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In part of his book, ‘The End of Overeating,’ David Kessler explores how our brains respond to food, and shares research which reveals that certain folks have a strong neurological response when shown pictures of say, a chocolate chip cookie, while other folks might as well be staring at a house plant.
Brainscan notwithstanding, I am one of those cookie minded people. And probably always will be. Which is why abstaining from food and intentionally fasting is such an interesting experiment for me.
While some form of fasting is common in most religions (just read the Wikipedia examples here), that was not my motivation. Neither was cleansing my body of toxins, aligning my chakrahs, energizing my aura, or getting in touch with my spirit animal (which happens to be a lion riding a shark).
I was doing it for a more simplistic reason: to reassess my relationship with food and food cues (social, personal, and external), and get in touch with that most primary of senses that some of us fail to truly recognize: hunger.
That may sound a little odd, but as someone who grew up constantly overconsuming, and always having a reason to use food as a means of celebration or entertainment (or creating situations to do just that), eating was more of a constant, consistent, involuntary ritual. To whit, I don’t recall eating when I was hungry, or as a means of fuel. I ate for the sake of eating. It was a hobby. And I was pretty damn good at it.
Fast forward a bit, and food became a means to change my body, fuel for sport, and an obsession in a completely different way. It’s been a constantly evolving relationship, with new research, strategies and dogma to guide the way.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than the health and wellness community. Entire industries have been been built on trace elements (raspberry ketones, chia seeds, etc.) and feeding protocols (diet books), and every trainer I know has experimented sporadically with their own diets, whether it be eliminating gluten, meticulously monitoring daily protein intake, alternating waves of caloric deficit with caloric surplus, and yes, even fasting.
In the end, we are all our own ongoing science projects.
So years ago, when a colleague of mine was head deep in fasting research and experimentation, it caught my attention, even though I thought it was absurd. After years of constant overeating, then refining my habits to graze on healthier fare, I couldn’t wrap my head around going out of my way not to eat. It sounded unreasonable, unsafe, and, given my background, unachievable.
But truth is, we all do it. Every night after dinner, and before our first morsel the following day, we’re fasting anywhere from 8 to 12 hours or more (hence the literal term breakfast). We also tend to do it when we’re sick and just plain don’t feel like eating, or preparing for a baseline blood test or medical procedure. And, surprisingly, we haven’t all perished or suffered as a result of not eating every three hours.
Plus, fasting (or IF for intermittent fasting) is now mainstream. The underground bible to fasting, Brad Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat is still alive and kicking, and the latest buzz is around The Fast Diet, an import from London which Jennifer Conlin recently previewed in the New York Times.
When I tired my first fast, it was out of curiosity, and to some degree in the name of science, as we monitored blood sugar levels at different intervals throughout the day. Aside from becoming keenly aware of habitual and social cues, I also found out that my blood sugar levels were pretty unshakable and stayed consistent no matter how long it had been since my last meal. The experience didn’t impact my workouts, or general mood, and left me free to concentrate on other things I had to do that day, instead of what I was going to eat next.
And that was especially enlightening; stepping back from things a bit to see just how much time and energy I actually spent thinking about food. During subsequent fasts, with food taken out of the equation for the day, I seemed to be a bit more focused and productive. My breaks were filled with other activity, and I saved a few bucks to boot.
For a while, I even adapted a weekly fast as part of a fat loss protocol, which worked quite well considering it gave me some caloric liberty on other days. Plus, it just felt good as a mental and physical exercise, to have control of things and be able to turn them on and off if I chose to.
But that was a while ago, and it has been more than a year since the last time I tried a full on fast. And while there are lots of strategies and fasting programs that have specific parameters regarding your last meal, and what you can consume during your fast, I’m a bit of a purist and stick with water only.
So, how did things go?
After a full weekend of feeding, I ate my last few calories at about 7 p.m. on a Sunday night, making the first 12 hours relatively easy, as most of that time was consumed by sleep and work. But at about the 16 hour mark, when I had a short break, it was raining m&m’s in my head. I wasn’t really feeling hungry, per se, but the idea was definitely there, more likely brought on by an external cue of some sort (a commercial on tv, or perhaps overhearing someone talk about chocolate) rather than an internal one.
I was busy that afternoon, and the thought passed pretty quickly, until the 20 hour mark, a time in the late afternoon when I usually have a full meal. This time, the feeling was a little more sincere. I wasn’t starving. My stomach wasn’t rumbling. But I was aware that, at the very least, I wasn’t full. I drank an extra few gulps of water and dove into my online course for the evening.
After 24 hours, all was well. And since I wasn’t hungry, and didn’t have a set time to break the cycle, I slumbered, went to work the next day, and took on an hour long hike at the 36 hour mark. Four hours later, and after a quick trip to the grocery store, it was time. I had a banana, and every mouthful seemed to drop straight through to my empty belly.
And that was pretty much that. Through it all, I wasn’t shaky, lethargic, or frustrated. I felt like I was able to get a handle on things, regain my perspective on hunger, and set my lion-shark free.
What about you? Have you ever experimented with fasting? Tell us about it…
Tom Trevino is a writer, artist and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His column, “The Feed,” addresses health and fitness issues and dispense practical advice for San Antonians attempting to wade through the often-confusing diet and fitness world. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas, with training and certification from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.