Fasting, Fast and Slow

As I start this blog post, I’m in the last 4 hours (not that I’m counting!) of my fifth fast. A few of you have been asking how it’s going. (If you’re confused, head to my last post.) Below, a bit of the fasting play by play. If you’d rather skip the diary part, and just hit the takeaways, scroll down to below the photo.

January 2: Fasting from dinner 1/1 until dinner 1/2

7am- awake; it’s a holiday so I’m not going into work. Will this make things easier or harder? I help the kids with their breakfasts and am not tempted to join them. This will be a piece of cake! Right?

10:30am: first hunger pangs. Not a good sign, given 7.5 hours left until I eat.

Noon: time is starting to pass more slowly. How early can I force my family to eat dinner? I cook the kids’ lunch. Does the chicken apple sausage always smell this good? I open a peach Hint water and it tastes almost like candy.

2:30pm: serious hunger pangs. I try to do a bit of work during the kids’ quiet time and drink lots of lemon ginger tea.

4pm: I no longer feel hungry! Amazing!

5pm: I’m ravenous. That 4pm lack of hunger was a joke. Dinner is in one hour and I can. not. wait.

6pm: Dinner at last! I’m expecting my body to want to eat a ton, to make up for all the calories I missed during the fast. Instead, I let myself have seconds, but my meal is only a bit larger than usual. I go to bed feeling sated– neither full nor hungry.

January 5: Fasting from dinner 1/4 to dinner 1/5

Morning: I’m at work, and fasting feels easy. My body doesn’t seem to miss the breakfast that I skipped. This might mean I should be skipping breakfast more often.

Noon: I go to the Dailey Method (a barre class) during lunch hour. I go despite having very little energy. At the point in class where we go into plank, I can barely hold it, and put my knees down after 30 seconds. It feels like no fuel is getting to my muscles.

Afternoon: lots of tea. My muscles feel tired, but I am surprised not to feel too hungry.

4pm: hunger kicks in.

5:30pm: ferry home from work. I am telling everyone around me about my fast and how few minutes I have left until I get to eat. I can’t help myself. I update them every 10 minutes. I dream of the dinner that G will have prepared: fish fillets, sautéed spinach, and couscous.

6:15pm: I get home and practically run to the kitchen. The couscous and spinach are ready, but my fish isn’t cooked yet. What??? I feel like a husband from 1950’s TV, expecting my dinner ready and hot the moment I get home, and angry when it’s not. I eat the spinach and couscous while making the fish as fast as I can (catch the pun?).

January 9: Fasting from dinner 1/8 to dinner 1/9

Morning: I do yoga before work. This is normal for me- I usually work out first thing in the morning, before eating anything. However, the non-fasting me would eat breakfast as soon as arriving to work. My fasting self gets to work, promptly pours a cup of hot tea, and tries not to think about the food I’m not sending to my body. Post-workout, I definitely want food. Tea is not the same.

Noon: I have work to do at my desk and barely notice that I didn’t eat lunch.

Afternoon: More herbal tea. Then a Peach-Pear LaCroix. Back to back meetings help prevent me from thinking about food too much.

5pm: Early ferry home- this means early dinner! Again, I have to tell all my seatmates about my fast. It’s as though I have nothing else to talk about. People are interested or else they are good at faking it.

5:45pm: Arrive home. The au pair made dinner for the kids but not for me (here comes the angry 1950’s husband again!). I whip together a plate and scarf it down before driving my daughter to piano lessons. Food is a relief; my body feels much better right away.

January 12: Fasting from lunch 1/11 to lunch 1/12

Noon 1/11: I eat a sizable lunch, and I even allow myself a piece of cake afterwards. “After all, I’m about to fast!”

Afternoon: perfectly normal. It feels nice not to be tempted to snack.

Dinner: I don’t even feel hungry. I sit with my family while they eat dinner, but I don’t feel deprived. If anything, I wonder why I so often make myself eat dinner when I’m not hungry.

Bedtime: My stomach feels pleasantly empty. Not empty to the point of growling, but nicely “un-full.” I suspect I’ll sleep well. (I do.)

Morning 1/12: I am hungry. I bring the kids to school and make myself an herbal tea. T minus 4 hours until I get to eat.

10:15am: A friend picks me up for us to drive down to a meeting together. I am now very hungry. I tell him about my fast and how excited I am for lunch (Indian food). I drink more herbal tea and stare jealously at his latte.

11:30am: We arrive at the meeting. Lunch is supposed to be at noon. Our host says lunch will be late. A small part of me dies.

12:30pm: Lunch arrives, but there is some debate about whether we should finish the presentation before breaking for lunch. “Please, please, please let us get lunch!” I am thinking. As though she could read my mind (or hear my stomach growling?), our host stops us for lunch. I am first in line for the Indian food. (So much for my month of kindness.) I have a full plate and return for seconds.

January 17: fasting from lunch 1/16 to lunch 1/17

Afternoon 1/16: I am baking a cake. It is so strange not to be able to taste the batter.

Dinner: I’m not hungry. I don’t feel deprived.

After dinner: I return home from piano lesson to a house that smells like freshly-baked cake. My stomach growls. I make the cream cheese frosting and frost the cake. I don’t taste it– probably a first. I force G to taste it for me. He approves.

7am: Ferry into the city. I am hungry and I am carrying a cake that weighs about 10 pounds. I tell a friend of mine about my fast. She gives me two packets of tea. I head to the gym and do 1/2 hour of weight training.

8:30am: At work and there are treats galore. Doughnuts, chocolates. I make an herbal tea.

10am: More tea. T minus two hours until feast time.

11am: I am now on my third herbal tea.

11:40am: The smells of lunch are making their way to me. I walk by the lunch area 3 times in 5 minutes to see whether they have finished setting up.

11:55am: Lunch, finally! I make a large plate of Vietnamese food and down about 1/3 of it before I have to hop in my next meeting. It is so satisfying.

1pm: I present the cake to the birthday girls. We each have a piece. It was worth it.

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Hummingbird cake. You can’t eat this on a normal diet. 

So– two weeks into my fasting experiment, here are a few of the things I’ve noticed.

  1. It’s easier than I thought it would be. I had this idea that skipping meals would feel terrible, that I’d be cranky, nervous, or de-energized. In practice, it’s not that hard.
  2. Except for the last two hours. I’m sure that much of this is psychological. If we took away all clocks, would the last two hours before I break the fast still be the hardest? Would my body even know that those were the last two hours? Surely not. But, since I am surrounded by clocks, and since my work schedule is relentlessly calendar-driven, I am constantly aware of the time. And there’s no escaping it: I am HUNGRY for those last two hours. And they pass soooo sloooowly.
  3. I usually eat for reasons other than hunger. Namely: because it’s “time” to eat. Or because I am a social being, and everyone else is eating dinner, so I should, too. In my non-fasting life, it is rare that I feel hunger. I almost never get to that point. I am so busy feeding myself every 4-6 hours, when would I give my body a chance to get hungry? It is almost refreshing to eat out of hunger. It feels… new.
  4. “Hangry” is an apt coinage. I am quicker to get angry when I am very hungry. I am also quicker to lose my focus on work, so focused am I on my next meal. I’m waiting to see whether this is a passing phase.
  5. I feel like I’ve been duped by the “eat frequent, small meals” or “always eat breakfast” mantras. Haven’t we all been saying these to ourselves and each other for years now? Hasn’t this become the wisdom of the ages- unquestioned in its truthfulness? I think back on all the breakfasts I’ve dutifully eaten, or the frequency with which I often eat, and I wonder– could I have been wrong? If I’m being honest, it feels good to skip breakfast on a morning after a big dinner. It feels good *not* to eat frequent, small meals. What if these “truths” have been misguided?
  6. Lunch to lunch fasting is easier (for me) than dinner to dinner. I had initially thought to fast from dinner-to-dinner because that would just mean fasting during the workday– which seemed easy enough. And while it wasn’t hard (except for the last two hours), I do think lunch to lunch is even easier. Personally, I hate going to bed on a full stomach. But if my last meal before a fast is dinner, I’m tempted to eat heavily. And then I’m full at bed time, and then I sleep poorly. Blah. Whereas the lunch-to-lunch fast means I go to bed without dinner (not a challenge), and then I only have to make it through the morning hours without breakfast, until I get to eat again. Incredibly doable.
  7. I am losing weight without too much burden. When I’m not fasting, I eat the way I normally would. I exercise the same amount. I don’t feel deprived. And I don’t have to follow crazy diet rules, or count calories, or track what I’m eating. Which is nice. And I’ve lost a pound per week so far, which is a reasonable pace of loss.

So for those who ask me how it’s going, I’ll tell you: I’m kind of into it. It’s a fun, “fast-inating” experiment. I feel more in touch with my body than I have in a long time (ever?). I’ll report back again at the end of the month, but for now, I feel like I may have stumbled upon something that’s game-changing.

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On the Fast Track

Ah, January. That time of year when we reassess ourselves: our habits, our downfalls, our opportunities. Oh, and our bodies. Who among us is ever content with our body? Last January I embarked on a month of veganism, which I rather enjoyed (although not enough to keep it as a permanent diet). This month, I’m turning to another diet and sometime fad: intermittent fasting (IF).

First, an explanation. “What happened to December?” you ask. Well– you know how a lot of magazines only put out 11 issues each year, shrewdly combining December and January into one issue? Because they know that at least two weeks of December will be completely shot, thereby making it nearly impossible to produce the usual amount of output? My December was chaos, between work obligations, holiday plans, and travel. So let’s consider my blog a magazine, and this is the December/January issue.

I did use December to decide on and research the fasting concept. As it turns out, there are a lot of different ways to fast. Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

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First: why would I fast? Well, aside from the fact that I’ve never done it– which is the first criterion of any “year of 40” experience– I’ve long been intrigued by it. I’ve never really had an excuse to fast. There are those who fast for religious reasons: for Ramadan, for example, Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown for an entire month.¹ A perusal of Wikipedia reveals a number of other cultures and faiths that incorporate fasting as a part of their tradition.

I don’t practice a religion, and even when I did, my Presbyterian-Catholicism upbringing didn’t ask me to skip meals. But the fact that so many cultures and traditions include some version of fasting makes me curious. What do they know, and what do they experience, that I don’t?

It isn’t primarily cultural curiosity that leads me down this path. I’ve also paid attention to the research about possible health benefits of intermittent fasting (IF), or of calorie restriction. Studies of IF make lots of claims: We can live longer. We reduce the likelihood of strokes, of diabetes, of heart disease, of degenerative brain diseases later in life. Our bodies clean out their dead or damaged cells (“autophagy“). Oh, and we lose weight, and possibly maintain the weight loss better than we would with other diets.

Frankly– if the evidence is to be believed– why wouldn’t we fast?

So, I decided to try it, and with a fair amount of excitement. I then had to choose which fasting approach to follow. Sunrise to sunset? 36 hours? Low calorie, or no calorie? This is where the research finds little consensus. One popular method of IF has you eat the same amount you normally would, but within the space of 8 hours (so you “fast” for  the other 16 hours). For instance, if you finish dinner by 8pm, you wouldn’t eat again until noon the next day. I considered this idea, but I decided that if I were going to try fasting, I might as well swim in the deep end.

hungry

For no reason other than it sounded challenging, but not impossible, I decided to try 24 hour fasts, on two non-consecutive days each week (as it turns out, this approach has a name- the 5:2 diet). In practical terms, this means that I eat dinner one night, and then I don’t eat again until dinner the next night. During the fast, I drink only water or unsweetened tea. On the five non-fasting days of the week, I eat normally.

I don’t know that I can hope for any tangible results from the fasting experiment, other than shedding a few pounds, but I’m curious to see how it goes.

In my next blog post, I’ll detail some of my fasting experience so far. Stay tuned!

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¹This becomes more challenging depending on the time of year that Ramadan falls, and where you live in the world. If Ramadan falls in June, as it did in 2016, and you live in Iceland or Alaska, you may be fasting for 22 hours straight, every day. And wishing you lived, in, say, the Maldives.