaten or time until you eat, and make the process go by so much quicker. If you’ve been putting off yard work, this would be a great time to do it (I know from personal experience), or if you have a book you’ve been dying to read
- Entertain Yourself: This is a great chance to catch up on TV shows, watch a movie, or read a book. If you find yourself low on energy, mentally and/or physically, and unable to perform the tasks you laid out for yourself, immerse yourself in something less physically and mentally demanding. Find a good show to binge, rent that moving you’ve been dying to see, or dig into that book that’s been sitting on your night stand for ages.
- Hydrate: Water is going to be your best friend during your fast. Not only will it keep you hydrated, it will also keep you full, to an extent. It’s important to hydrate even more than you would on a typical day, as you won’t be getting a liquid from the foods that you eat.
- Calorie Free Flavor: Sip on drinks that will give you some flavor, without the calories that will break a fast. Coffee and tea are two popular choices, but make sure that you’re drinking your coffee black, and your tea doesn’t have calories. I don’t consume caffeine anymore, so I used Mio flavor additives toward the end of my fast to break up the monotony of plain water. It helped take my mind off food, by giving my mouth some flavor and sweetness to enjoy.
- Break Your Fast with Self-Control: When breaking your fast, it’s important to realize that you’re going to be pretty damn hungry. It’s likely that after you have your first bite of food, you’re going to get overwhelming feelings driving you to eat more and making it harder to stop. I implore you to temper these feelings as they are simply a defense mechanism your body is sending out against further fasting and possible starvation. Plan your meal in advance, make it something you enjoy, and draw a hard-line to stop when the meal is finished. By doing so you’ll be able to stick to your goals, and avoid eating to the point of getting sick.
- Give Yourself an Out: I think the most beneficial strategy for my success was my change in mindset. While I made a commitment to fasting for 24 hours, I also told myself that if things got too uncomfortable or started to feel unhealthy (mentally or physically) I would simply eat. There’s no shame in putting your health above all else, and in doing so it took away a lot of the anxiety or nerves I may have felt by restricting my food.
That’s it. That was my journey with my first, and thus far only, 24 hour fast. While I wouldn’t say it was enjoyable (it’s not a day at the beach or an ice cream sundae), it was certainly better than expected and had plenty to offer.
It was a great opportunity to get in tune with myself, my body, and experience a bit about what true hunger feels like. I gained a greater understanding of fasting and how it can be used as a tool to help clients reach their goals. I learned that hunger is as much, if not more, mental than physical and gained great insight into how this plays a role in weight loss. I’m now better equipped to discuss fasting and advise clients on how to best use it for their goals.
It was a great experience that I plan to do again, and will implement on occasion when it fits into my schedule and life. My next goal is to stretch the fast out for a full 36 hours, fasting from 7pm Saturday night, until 7am Monday morning. While I have no doubts that I can achieve this (if I hadn’t set a 24 hour time period and fixated my mind on a certain time, I could’ve extended this fast out without issue), my biggest worry is the possible effects it may have on my sleep, but that is a bridge to be crossed once I get there.
Again, like any diet or style of eating, fasting is a tool to be used to reach a goal. While there are numerous purported health benefits, the most important benefit is the shrinking of the eating window, and possibly your waistline as a result. And like any tool, fasting should be used when it is right for the job. This will be different for each person and situation, and the biggest question to ask is, “does this fit my current lifestyle? Is it something I can do long-term?” If you answer yes to both of those questions, then fasting just might be the tool that helps your reach your goals, but it won’t do the work for you.