if you believe the fervent hype, you might think that spring's arrival is the signal for a major detoxifying fast. But don't rush into this holiday from food. Responsible alt-health experts stress that fasting is not for everybody - and certainly shouldn't be done without a practitioner's advice. There's an art to gently fading in and out of a foodless state. You eat more and more lightly as you go in, and break the fast by very gradually reintroducing fruits, then veggies, carbs and proteins. Plenty of water all the way through is a must. Coming off should last half the length of the entire abstention. Make sure your schedule during and for a week or two after is very light. Fasting works best when combined with lots of rest and a minimum of stress.
While short-term juice or fruit fasts may benefit healthy people, more intense programs can deplete energy, vitamins, minerals and muscle tissue. If your fat stores contain a lot of toxic compounds and your liver and kidneys aren't ready to deal with the onslaught when your body burns its fat stores for fuel, you can become very ill.
If you use purgative herbs or "cleansing" supplements in combination with a fast, you risk irritating your insides. These herbs can throw your sodium, potassium, calcium or magnesium levels are out of whack and the results can be confusion, irregular heartbeat and convulsions.
Don't try fasting if you have a chronic illness, take medication, suffer from weakness or thinness, constipation or irritation of the urinary system, consume junk food regularly (making an abrupt change is hard on your body) or experience sugar cravings due to falling blood sugar.
"I do not recommend a fast or water fast. People will feel good, particularly two or three days in, because they often eat a lot of foods they're intolerant to. But there are ways to do it better. I advocate temporarily eating a nutrient-dense low-calorie diet for no more than a week. Increase cooked and juiced leafy greens, eat small amounts of chicken, deep sea fish, wild salmon or tofu and very low or no starches, remove the common poorly tolerated foods and support detoxification with botanicals, vitamins and minerals. If you can achieve detox through non-agressive, safe means, then why not?"
ERIC MARSDEN naturopathic doctor, Richmond Hill
"According to our guidelines, it would never be advisable for a dietitian to recommend a fasting diet. There's not a lot of clinical evidence that fasting will detoxify your body or that your body needs a rest from digestion. Fasting won't help you lose weight. You make it harder for your body to lose weight - by feeding off your muscle stores and wasting the lean tissue. That in itself lowers your body's metabolism."
KARRI KOACH , registered dietitian, Lifestyle Metabolism Center, Toronto
"I'm observing here in the West that people are doing fasts for 10, 15, 20 days, for quite long periods, without considering their constitution. This lack of understanding could lead to side effects. According to Ayurveda, normal, healthy individuals can fast with warm water and appropriate herbs (as chosen for your constitution by an Ayurvedic physician) one day per week. This allows the digestive system to rest, and resets the digestive fire. During a fast, we recommend herbs such as ginger , black pepper and cayenne pepper to help reset the digestive fire and neutralize toxins in the system."
SONAL BHATT (MEHTA) Ayurvedic physician
"Once you start to feel better overall (from acupuncture and herbs), you can start gentle fasting to maintain the balance in your system. It's a way for your whole digestive system to just have a day off and relax. It's probably best to do it with a practitioner. I suggest fasting one day a month for about six months using organic fruit and juices, and always on a day when you don't have to work, when you can rest."
NOEL WRIGHT, MSc in acupuncture, clinical supervisor, the Michener Institute, Toronto
"When we're ill, we don't have an appetite. It's a good idea in such cases to stop eating and drink mostly fluids. However, if someone on his or her own wants to do a longer fast, I don't suggest going ahead without medical supervision. When we fast, the body starts to detoxify. If the kidney, liver and colon are not properly prepared, the toxins that start to be dumped there put excess stress on those organs, and the person may become very sick. Look for an organization where doctors supervise therapeutic fasting. You prepare your internal organs with herbal tea. A very gentle herb that everyone can use is dandelion . The roots and leaves together help the kidneys, liver and pancreas."
AGOTA CSEKEY , herbalist, iridologist, Toronto
To clarify a matter from last week: some commercial drinks containing yerba maté may have aspartame, but freshly brewed maté does not.