Living with friends who were on the forefront of dietary trends and habits meant that I was constantly exposed to accounts and stories about their culinary adventures, or rather, their lack thereof. Some boasted about the fair few pounds they shedded, others jived about the mental clarification they received on the back end of a 96-hour fast. The internet certainly didn’t help either.
The fasting landscape have opened up within the last year or so, and plenty of popular internet figures in the YouTube and podcasting sphere have picked up on the trail, leaving those platforms with a plethora of attractive content on the dieting front. Just recently, an article about Silicon Valley’s latest self-starvation trend surfaced through a popular e-mail newsletter. We’re really threading deeper and deeper into the swamps of ‘biohacking’.
For the past few years, I’ve adhered to a semi-strict low-carb diet. My daily meal plan have stayed relatively constant during those years — mostly at my obsession for removing decision fatigue — and I’ve noticed that it has helped me maintain my physique and health level. Naturally, these ‘newfound’ fasting trends didn’t move me.
That was until I came across a brilliant YouTube video about intermittent fasting. Unlike most of the other videos on there, this one was packed to the brim with scientific evidence. It was like watching an extremely well-summarised medical conference. It spoke directly to my soul.
Needless to say, I was convinced by the science that was portrayed in it, and by the virtue of FOMO, I decided to give the diet a try — you know, for self experimentation’s sake.
How hard can it be, right?
Naturally, I did a little more digging up. I located several high-yield articles to get an outline of what I signed up for, and consequently discovered that intermittent fasting really isn’t as intimidating as most people frame it as. Unbeknownst to most of us, we are actually already subconsciously practicing a form of intermittent fasting in our everyday lives.
Intermittent fasting is simply the practice of restricting time allocated for the intake of food. That gap between your last meal of the day and breakfast is a form of intermittent fasting. What’s different between the intermittent fasts of laypeople like us and that of more intense fasters is the fast-to-eat ratio.
For the average person like you and me, this ratio looks a lot more like 12:12, which means that in a 24-hour timeframe, there is a 12-hour fasting stretch, and another 12-hour time period of food intake. Makes sense, right?
When we enter the ring of intermittent fasts, the only thing that changes is this ratio. The most common type of intermittent fast, for example, is called the 16:8 because it involves a 16-hour stretch of fasting, allowing only 8 hours a day for the consumption of meals. This usually just means a person reduces the their average daily meals from three to two. By virtue of this simple rule, it’s almost certain that one would lose weight from the mere amount of caloric reduction, given they do not binge during the 8-hour eating window.
But it doesn’t always look that simple. There are also other types of intermittent fasting, such as the 5:2 fast (which I took part in for the month of November), the 6:1 fast, and a plethora of others. The 5:2 fast, unlike the 16:8, does not involve restricted eating periods. Instead, what they limit is the total daily caloric intake.
In a 5:2 diet, one designates 2 days in a week (ideally non-consecutive days) where they consume one-fourth of their daily recommended calories for a period of 24 hours. If you’d like to know what that would like for you, you can calculate yours here. Usually, that number would amount to about 500–600 calories, which is really not a lot. There is no need to restrict intake times in this diet because there is only so much calories you are allowed to consume for the entire day. In fact, the trick to surviving the 5:2 is to spread out your meals over tiny portions over the stretch of the day to make sure your blood sugars do not plunge to dangerously low levels.
Here’s how my 5:2 looked like
During the entire month of November, I had a total of 8 fasting days. The meals I ate during those days looked a bit different one day from another, but several items found common grounds.
I’d usually have a mug of hot tea (with a fair 100ml ration of milk) in the mornings, which is followed by meagre amounts of chicken soup for lunch and dinner. I’d fill the intake gaps with hot tea, to which I usually give a tad of zero-calorie sweetener since it somehow made me feel fuller. I try to avoid peanuts as much as possible, and the occasional fruits I eat are those that are very calorie-light, like apples and watermelon.
I skipped my usual coffee as well, for fear of inducing an unwanted episode of gastritis. I was very cautious with my fat intake (because of its high caloric profile) and stocked my pockets with low-calorie sweets for a quick energy boost in case my brain fog becomes a bit too detrimental to my cognitive functioning.
Here are some of the things I learned
You’re only hungry in the brain
During your fast, your stomach may be in need of some company, but it’s your brain that’s doing all the shouting. Like a baby who’s throwing a tantrum, the situation usually worsens if you give them too much of your attention. Otherwise, it’s only short-lived and your brain will eventually shut up.
The biology behind this is actually quite simple. When your body has exhausted all its ready sources of energy for fuel, it is forced to take advantage of secondary energy sources such as glycogen from your liver and muscles, and triglycerides from your fat deposits. During this transitionary period, your body goes through a temporary phase of starvation, which causes the hunger pangs.
The cure for this mostly involves patiently waiting it out. After your body establishes its secondary sources for energy, it happily uses those as respiratory substrate, with produces energy all the same, and that rids you off the cravings.
I lost ±3 kilograms (6.6 lbs)
Note: I still worked out consistently on all the non-fast days.
My workout consists of alternate days of chest, back, shoulder, and leg routines; always mindful enough to slip in an ab workout to finish off each session. My Apple Watch tells me I burn an average of 400 calories during my hour-long workouts.
Now I can’t really be sure if the weight I lost was fat or muscle. Some sources suggest that one benefit of intermittent fasting, in contrast to merely eating less, is the tendency to burn fat instead of muscle. Other studies show that these effects were only achieved in fasts that lasted over 72 hours long, which induced a state known as ketosis.
I’m not sure what exactly happened to me, but I can say that my body’s toned down a bit better since my fasts started. Weight loss wasn’t the main aim of my fasting endeavours, but it sure was a nice little bonus.
I no longer took food for granted
If you have too many books, sooner or later you’ll take them for granted. If you have too much money, it’s certain that one day you’ll take them for granted. It’s the hedonic treadmill perpetually in play — human beings are always on the lookout for more and more.
This was the case with me and food. Although I was already quite mindful with my food intake to begin with (I really do take my macros seriously), I treated them as if they were inexhaustible. If I needed something to eat, I’d simply go foraging in my fridge, or my snack cabinet. There would always be something to nibble on.
Entering the 5:2 diet truly opened my eyes to this unfortunate trap and how I had been no better than a donkey for falling into it time and time again. Limiting my allowed food intake made me realise the true essence of sustenance, which is living to eat instead of eating to live.
It was more mental-clarification than fat-loss
I’ve talked about the benefits of deliberately adding constraints in your life in a couple of articles, and this is a real-life manifestation of one of them. It’s part stoicism, part common sense.
Constraints enhance creativity. Because fasting limited my ability to synthesise complex thoughts required for my study sessions, I had to be extra creative at finding alternative things in order to maintain my productive output. I found out that my remedy was meditation, and that prompted me towards a deeper spiritual connection with my mind and body. Fasting bought me the time to take a break.
Constraints sharpen your mental toughness. Something I absolutely resent during my fasts is when somebody purposely teases me with food and drinks. It really grinds my gears. However, moments like these call out the opportunity for mental exercises. Just like the practice of anger management, it’s by exposing yourself towards things that anger you the most that you can learn how to best deal with your feelings.
Constraints help you prepare for the future. I hope there never comes a time when fasting becomes a necessity for everyone, but if that time comes, I know I’ll handle myself better than most people will, just from having experienced the ordeal.
The things I did learn through this month of intermittent fasting, however, did not come without setbacks and downsides. For one, it definitely took some getting used to. My first fast day, for example, was a tragedy. Having never tried the diet before, I decided to pack myself some peanuts for lunch. I thought there was no better way to take on the diet than with something convenient and snack-like.
50g of peanuts = 300 calories = half my TDA = chaos
I finished the entire lot before I could finish counting to 10, and I was back to starving within 2 hours. The episodes of brain fog were almost instantaneous. These usually occur during the short transitionary period between depleted primary energy stores to establishing secondary sources for additional energy. From my experience, they occur once or twice a day during the fast-days.
These brain fogs can get quite annoying, as I found myself in numerous occasions hampered in my productivity because of my apparent inability to focus. I had to postpone the more complex tasks for another time and instead resorted to simpler activities such as reading and answering quizzes.
Sometimes, even that can be difficult to carry out. When that happens, I pop in a piece of candy, find a quiet place, make myself comfortable, then I close my eyes and meditate for a couple of minutes. It’s a strange to witness your thoughts come and go so quickly when you meditate during a fast, but it’s quite soothing. As I acknowledged my hunger and condition, sometimes I find peace with my brain and the hunger disappears.
Other times it didn’t.
Some people find binge-eating to be a problem the very next day. It’s like the body’s retaliating for the suffering it endured, which kind of defeats the entire purpose of fasting. Fortunately, I did not end up going through that route.
All in all, I think the fast went well. It wasn’t disappointing, but at the same time not all that special. I think this was in part because I believed that the benefits that I reaped from adhering to this diet were not mutually exclusive to this specific method of diet.
I practice mindfulness and gratitude in my daily meditations and practice of stoicism. I maintain my physical fitness through my meticulous commitment towards my nutrient intake and exercise routines.
But it could be different for you and me. Again, it’s highly likely that we have varying metabolic rates and genetic predispositions — so it’s perfectly possible that you and I can experience completely different things during our fasts.
If after reading this article you’re still convinced about starting your own little experiment with intermittent fasting, I urge you to designate non-consecutive fast-days (mine was Wednesday and Sunday), and have your local medical services on speed-dial in case something goes terribly wrong.
Honestly though, I don’t think this diet is worth all the fuss. Yes, it’s good if you want to lose a bit of weight, or become a bit more mindful about the food that’s on your table, but there are other ways you can achieve this — ways that do not involve lapses of clouded consciousness and brain fogs.