My fasting background
I’m no stranger to fasting. I started the way most people do, with a “no breakfast” 16/8 (hours of fasting/hours of eating) approach popularised by Martin Berkhan’s Lean Gains movement when I was more of a meathead in my early twenties. It was thrilling to me to feel like I’d taken the red pill and seen through the crazy lies of “Big Breakfast”, unshackling myself from the madness. There’s an intoxicating feeling of superiority that comes from looking around your crowded commuter train at the sleepy occupants and patting yourself on the back for your restraint and self discipline, fuelled by your own fat, mannnn.
Some time later I discovered Brad Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat book (the main thrust of which is that it’s simpler to not eat for 24 hours straight once or twice a week than manage feeding windows every day) and, a little jaded by how popular intermittent fasting had become, how mainstream and un-hardcore it now was, I adopted his approach. If you think merely skipping breakfast will make you feel like a big shot, wait until you haven’t eaten in twenty-four hours but you’re still (somehow) able to function. When you can do that, you are breathing rarefied air, a truly elite being.
Hopefully how tongue in cheek that intro was is apparent and you’ve managed to get this far. I do think that some of the early popularity of these movements was born of the feeling of superiority they gave you, but that’s a post for another day.
Truthfully, fasting has been a really beneficial thing for me. Always skinny, I was the type of person that would use not having eaten in three hours as an excuse for acting out, being irritable and generally irritating. Fasting taught me that I’m perfectly capable of not eating for a while, and nothing bad happens. On the contrary, for those that haven’t tried it, many people experience a sort of clean energy feeling while fasting that makes it much easier to focus. I’ve definitely found that to be true for myself, and a little research suggests it’s to do with increased output of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).
One of the things I like best about it is that it ties in nicely with the Stoic ideas about voluntary hardship in order to toughen yourself up and realise you can survive outside of our hugely comfortable and privileged societal norms. I get the same sort of satisfaction from a fast as I do from many other types of exercised self-control like making myself exercise even when I really don’t want to, walking in the rain, cold showers, etc.
Make no mistake, I very much understand that, as with other forms of minimalism, you have to be coming from a position of great fortune in order to voluntarily pass up the opportunity to eat delicious food.
I’m also very lucky in that I’ve not had much or any real struggles with excess body fat, thankfully, and my genes, medical history and natural/learned attitudes towards food have been a major part of that, but I do try to keep this the case. I exercise regularly and eat healthily, and I fast. This helps me to feel a little less guilty about the pure genetic luck I enjoy in easily maintaining a healthy weight, because I can say that I actually do put some effort in. How much things like fasting currently do for me in this regard is hard to tell, but I’ve managed to keep trim into my early thirties so far, and I intend to do my best to maintain my body composition as long as I can. I consider it practice for later in life when I will actually need tools like this as my metabolism slows down.
There are also lots of health benefits associated with fasting, but I’m no expert on it. I’ve read enough to be dangerous, as they say, but so far so good for myself.
It’s worth pointing out that fasting seems to suit me, and I’m lucky that way. Quite accidentally on days without my normal routine cues—most commonly at the weekend or on holiday—I naturally forget to eat until lunchtime or sometimes even dinner time. This wasn’t always the case, but years of experience with not eating for periods of time has removed the blinders and made it much easier for me to eat when I’m actually hungry rather than out of habit. I also feel good when fasting, for the most part, bar feeling a little colder than usual and, obviously, feeling a little hungry. This isn’t everyone’s experience—my fiancée finds that fasting makes her feel physically ill and this isn’t uncommon—but I’m one of the lucky ones.
Since adopting the Eat Stop Eat approach, where you have a day-long fast every five or seven days, I’ve stuck with it largely uninterrupted for the last five years. Fasting for a whole day has come to feel very routine and normal, and I don’t think of it as a big deal. I enjoy the lack of food-related jobs to be done and can work in longer, more focused blocks without thinking about or eating my next meal. Hunger isn’t an unknown or scary sensation, and I’ve come to see how it’s often cue-based rather than an actual need for food.
I like to top-up my knowledge on things like this on a regular basis, so last year read a book by Dr Jason Fung with an up-to-date medical perspective on fasting. While I’ve comfortably lived in my day-long fast bubble for a few years, it opened my eyes to the idea that you could fast, healthily, for longer than twenty-four hours. People can quite comfortably fast for much longer periods, both anecdotally and when under medical supervision.
As a person that likes to probe the edges of my comfort zone, I got intrigued and started to wonder how far I could push things. I think of myself as naturally suited to fasting, but how suited is suited?
I bit the bullet and, unannounced to anyone, tried a three day fast in summer 2020. 2020 was weird enough as it was, so the idea of fasting for three days didn’t even register as a blip on my “this is weird”-dar. It stretched me in a way I remember single day fasts stretching me at first. I confronted uncomfortable levels of hunger for the first time since a day without food had become mundane, and it was an interesting experience, forcing me to find out how much of that was real and how much of it was just psychological.
One of the most surprising discoveries for me was that my workout performance didn’t really drop at all. Granted, three days is not long and, while skinny, I definitely have plenty of body fat to burn, but I expected a huge drop-off in stamina and/or strength. At the time I was doing HIIT-style kettlebell workouts at home (this was during Ireland’s first lockdown, when things were new and exciting), and I imagined that I’d be lying on the floor dreaming of pizza after five minutes of elevated heart rate.
Instead, while I felt slightly different, the actual numbers on my workouts (and I was sure to train each day so I could see if things dropped off) were unaffected. On day three this feeling of ‘difference’ was more pronounced, but even then my measurable performance remained consistent. The only time I really felt the kind of dizzy weakness I expected was after a ninety minute walk at about hour 70 of the 72 hour target, and even then it disappeared as soon as I took a break and sat down for a few minutes.
My mood also remained stable. As I mentioned, I hadn’t told everybody what I was doing, and my girlfriend never guessed or noticed anything off about me. When I told her I was at hour 70 she was shocked!
I haven’t done a three-dayer since, mostly because I wouldn’t want it to be a super regular thing—it’s more of an occasional challenge to push myself rather than something I think would be a sustainable lifestyle long-term—but also because I honestly wasn’t feeling mentally up to it towards the end of last year. Multiple successive lockdowns, COVID-19 and feeling a sense of isolation meant that I didn’t really fancy spiking my adrenaline levels with a prolonged fast. It seemed like a good way to crank up the juice on some anxiety I was experiencing, like most people have.
However, with 2020 behind me and in the interest of picking myself up and building my resilience once more, I decided that I would try a quite neat approach to annual fasting that I think I’ve stolen from Max Shank, although I can’t find the article where he said it. It’s something like this:
Fast for one day each week, three days each quarter, and one week a year, a.k.a the 1/3/7 plan.
What this amounts to in practice is that, with eleven weeks of single-day fasting and one week of three-day fasting per quarter, you end up spending 14 days—or two weeks—per quarter not eating. I quite like the round number-ness of this, and it feels like, if life-long mild calorie restriction really is the healthy and healthspan-increasing practice recent science suggests it might be, it’s a nice, sustainable and not-life-impacting way to do it. I’d personally rather be a little hungry for two weeks per quarter and eat reasonably the rest of the time than restrict my calories every day and be a little hungry all the time. It’s very easy to just not eat vs. counting calories and nutrients and all that jazz. Like I said, I consider myself lucky to be someone that can fast relatively comfortably.
The elephant in that particular room is the entire week part of it, though. I’ve only done one three day fast at the time of writing. It wasn’t a harrowing experience, and was in fact much easier than I thought it would be, but the idea of going seven straight days without any food does scare me a little bit. I’m not committing wholeheartedly to that idea for 2021 at least. I’m toying with the idea of trying more of a 1/3/5 approach for year one.
I think my best chance at my first seven day fast would actually be to ‘trick myself’ into it, like a sneak attack. Start out with a three day time horizon and then just keep going a few hours longer, and a few mealtimes longer, and maybe another night of sleep longer, and so on, until I make it to seven days without ever having to stare at the enormity of it in one go. I like pushing my boundaries, but the idea of seven straight days is a daunting one. I find it best with all forms of fasting to forget you’re going to do it until you’re doing it. It helps me not to counteract the calorie restriction benefits by pre-eating and it helps to make it feel less of a big deal when I’m done, limiting a celebratory end of fast binge.
As I write this, I’m halfway through my second three-dayer—the first of 2021—and I’m using some of that aforementioned clean energy and clean focus to put these thoughts down, as well as to keep a few notes on the actual experience of the fast.
All in all, I consider fasting to be a really beneficial practice for me. I can see why it’s a mainstay of so many religions, as it does provide a clarity of thinking that I don’t often get when not fasting. It may prolong both the absolute and healthy span of our lives, and it pretty obviously helps to avoid putting on, or help taking off, excess body fat. This isn’t medical advice and you should do your own research, but if you’re curious about it, I think it’s worth a shot, provided you can do so in a healthy way.
Now, time to find something else I can do to distract myself from it being lunchtime…