Ever since I listened to the first Tim Ferriss podcast interview with Dom D’Agnostino in 2015, the idea of a 3 day fast has intrigued me.
In the interview Dom spoke about how fasting triggers quite a unique series of events in the human body including (but not limited to): hormone rebalancing, triggering autophagy, easing digestive stress, boosting immunity, killing cancerous and pre-cancerous cells and improving brain function. All are pretty useful benefits, but there was one in particular that I liked the sound of – triggering autophagy.
What’s autophagy when it’s at home?
Autophagy is essentially the body ‘cleaning up’. I’ve taken the following explanation straight from Dom D’Agnostino’s website…
Autophagy is the cellular process that ensures protein and organelle turnover by degrading what is no longer needed and recycling materials to be used again by the cell, either as energy or synthesis of new structures.
In English, during the life cycle of a cell bits and pieces are broken, stop working as effectively and reach the end of their functional life. Autophagy is the process by which the body clears out, recycles and disposes of these bits, ensuring the cells stay healthy and functional. It’s occurring in the background all of the time, but by fasting we boost the process and make it more effective.
It’s the physiological equivalent of spring cleaning the house, taking the junk to the tip and giving the clothes you no longer need to the charity shop. We all know how good that feels.
With the benefits too strong and numerous to ignore, my girlfriend Rachel and I did a 3 day fast. In this article I’m going to give you an account of what happened, what we learned and how you can do it too…
So Why a 3 Day Fast? Why Not 24 Hours?
There’s various bits of research that suggests 3 days is how long we really need to give autophagy the boost it needs. It’s also the amount of time that Dom suggests as a way to nip pre-cancerous and cancerous cells in the bud, which is a huge benefit to fasting, especially if you have a history of cancer in the family (which Rachel and I both have).
We all have cancerous cells in our bodies, but our immune system deals with them just fine. A problem occurs when the cancerous cells aren’t dealt with by our immune system and a tumour develops. Here’s where fasting is so helpful in the fight against cancer – the tumour feeds off glucose (sugar), so by not eating for three days you effectively starve the cancer cells, killing them or making them easier for our immune system to deal with.
You don’t need to eat all the time, because the rest of the body functions just fine on a mixture of stored energies in our bodies – glycogen, fat and if you’re in ketosis, ketone bodies. It’s the cancer that suffers, which is why Dom (as a cancer specialist) is so in favour of us fasting – he is seeing in his lab the profound benefits of fasting and how effective a low sugar lifestyle is against metabolic diseases such as cancer.
I took his suggestion of everyone over 35 benefitting from a 3 day fast literally, so that’s why it was 3 days.
My Fasting History
I’m not new to fasting – I’ve known about it for well over a decade and I’ve done dozens of fasts ranging from 18 to 36 hours. I’ve felt and seen the benefits of a period without food. Given I don’t really eat breakfast, I’m an accidental intermittent faster anyway.
It’s a process I’ve used with a lot of personal training clients to help them lose weight. It’s an effective dieting tool because it’s so easy to follow – rather than worry about calories, you just don’t eat! Kind of takes care of the matter for you.
Anyway, back to my point… I’m certainly not new to fasting. This was the first time I’d ever attempted a 3 day fast though.
I’d toyed with the idea of doing a 3 day fast before but timing (or perhaps motivation to avoid food) hasn’t been quite there. The reason this time was different though was because Rachel had a week off work and was willing to join me in this (she’d also learnt about the benefits so was interested in trying the fast out).
This was massive – if you’re going to do a 3 day fast, you’ll need support. It’s certainly not easy.
Defining a Fast
There’s some confusion as to what constitutes a fast. Michael Mosely wrote the 5:2 diet book and describes low calorie days as a fast. There are other low calorie nutrition approaches known as ‘fast mimicking diets‘, then there’s water fasts, intermittent fasts and the like. We weren’t doing any of these. Here’s the rules of our fast….
- No food at all. None. Not a crumb.
- Only water, black coffee, herbal/green tea and BCAA drinks allowed.
- Squeezing fresh lemon or lime juice into water was allowed.
- Sugar free chewing gum was acceptable.
I’ve seen some fasts where people have consumed MCT oil in coffee, but that’s not a fast in my eyes, given you can consume hundreds of calories per day that way. We allowed a BCAA (branch chain amino acids) drink in order to minimise any muscle loss.
In case you’re interested, here’s the BCAA drink we used. Tasted good, which helped a lot (you’ll find out why later!)
How We Approached the Fast
There’s no benefit from making the fast harder than it needs to be. You’re already going without food, so if you can make the process easier psychologically or physiologically (within the rules), then you should do – that’s my thinking anyway.
With that in mind I decided to not exercise. Walking would be fine and I’d imagine a gentle weight training workout would be OK, I just didn’t do it. Three days without training wouldn’t be a big deal. Rachel managed nearly 17,000 steps one day when she was without her car and felt fine, so low intensity exercise is not a problem.
To make up for my lack of exercise, I thought I’d combine the fast with a sauna. I would have had a sauna every day, but in reality time constraints meant I only managed 1. It didn’t seem to affect me negatively, so I think there’s nothing wrong with it. You’re not restricted on how much fluid you can consume, so a sauna is fair game.
My initial thinking was that we should hyper-mineralise by taking multivitamins and minerals, but in the end I forgot to re-order some so didn’t end up taking them. If I was going to advise someone doing a fast, I’d suggest they do this. Not that we suffered because we didn’t, but I just don’t see how there would be any harm in it.
I anticipated headaches – this is common apparently. There’s a lot of theories as to why this happens, but one of them is down to sodium balance. The advice is to add a pinch of salt to drinks (just a pinch – you don’t want to drink salty water). I took this approach and it worked well, so follow that advice. I had one or two very minor headaches but they quickly cleared with the salt approach.
We decided the first full day of the fast would be the Wednesday, so I trained hard on the Tuesday and had a high protein, high carb meal in the evening. By the time I stopped eating it was 10pm, so my fast started at 10pm on Tuesday.
I weighed myself 9 times throughout the process to track my weight loss. My starting weight was 95.25kg (209.6 lbs)
What Happened in the 3 Day Fast…
I wrote observational notes throughout the fast, knowing I’d be writing an article on it. I wrote my thoughts down as they happened, so I would be recording an accurate snapshot in time. I didn’t want this to be a reflection after the event, where memories are skewed.
The beginning of the first day was really easy. I wasn’t new to fasting so it wasn’t an issue in the slightest. The end of the day is where it starts to get interesting!
What you’re reading here is exactly how I felt at the time, taken from my notes…
End of Day 1…
When we were feeding the kids it was torture. I bottled it and went to do some work upstairs, leaving Rach to feed them! It was a homemade lasagne so that would have been a nightmare for me to be around – just too tempting. Luckily Rach is stronger than I am so could (just about) cope with it!
Temptation was MAJOR! I was avoiding it at all costs, but it was tested at one point. I forgot my wallet when I went to get fuel for the car, so I had to pay on my phone. That meant I had to walk into the shop, smell the baked goods, see the chocolate, crisps etc. When you haven’t eaten for nearly 24 hours, a chocolate bar is hard to ignore! Food packaging makes food look even better!
My stomach was rumbling a lot by the evening. At this point, 3 days without food feels like a looooooong time!
Bodyweight 93.5kg (205.7lbs). Weight loss for the day: 1.75kg (3.85lbs).
I woke up weighing 92.6kg, meaning I’d lost another 900g (nearly 2lb). We all lose weight overnight, so that was expected.
Interesting observation. When you tell someone you’re fasting, they make it all about them. Everyone says “Ooooh, you’d never get me doing that!” My internal monologue thinks “Don’t then. I’m not asking you to!” Most of us make things all about ourselves.
I noticed I was feeling the cold more. I don’t know if this was a side effect of the fasting or not, but I was more aware of the cold than usual and it wasn’t any colder than it had been. Not exactly robust science, just an observation.
Distracting tastebuds with any kind of flavour is helpful. This is a mint tea with mint leaves picked from the garden. Anything but another cup of crappy coffee.
Little aches and pains I carry around with me (side effect of training hard aged nearly 37) were gone. More on this later – it’s an interesting point I need to discuss.
I’m staring temptation in the face again – I have a meeting in a restaurant at lunch time. Waitresses are carrying plates of food around the place. It smells amazing. My tap water is boring.
Psychological tricks are starting to come in now. I’m counting down the hours until I can eat again. It’s half way through and whilst I’m not especially hungry, I’m missing the taste of food. Texture isn’t bothering me.
I’ve developed a ‘fasting hack’ – instead of thinking about the lack of food, instead turn it into a positive. My body is using its fat stores. My cells are cleaning themselves. I’m not missing food, I’m being restored!
Rach and I are discussing how we’ve found it. The odd thing is the lack of hunger. It makes you realise hunger really is transient – we haven’t eaten for 48 hours. We should be starving, but we’re not. If only other people would be willing to fast, they’d learn the same! You have to feel it yourself to believe it.
Whilst we’re not hungry, we’re REALLY ready for food – mostly to taste something again. Black, unsweetened coffee is grim. I’m bored of water. BCAA drink is helping, but it’s hardly nectar.
End of the day and I’m developing cravings for a very particular taste – the char on meat cooked on a grill. I’m craving salt. Nothing sweet though, which is a surprise. I’m not hungry at all, which has made me understand the difference between hunger and a craving. A craving is a psychological yearning for a food – hunger is a physical one. That’s my theory anyway.
Bodyweight 92.3kg (203lbs). Weight loss for the day: 1.2kg (2.64lbs).
I woke up and weighed myself. 92.15kg. Weight loss slowing down – probably because glycogen stores would be low/non existent so there’s less water loss.
I’m pretty tired (I’ve done three 5.30am starts on the bounce), but managing to avoid any cravings for sweet food. Arguably the biggest bonus of this approach is the black or white nature of it. I can’t eat, so I’m not overthinking things. No food is an option, so I don’t have to think about the ‘best’ choice. There isn’t one.
The end is in sight now and food is occupying pretty much every waking thought. Rach and I are talking about food all the time, I seem to be having conversations about it all of the time. It’s not helping my cravings, but such is life.
The last few hours are going sloooooow. It’s ticking by. I’ve gone this far, three hours won’t be too tough. I think.
End of day 3… Bodyweight 91.55kg (201.4lbs). Weight loss for the day: 0.75kg (1.65lbs).
Total Weight Lost: 3.7kg (8.14lbs).
Breaking My 3 Day Fast
I was so excited about breaking the fast. I was going through a load of different options about what I was going to eat, but the winner was a grilled chicken and salad kebab with garlic mayo and a portion of doner meat and chips. That’s right – two fulls meals for one person, in one go. Glutton.
It was obscene. I attacked it like a pack of hyena’s feasting on a wildebeest kill. It probably took me 10 minutes tops to eat the lot. I followed that up with a Krispy Kreme doughnut and a bag of chocolate orange mini eggs….
Then it hit me.
I’d written a cheque my digestive system couldn’t cash. I felt sick, I could barely move and had to lie down on the sofa. I looked pregnant, my stomach was making a gurgling sound like an old washing machine draining itself and I needed a nap… at 11pm. Well, I call it a nap, but in reality I probably slipped into a food coma!
I woke up about 20 minutes later and had to move around to help my body digest the food. It took at least two hours before I felt human again. Lesson learned – you have to ease back into after a 3 day fast!
Weight Loss on a 3 Day Fast
I’ll start by saying this – weight loss was not the reason we fasted. It was an obvious and a temporary side effect. Obvious because of course we were going to lose weight – we weren’t eating. Temporary because most of the weight we lost would be water weight.
We store sugar in our bodies in the form of glycogen. This is kept in two main places – the muscle tissue and the liver. Each glycogen molecule is stored with a 3-4 water molecule ‘buffer’. When we use the glycogen and don’t replace it (as we do when fasting), we lose the water. On the first day of fasting you have to nip to the toilet a lot, even though you’re not drinking any more than normal – it’s the water you’re getting rid of.
If you look at the weight loss, you’ll see the biggest drop was from day 1, where most of the water went. It slowed down after that….
Rachel started her fast at 72.35kg (159.2lbs) and ended it at 68.9kg (151.6lbs), so she lost 3.45kg (7.6lbs). What she didn’t do was abuse her digestive system by gorging on meat and chips afterwards, so bounced out of the fast feeling great from the start, whereas I took a few hours to recover first!
I had a pretty indulgent weekend – I was out for food and beers with my friends on Saturday night, so you’d expect me to have gained the weight back. I was actually 94.25kg this morning, which is still 1kg or 2.2lbs down on Tuesday night. I’d imagine the weight I’ve regained was the water weight alone.
Legacy Benefits of the 3 Day Fast
It has been 3 days since we broke our fasts, so we can reflect on the benefits. Rachel had an immediate one – she’d fundamentally changed her ability to eat a volume of food. Her breakfast the following morning after breaking her fast was a bowl of berries with nuts and yoghurt – it wasn’t a big bowl, but she couldn’t finish it in one sitting! She had to eat it over two days.
Psychologically, we’d changed our thinking around food and hunger. We knew (because we’d experienced it) that hunger was transient. It comes and goes and our ability to resist fleeting feelings of hunger are now improved. We’ve had a system upgrade on that front.
You’re not as in ‘need’ of food either. Taking today as an example, I woke up and had a coffee. I then did a couple of personal training sessions, trained myself and came home to write. I’ve been sat at the computer all day and haven’t eaten a meal yet, which would normally be a total shock. I’m a certified glutton, so maybe that has changed.
It would make sense that our appetites have changed. Appetite is driven largely by hormones, so if we’ve had a digestive hormone re-set/re-balancing, maybe something has changed on that front. I don’t have evidence beyond the anecdotal, but it stands to reason that the fast could have done that to us.
Fasting and Injury Healing
Earlier on in the article (if you can remember that far back!) I mentioned aches and pains had gone and I wanted to discuss this issue further.
I need to stress that I wasn’t injured – I’m just nearly 37 and work my body hard. I weight train 4 times per week, I play football on hard surfaces 1-2 times per week and don’t get enough sleep. I don’t recover like I did when I was 21, because well, I’m not 21 any more! The aches and pains are totally normal and expected in someone my age, with my exercise habits.
But after that fast, they’ve gone. My lower back isn’t stiff. My right knee doesn’t give me occasional grief. My shoulders are fine.
I think that it may be down to an elimination of inflammatory foods. It would be easy to suggest that it’s because I wasn’t training, but I disagree with that and here’s why – I’ve gone without training for longer than 3 days before, but the niggles have persisted. I’ve never gone without food for three days before. When I did, the pain went too.
Autophagy being enhanced may have sped the repair of tissues, plus the lack of foods that increase inflammation may have been the dream team for helping to clear a few long-standing minor sources of discomfort. By not eating any known allergens (or anything else, for that matter) and combining it with recovery-boosting sauna use, it seems to have helped me recover.
The hyper-hydration as well probably didn’t hurt either. I was drinking 2.5-3 litres per day.
Lessons Learned From a 3 Day Fast
The 3 day fast made me question my assumptions of health, nutrition and will power. I still believe that willpower is finite and not a good way to diet – relying on will power is a sure-fire way to fail on a diet in fact. By fasting, you’re drawing a line under food – you’re not eating anything and so aren’t faced with such acute temptation.
If like me, you suffer with ‘unable to stop stuffing your face after the first bite syndrome’ then fasting could be the cure. When you’re fasting, you don’t even have the first bite, so bites 2-10,000 don’t exist. Something to think about.
Finally, I’ve decided fasting is a far simpler approach to weight loss. You don’t have to figure out macronutrient splits, calories or make choices around foods. You don’t give a shit what ‘colour’ day it is, how many ‘syns’ are in something or how many carbs are in it. If you’re prone to overthinking your food, this could be the way for you.
The biggest lesson is that your body is PERFECTLY equipped to deal with a short period (a few hours to a few days) without food. Hunger subsides – stop being a whiney little bitch about it. Make your peace with the fact that you’re hungry and you’ll notice that very quickly, it goes away.
It’s interesting how many people I’ve spoken to who claim they ‘go all shaky and stop functioning’ if they don’t eat three meals per day. I’m not saying they’re lying, but I am saying they’re probably wrong. Think about it – the human body has evolved over 2 million years. We’ve had a steady food supply for probably 150 or so. If, as they claim, their body shuts down after a few hours without food they’d have probably been eaten by an animal of some sort. Survival of the fittest.
Tips For Managing a 3 Day Fast
By this point I’ve gone on for nearly 3500 words, so I thought I’d share some insight and tips on how to do a fast. These worked for us, so I’m sure they’ll work for you too.
- Ignore or embrace your hunger and cravings. They’re a part of fasting. Get over it.
- Don’t make it more difficult than it needs to be. Avoid temptation – stay out of shops, avoid people eating, don’t watch food programmes on TV.
- Keep your taste buds entertained as best as you can. Drink black coffee, mint tea, lemon water. If you rely on just water, you’re probably nuts.
- Have a friend do it with you. Rachel did it with me – without her I probably wouldn’t have lasted the three days.
- Drink a lot of fluids to fill your stomach. It helps a lot.
- Keep yourself busy – if you’re bored, your mind wanders to food when you’re hungry!
- Chew sugar free chewing gum. It gives you something to taste and chew without breaking your fast.
- If you keep thinking of food, make yourself busy. Take your mind off it.
- Remember why you’re doing it. It’s good for you. Keep that in mind!
3 Day Fast: Final Thoughts
It’s easy to be wise after the event, but I’m glad we did the fast. It was a physical and psychological challenge. It was tough, but it was rewarding. I learned a lot – about myself, about Rach, about food, about hunger, about psychology, physiology and I think it has improved my understanding of weight loss and cravings.
I don’t think everyone should do a 3 day fast off the bat – build up to it by doing 18, 24 and 36 hour fasts to teach yourself how to cope without food. Like exercise, your ability to tolerate it increases with exposure.
I’m not in any rush to repeat the 3 day fast, but given we’ve experienced tangible benefits from it, we’d certainly do it again. Rach and I both feel better for it and ultimately, that’s exactly why you do it. It’s not especially nice, but the benefits are. Physiologically and psychologically, we’re a bit better than we were on Tuesday last week!
Do it yourself and you’ll be better too.
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