At around 2 am this morning I completed a 100-hour fast. I wasn’t awake for this milestone but I woke feeling pretty accomplished. In fact, I’m still fasting because I want to keep my body in my 1 pm – 7 pm eating rhythm so this is going to end up being closer to a 110-hour fast.
When I mention that I’m fasting to people (which I rarely do because it usually triggers all kinds of unsolicited advice or dietary thoughts from people who don’t know my body, goals, health, etc.) the first question is almost always “why would you starve yourself?”
First off (and this may come off slightly pedantic), starvation and fasting are not the same things. Yes, they both involve a lack of food consumption but starvation is unintentional while fasting is intentional. That distinction is important. Intention and the ability to change your situation are important factors and we recognize that in many situations. Boxing and assault are different things. Sex and rape are different. Torture and BDSM are different. In fact, it is the ability to change your situation and the intention that generally separates what we view as a crime and what we view as a perfectly fine (though possibly dangerous) activity. So, I wasn’t starving myself, I was fasting.
Alright, now that I’ve preached about the importance of words and definitions I’ll answer the heart of the question. Why do I fast?
There are actually a few different reasons. The main one is that I’m interested in pushing my abilities to see what I am capable of. The only way to know for sure if I have the willpower to do something and that food is a tool used by me and not something I’m a slave to is to intentionally go without it even when it is in abundance. I have had a generally unhealthy relationship with food where I turn to it in times of stress or simply for the pleasure of it instead of recognizing it as primarily a way to fuel my body.
So, having the mental fortitude to go days without it is a real sense of accomplishment for me. I see this as related to both my Stoic and meditative practices. The Stoics recommended that people go with bland food, poor clothing, and expose themselves to the elements regularly as a way to remind themselves that they can survive and it isn’t so bad. This removes the fear of failure, losing your job, and lacking other things we take for granted. Our species evolved during times of pretty severe fast and famine with the seasons, we used to walk barefoot across continents and over mountains, I think taking a few days off of food is a very small test.
As a mindfulness exercise, this helps remove the mindless eating that I normally do. I begin to appreciate food and my senses are heightened to the aromas, tastes, and textures of food as I go without it. My first meal this afternoon is going to be an enchilada casserole that I’m making and I plan to sit silently and savor every bite. Fasting helps me appreciate food again and get in touch with the intimate process of shopping, cooking and eating. Food is literally our life source and it comes from the death of other lives, that isn’t something to be taken for granted and partaken in mindlessly and casually.
The second reason is my interest in longevity. Calorie reduction is associated with longer life and by entering periods of fasting my body starts the autophagy process. Autophagy is a cellular self-cleaning process that breaks down and recycles damaged molecules and cell parts. This housekeeping keeps cells fresh, minimizes the unnecessary reproduction of new cells (which is a source of diseases like cancer), can help prevent neurodegeneration, and is an additional cellular defense against bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Obviously, there is no real way to test if I will be healthier long-term with or without fasting but the studies seem to point to significant potential health benefits and no real downsides (as long as you do it in a healthy and reasonable way).
The final reason is a little bit vainer. It is a great way to burn off some extra fat. After the second day of fasting my glycogen stores were empty and my body converted to fat burning mode. I kept my exercise routine which means I probably burnt about .75 – 1 lbs per day of just fat. I actually weigh 8.4 lbs less today than I did when I started the fast but I imagine I’ll gain 3-4 lbs back when I start restoring my glycogen and water. According to my scale, I lowered my body fat percentage by about .5% in the last few days. If I can keep running calorie neutral or with a deficit that reduction in fat will be permanent. Contrary to popular opinion, your body does not really burn muscle during fasting. Converting protein from muscle into fuel is a much more difficult process than tapping into our fat stores. Fat exists in our body to be used during times of need, muscle exists for a very different reason.
The next question I receive after “Why the fuck?” is “How is it going? Aren’t you hungry”?
It went pretty well. The first day was fine. I normally don’t eat until 1 pm or so and it was pretty easy to just not eat for the rest of the day. I ran 8-miles that morning and it went well (but I still had full energy stores from eating the night before).
Day two I felt a bit sluggish with a bit of a “meh” feeling. It actually reminded me of a mild form of MDMA hangover. I was able to get everything accomplished and was reasonably productive but I didn’t really have a desire or passion for things. My 2-mile run that day was kind of uncomfortable. I just felt like I was dragging ass. I was hungry most of the day and consumed copious amounts of decaf coffee, green tea, and vegetable broth to help keep feeling full. Oh, I should probably mention that every day I took a multi-vitamin each day and drank water with electrolytes in it.
Day three things started to get easier. I wasn’t really hungry and my 5-mile run went pretty well. I also went to the gym and did a solid upper body workout. I didn’t have a ton of energy for the workout but I got through it and my chest and arms are still sore, which is a pretty good sign. I started having a real sense of peace, calmness, and clarity on day three. I was really productive at work, was motivated, and able to concentrate on things.
Day four I was really in a groove. The hunger was completely gone. I still wanted to eat as a way to get pleasure or distract myself from work or stress, but I wasn’t truly hungry. Due to this, I was able to assess why I wanted food and act accordingly. My 2-mile run was really rough but that was because I had a tough morning workout with my personal trainer that day, I had plenty of energy but I lacked muscle strength. During my daily walks (I usually do 2-3 per day) I had a strange sense of “lightness”. I felt like I was floating or that my perspective was actually about 2 inches higher than it normally is. My body felt slightly unattached to my mind. It was almost like a light disassociative feeling that I’ve felt on ketamine (my god, are all my life references really related to drug use? That’s kinda awesome). It was really euphoric and I actually still feel it right now as I sit here on the morning of day 5.
Now that this is complete I am turning my mind to the next steps and whether this experience is going to change my routine.
Yes, yes it will, in a couple ways.
First, I’m going to try and shrink my daily eating window. I’d love to get down to a 5-hour or 4-hour window to maximize autophagy and fat burning during my day-to-day life. The only exception to this window, as is always the case, is if I have something awesome to do. I’m not going to miss out on brunch with friends, going to a beer festival, etc. just because I have a day-to-day fasting habit. My goal is to be on point about 80% of the time. I gotta love life as well as live it.
Second, I am going to try and do an 80-120 hour fast once a month. I might go beyond 120 hours as a mental experiment but it isn’t that important to me. As I’m feeling right now I don’t think that would be much of a struggle. Once the hunger passes I am not really pushing myself mentally and the autophagy and health benefits can be gained in a more pleasurable way by implementing 42-hour fasts. Which brings us to my next point…
Lastly, I think I’m going to start having a 42-hour fast 1-2 times per week. So, my plan for next week is roughly this:
Well, I think that is all my thoughts on this fast. If you have any questions feel free to email me or send me an anonymous message (see below). And if you are interested in reading more science and details about fasting check out “The Complete Guide to Fasting” by Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore.
Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail about life in general?
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Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”