I like to travel because it shakes up my regular routine. While away from home, the making of new habits and the breaking of old ones has lead to many important changes in my life. These transformations happen simply while going from point A to B; it’s secret therapy, avoiding the resistance often encountered by the frontal assault of more traditional self-help techniques.
While on a recent trip to Thailand and Vietnam, I often found myself skipping the mid-day meal. The circumstances seemed to conspire against it: either I was too engrossed in the day’s activities, I’d be out somewhere where food was hard to obtain, the options would be unappetizing, or the language barrier was too cumbersome to navigate. After enough regretful bites of “mystery meat on a stick,” you eventually reevaluate the importance of lunch.
After a few days of this pattern, lunch wasn’t missed at all. Maybe I’d eat a bit extra at breakfast to compensate, and perhaps I’d look forward to dinner a bit more as well. But otherwise, forgoing the mid-day meal simply became my routine. When I returned from my trip, I did some research and discovered the world of intermittent fasting: skipping a meal and eating in a narrow time window are both oft-discussed strategies.
Back home, I soon went back to my old ways and found myself lunching again. But something had changed: the memory of my routine in Asia lingered. So, about three months ago I decided to start intermittent fasting as a deliberate practice, eating only twice a day within an 8-hour window.
An unexpected benefit of eliminating a meal is the wonderful simplification that results. When I went from three to two meals, I realized just how much effort, both physical and mental, goes into the whole enterprise of the traditional three-meal scheme. Eliminating just one had many beneficial and unexpected consequences: grocery shopping was easier, my workday became smoother as I didn’t need to interrupt my flow to eat, etc. Although I’ve experimented with many different configurations and timings, lunch usually is the easiest to skip. Back when I was working a regular job, at least it had the function of social cohesion (and work avoidance!). During the noontime meal, I’d look forward to catching up with my colleagues and the opportunity to take a mid-point break from the day’s labor.
So, that was the build up to this fast: I was already in training and reevaluating my relationship to food. But I wanted to go farther and challenge myself. Fasting for 16 hours was one thing, but could I go without food for a whole week?
Starting weight: 235 pounds
Disclaimer: I’m not advocating for anyone to fast. Everybody has a unique health situation, and it could be dangerous for you to stop eating like I did. These are just my personal reflections and a record of my experience.
As the week progressed, I wrote down my thoughts every day:
It begins. For this fast, I’ve decided to get off the caffeine train as well, drinking only water. I don’t think I’m addicted to caffeine, but I figured the only way to find out for sure is to stop ingesting it and see what happens. When I got up in the morning, my instinct was to put the kettle on and heat up some water. This is my daily routine: every day the first thing I do is make tea. So instead, I just boiled some water and poured it in a mug.
Sitting down at my desk, I sipped my hot water and was pleasantly surprised. Even without a tea bag, the effect was mostly the same. Was the pleasure of making tea in the morning mostly about the ritual and the mouthfeel of a hot beverage? I guess I’ll see as the week progresses…
I just went for a walk in the local botanical gardens and there is some stupid plant in there that smells like maple syrup. F@#$%&!-ing maple syrup! This got me thinking about pancakes. Stacks and stacks of fluffy pancakes. Topped with massive pats of butter. Of course, pancakes require bacon. Hmm…bacon. Etc. I went home, poured myself a big mug of boiling water, and took a nap.
Later on today, I definitely felt hungry, accompanied by noises of discontent from my stomach. I read that the first 2 days of a fast provoke the biggest cravings. If this is the worst, I think I’m going to be okay: I had a mild headache and felt a bit dizzy before turning in for the night, but that was it.
Feeling pretty good this morning. Had a big glass of water for breakfast. Yum. Even at this early stage, I’m beginning to get a sense of how much of my life revolves around food. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, for it is the stuff of life. But today I find that my mind is constantly making plans along these lines: “Hey, let’s go to the hardware store downtown and get some tape. You know, that’s close to our favorite burrito place too, so it would be easy to stop by for a bite. How about it?” Upon further reflection, I don’t need tape. Likewise, the burrito place isn’t anywhere near the hardware store. This is the kind of thing that would easily be indulged in if I wasn’t fasting. The mind has an incredible ability to rationalize.
I thought this might be a hard day, so I booked a massage. It was one of the best I’ve ever had, likely owing to the state of near euphoria I’m in and the extra sensitivity of my aching muscles. This particular spa has a sauna and a steam room, and I spent some serious time in both today. Folks, if there’s one thing I’ve learned thus far it’s this: 20 minutes in the steam room will solve 99% of life’s problems. I had to be extra careful today though, as I’m feeling a bit lightheaded and am definitely weaker than usual.
I’ve been feeling cold and read that this is typical for a fast. Thank goodness for—you guessed it!—hot water. Boy do I like a big mug of boiling agua. Yum. Walking over to the park and laying down in the sun for a half hour felt amazing. Actually, anything that distracts me is welcome because I feel like I have a lot of extra free time. Eating is definitely a time filler! Before, I wouldn’t have said that I spend a lot of time pursuing food, but now that it’s off the table (ba-dum ching!), a temporary void has been created.
As my energy level has been fluctuating greatly, I think I’ll call this the “bipolar” stage of the fast. One moment I’ll feel weak and want to take a nap. The next I’ll be flying high and easily forget that I haven’t eaten for nearly 3 days.
Yes, I’ve had some crazy food dreams too. Last night, I had one where I discovered several 55-gallon drums filled with jelly beans in my living room. “Discovered” is an interesting word, because it’s difficult to obscure an industrial quantity of jelly beans in one’s front parlor. The drama climaxed when I grabbed a handful of the delicious-looking confections and put them in my mouth. But, as soon as I bit down I thought, “Wait, I’m supposed to be on a fast!” Dear reader, I’m proud to report that, even though this was a dream, I spat them out.
My perception of the passage of time has slowed down considerably. The days feel much longer and it’s difficult to believe that I’m only at the halfway point of this fast. Sunday seems like an eternity ago. I walked down to the gym and got on the scale:
Mid-point weigh in: 226 pounds
Please note that I’m not doing this fast for weight loss purposes. I read that fasting doesn’t really work well for dropping el-bees because, when the fast is broken, a lot of the weight easily comes back. Besides, before I began, I was quite happy with the progress I was making with my time-window fasting routine.
Why am I doing this? I’m interested in the self control, body chemistry, and spiritual aspects of this ancient practice. Could I muster the will to deny such a primal urge as eating, one that is reinforced through advertising and social pressures? The nutrition angle is also interesting: it’s been fascinating to read about how your digestive system functions differently in the fed vs. fasting state. Our bodies are amazing self-contained universes.
I’ve come to realize that I have a very detailed food map of San Francisco. Maybe’s it just the hunger but, as I move around the city, nearly every location has an association with food. Last night, I went for a walk near the Bay Bridge, a neighborhood I used to work in, and all the nearby eating options instantly flashed through my mind: “Great burger here. Creative sushi there! If you sat down at that place, beautiful crusty bread and salted butter would shortly appear…” If anyone mentions what neighborhood they live in, I immediately begin to ponder life’s deepest question: “What’s the best taqueria nearby?”
It started out as a very low energy day, but I perked up considerably when I got outside in the sun and took a nice long walk to the ocean (~4 miles). This has happened a few times during the fast: sitting around produces its own lethargy that magically disappears when I start to move around.
I felt a turning point in the fast this morning: a calm acceptance has taken over. Sure, I’m still a bit weak, but mentally something is different. I don’t feel like I’m fighting the fast anymore. Another interesting thing I’m noticing is an increased sensitivity to sound: loud noises now drive me insane. In general, I’d say this fast has really heightened all of my senses. Even just a walk around my neighborhood is an explosion of sights, sounds, and smells. Is the increased mental clarity your body’s way of shifting your finite resources to your cognitive skills? That would make sense from an evolutionary perspective: if you’re starving, you need to be externally focused and detect any available opportunities for sustenance.
After yesterday’s success with a long walk, I thought I’d give more intensive exercise a try. So, I went to the gym. I took it easy and spent less time than I normally would, but I felt surprisingly refreshed afterward.
Today’s other experiment was adding a squeeze of lemon to my water. While life sustaining, plain H20 becomes very bland after a few days. Some flavor, please! While the citrus taste was absolutely mind-blowing, I found it to be overwhelming and unfortunately it resulted in some mild digestive blowback (i.e., my stomach didn’t like it). Therefore, I went back to pure water. Bland it must be.
Last night, I had yet another dream wherein I almost took a bite of food, nearly breaking my fast (again, my dream self refused the temptation). While awake, I alternate between moments of extreme clarity and daydreams about food. My meditations have become extremely focused and intense: I can easily blank-out for long periods. Intervening thoughts are few and far between. My internal chatter is very subdued.
I feel an improved ability to make decisions. Just last night I was considering what to do, mulling the wondrous panoply of options here in San Francisco. There were dozens of concerts, plays, and musicals to choose from. Normally, this smorgasbord of alternatives slows down my process, with a healthy dose of FoMO muddying the waters. But last night, I simply made a decision and went with it (Gilbert & Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard, which was great!). Maybe this is the survival instinct kicking in: curing starvation requires bold action, not endless hours of circumspection. Also, when you’re really tired, it’s easy to simply get over yourself and your petty fears.
I’ve finally made it to the last day and I’m ready for this experiment to be over. How much more could I take? There’s certainly plenty of fat left around my belly to burn! My view of whether I’ve gone too far changes from moment to moment. I’ll become dizzy and lose my balance, which easily convinces that what I’m doing is dangerous. Later, I’ll be puttering around my apartment and forget for an hour or two that I’m on a fast at all. I’ve read accounts of people fasting for much longer periods (and unfortunately, some of them dying). I sense that more time would benefit from additional research on the risks, as well as getting rigorous about collecting my vitals along the way (blood tests, heart rate monitoring, etc.) to make sure I wasn’t harming myself.
At this point, I’m not really missing food (what’s that?). Actually, it’s the lowered energy levels that I want to end. I want to get back into the gym and hit it hard, go on a strenuous hike, sweat it out at my hot yoga class, etc. I’ve been doing some light yoga in my apartment, but the Bikram class I go to is pretty intense. Even at full strength, I occasionally become lightheaded in the 100° room. In my current state, it would be an easy recipe for a blackout.
I’m also looking forward to getting back to the more cognitively demanding work that I’ve been putting off. While there have been many positive mental changes already mentioned (e.g., improved decision-making and laser focus while meditating), other abilities have clearly diminished. For example, I took a look at a piece I’m writing about science and troubleshooting, and it just seemed too complex to tackle (this isn’t surprising, as I already was struggling with it even before I started my fast).
It was a beautiful day today, so I went and laid out in the sun. Ahh. Afterwards, I watched some old-timey baseball. There’s a local league that takes these things pretty seriously, with historical uniforms and gloves (they look like actual gloves, not the big mitts used nowadays). I’m trying to keep myself occupied and not focus on the end. Did my laundry. It’s actually perfect timing to end the fast today because I fly home tomorrow to be with my family. I wouldn’t want to miss out on all the good things to eat at home! Right, mom?
This afternoon, I walked up to the top of Grandview Park. I’ve done this hike many times, but of course it took a bit longer today. That’s okay, I eventually made it and saw this:
On the way home, I stopped by the grocery store to buy food to break the fast. What happened at the supermarket was interesting: even though I had a basic plan of what I wanted to get, it took much longer to make a decision than I anticipated. I stared at the towering wall of yogurt for a long time. How much do I purchase? What kind? Sure, I’ve bought yogurt before, but I was clearly out of practice with the whole food buying thing.
I thought the supermarket was going to be overwhelming, with all the smells from the deli and the sheer volume of food attractively displayed to the eyes. Instead, I felt oddly indifferent to the whole thing. While in the checkout line, I overheard the couple behind me talking:
Man: “Want to get dinner?”
Woman: “I’m soooo hungry. Like dizzy hungry. I haven’t eaten since brunch!”
That’s not the first time this week that I’ve heard someone say they’re “so hungry.” The meaning is obviously relative.
For reasons unclear to me, I start to cry on the walk home.
Ending weight: 222 pounds
Breaking the fast
I thought I would have been chomping at the bit to start eating again. After all, I built up the moment in my mind, working out the exact time when the 7-day mark would pass and my goal would be met. I thought I would bite down precisely at that moment, perfectly in sync with the gravity of the occasion.
However, when 10 p.m. rolled around, I found myself lingering for a long while. I was surprised by how much I cared about the aesthetics of the occasion. I carefully arranged the berries on top of the mound of yogurt, trying to give the presentation a look somewhere between purposefully created and random chance. Then I took pictures. A lot of pictures. I moved the bowl around to several locations within my apartment, searching for the perfect lighting.
It was a moment I had thought so much about, but now that relief was on the end of my spoon, I hesitated and let a few more beats pass. The first bite was a flavor explosion, but soon it became overwhelming. It took a long time for me to finish that bowl of yogurt.
That night I fell asleep, glowing from the warm tranquilizer that is a full stomach.
A good self-improvement project pushes you past your personal point of comfort. A really good one holds you there for much longer than you’d like. Based on this, I’d say a week-long fast is a really good self-improvement project: it lasted well into the “Why am I doing this?” phase. Later, I read that you can get most of the health benefits of a longer fast from intermittent fasting. Was my effort wasted? While that may be true, my sense is that the two schemes have significant psychological differences: the more spiritual side of fasting seems to be accessed only with prolonged deprivation.
The insights about my relationship to food kept coming throughout the week. Yet, the difficulty of abstaining from eating was mostly front-loaded: after only the second day I had a good rhythm going. I liked that I had to find new ways to distract myself: I haven’t seen this much of San Francisco in a very long time. Sometimes, this happened without any effort on my part—just creating the void opened up the space required for new things to enter.
On the caffeine front, I don’t think I have an addiction because I didn’t experience withdrawal symptoms. That’s not surprising, I’m not a coffee person. My go-to beverage is tea, which I understand has much lower levels of caffeine. If anything, I’m addicted to the morning ritual of making tea.
This whole enterprise resulted in a new appreciation for my own body. I had a good amount of trepidation about all the unknowns when I started this experiment. Would I collapse? Pass out? Die? I now believe I can rely on my body and am amazed by its inner workings. Watching this bulk sustain me for a whole week was a comforting thing to witness, and it makes me want to take care of it all that much more.
The underlying lesson is so clear: everything you need is already inside you.
Weight 10 days after breaking the fast: 227 pounds
More than a month on, the effects of my fast continue to linger. Even though I’ve had a wide variety of foods (healthy and otherwise) since I started eating again, the experience clearly has reset my food programming. I continue to lose weight, and what I crave is different now. I now eat more deliberately, enjoying the sensual experience of food much more than I did before.
Weight 5 weeks after breaking the fast: 222 pounds
- Header image: Harrell, Alfred. Enamelware Plates. October, 1980. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ncr002326/.