About three months ago, I started down an intellectual rabbit hole that made me stop eating, as of midnight last Sunday night.
It’s now late afternoon Saturday as I write this. I’m closing in on six days with nothing but water going down my gullet.
This hasn’t been easy, but it has been memorable. More on that in a minute. But first, the “why,” for those of you still understandably hung up on the “why is this guy starving” part.
Why Would I Do This?
This podcast episode details the compelling science behind massive carbohydrate-restriction as a cancer ameliorator, and (possibly) a nip-it-in-the-bud prophylactic, if undertaken while a person is still largely cancer-free. It’s worth a listen, and I won’t detail it point-for-point here.
So my initial motivation, as someone without cancer who prefers to stay that way, was just that: If inconveniencing myself in a painful-but-not-overtly-dangerous way can, very possibly, keep me from dying from something that a whopping proportion of the population dies of, that’s pretty great. My diet and exercise regimen should do well at protecting me against heart disease, that other über-killer, so if I can nix both heart disease and cancer from my list-of-demises, that leaves me with the less-likely and more-interesting array of Far Side deaths: Falling grand pianos, shark attacks, assassins with too much time on their hands.
Dr. Thomas Seyfried’s specific recommendation for this potential “anti-cancer prophylactic practice” was a once-a-year, 7-day water-only fast.
So I decided that at some point in 2015, I’d tick that off my to-do list. And if it wasn’t gallingly difficult (and assuming the scientific presumptions aren’t overturned in the next year), I’d make it an annual ritual. I mentioned on several podcast episodes that I’d be doing this, and wound up with a head-count of 15 participants who wanted in on the starvation en masse.
My Ulterior Motive
I’ve got a deep, dark secret I’m going to put out here in public.
It may be that anti-cancer health stuff wasn’t my primary motive in doing this. It may be that it’s just because it’s weird.
When Dr. Seyfried wowed me with the still-stunning fact that a person with average body fat can live on that fat alone (plus adequate water) for 60-70 days before succumbing to death-by-starvation, I was flabbergasted.
If inconveniencing myself in a painful-but-not-overtly-dangerous way can keep me from dying from something that a whopping proportion of the population dies of, that’s pretty great.
I thought about it, and the longest I’d ever gone sans-calories was maybe 20 hours (and that’s a top-end estimate) to prepare for a blood test. Kinda pathetic.
And not eating sounded so weird. Like smacking our biology in the face. The idea that we could get away with it and even benefit from it fascinated me.
Now believe me, I’m no anorexic. In one day, seven hours, and 24 minutes, when my week is over and I can eat again, you’d best believe I’ll be chowing down. But there do seem to be several verifiable benefits to short and medium-term non-caloric fasting. (See this and this and this.)
I did not go in expecting this to be a joyride. I eat a lot.
My diet is made up of natural, unprocessed foods, and no sweeteners — so the sheer volume of the food I eat is considerable. Downshifting to nothing at the stroke of an arbitrary midnight was going to make my body wonder what the hell was going on.
I read up on this before starting, of course. But the research was a little tough, because most of the people who have written about fasting seem to have come from one of three camps, none of which I fell into:
- Sick people, seeking to cure or alleviate some specific malady.
- Obese people, seeking to lose weight.
- “Spiritually-oriented” people, looking to ritualize the experience into having some deeper meaning than I found plausible.
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As for me, I wanted in and I wanted out. I like food. I anticipated this would be a pain-in-the-ass, but one that I could draw some benefit from. But short of being pretty sure I wouldn’t die in the endeavor, I didn’t really know how hard it would be.
The warning flags based on my reading were about:
- Food cravings (duh)
- Flu-like symptoms around Days 3-5 as one’s body runs out of its last sugar stores, and starts “burning fat” for energy
- Muscle aches and pains from the release of formerly blood-borne toxins that are sometimes stored in a person’s fat
Sum total: it sounded like a pretty shitty week. But I don’t want cancer. And I hadn’t done anything all that weird in a while. Something that would make the stick-in-the-muds among my friends and family cringe or ogle at me like an exotic species.
So I strategically halted my grocery shopping, and (with the fridge almost perfectly empty) last Sunday night, I ate one final guava…
Then I called an end to that whole “intake of calories” thing.
Believe me, I’m no anorexic. In one day, seven hours, and 24 minutes – when I can eat again – you’d best believe I’ll be chowing down.
Results May Vary
If there’s one thing that doing the Smart Drug Smarts podcast has taught me, it’s that person-to-person subjective results on almost anything can be all over the map. Short of sex on the good end, and hand-on-hot-stove on the bad end, individual responses to any given stimulus are less predictable than we’d like in an orderly universe.
With that disclaimer in place, here’s what my fasting experience has been like:
It turns out that hunger is a multi-headed beast. There’s the feeling of hunger in your stomach, that “we could use some food down here” feeling. Then there’s the actual rumbling, grinding stomach pain of hunger – which is a different thing. And then there’s the joy of picking out your next meal, deciding what you’ll eat where, with whom, and in what order. All of these are distinctly different things, when you suss them apart (as I’ve had occasion to this week).
I was lucky to experience almost no physical hunger pains. A few growls for a few seconds, primarily on Days 1 and 2.
The psychological aspects were (as of Day 6, still are) a ton more challenging. I apparently take a lot of pleasure out of anticipating my meals, and the let-down when I have to remind myself that the meal I’ve just started anticipating ain’t gonna happen — that really sucks.
I was forewarned that in Day 3 and beyond, your stamina starts fading. This was true, and I felt like on Day 5, my strength started fading too. I haven’t tried any pull-ups in the past few days, but I’ll bet I’m way off my max.
That said, I’ve by no means been bedridden, which is what some reading had led me to semi-expect. (Admission: I am now laying in bed as I type this, but I just took a 30 minute walk with no fatigue whatsoever.) It may be that since my body has now switched on the fat-burning engines, and isn’t fruitlessly scrounging for blood-sugar-that-ain’t-there, I could actually have more energy accessible than I did on Days 2 and 3, but it hasn’t felt that way yet.
Overall, there has been a pretty predictable pattern starting on Day 3: Peppy mornings, lethargic afternoons and evenings.
Only once (on Day 5) has my vision dimmed as I stood up quickly. This is a common thing among fasters — but still not a terribly pleasant experience.
You might think that late-afternoon lethargy and sleepiness are birds-of-a-feather. But not exactly. The physical depletion I’ve felt hasn’t necessarily made me want to sleep. And my biorhythms since Day 1 have been all over the place.
My second and third mornings after beginning the fast (after about 28 and 52 hours), saw me wake up at 4:30am and then 3:30am, respectively — obviously without an alarm. I had no intention of getting up so miserably early, but sleep just wasn’t happening. Then a few nights ago, I pulled a 10.5 hour sleep-night, which isn’t normal either.
My policy while fasting has been to cut myself slack on everything beyond not-eating and diligently hydrating, so I’ve been rolling with these sleep/wake punches. But anyone attempting a fast should be warned about the difficulties in maintaining a predictable schedule.
All my life, my brain cells have been powered by glucose.
As I write these words, and for the past few days, my brain cells are being powered by ketone bodies, the once-thought-to-be-toxic breakdown products from the metabolism of fat.
Since I might be “impaired” thereby, and not even realize it, I won’t judge the before/after quality at this early juncture (after all, writers will tell you that first drafts always suck) — but I frankly find it nothing short of amazing that our physiology has an entire redundant backup power system that works just fine, and that most of us never “turn on” to see how it works.
I have definitely felt cognitively “off” this week — although at times very “on,” too.
If I were to generalize, I’d say:
- Mornings I’ve been clearer-headed than afternoons.
- My afternoons/evenings haven’t been characterized by dumbness, but by “distractability.” I’ve lacked the willpower to keep myself effortfully focused on one task.
- This same “distractability” has often brought with it a slight euphoria.
- I’m not completely sold on the Willpower is a Depletable Resource idea, but I have certainly felt my ability to push myself has been radically diminished this week, maybe to 30-40 percent of normal levels. Is that because my willpower has been depleted by resisting food? Or just because my body and brain have been discombobulated and, as my grandpa said, “you can’t push a rope”? I leave that answer to future scientists and a double-blind, placebo-controlled study.
First, losing weight wasn’t part of my goal here. Very much the opposite; I was concerned about losing muscle mass as well as fat, as my body sought for things-internal to snack on. (Although, over a comparatively short fast, that’s not too much of a danger.)
But I lost weight precipitously. Mostly “water weight,” I’m told. And all of us normally carry 2-3 pounds of poop or proto-poop in our gastrointestinal systems, and I’ve shed all that by now as well.
I find it nothing short of amazing that our physiology has an entire redundant backup power system that works just fine, and that most of us never “turn on” to see how it works.
But the numbers are still shocking: On Sunday I was 179 pounds. Today, six days later, I’m 166 pounds. And dropping.
Walking down the street today, I noticed my pants sagging; my never-gave-it-much-thought posterior has diminished in size enough to matter functionally.
(Despite these dramatic changes, I’m told to expect an equally-fast regaining of the weight once I start feeding again.)
Odds and Ends
Prior to the fast, I thought that seeing food while I was fasting, and the unencumbered people eating it, would cause me rage, despair, envy, etc.
The truth is very much the opposite. Seeing food, smelling it — rather than being torturous, is actually a real pleasure. I’ve been seeking opportunities to sit side-saddle at my friends’ meals so I can waft their food-smells. I find this way better than the monotony of total sensory abstinence.
The water fast has also changed my beliefs about farting. I assumed that no eating meant no pooping and, relatedly, no farting. The pooping part was true. (Final poop, and a very small one: Day 3.) But I farted no less than 3 hours ago, after five-and-a-half days. A modest fart, but a fart nonetheless. How (and why?) one’s body makes these things, I’m now perversely curious about.
Things I Missed Out On
My personal response to fasting is just a sliver of what I saw in our self-selected group of test monkeys. Overall, I lucked out. Some folks had a far rougher time than me.
Among the physiological and perceptual reactions we saw were:
- Heat waves or flashes felt throughout the body.
- Inability to fall asleep.
- Inability to keep warm.
- All-over aches and pains akin to the flu.
- Heart palpitations.
- And this rather poetic explanation: “My thoughts were like the clearest chaos ever. Do you ever get chaotic thoughts when you have a fever? It was like that, but I could focus. And no fever.”
I noticed my pants sagging; my never-gave-it-much-thought posterior has diminished in size enough to matter functionally.
Would I Recommend This?
I guess that’s the same as asking, “Will I do this again next year?”
For me, I think the answer is yes.
Next year’s fast will lack the wonder of a first-timer’s view of a new experience — a definite downside. But I’m hoping that it will be psychologically easier. And I may well do a few shorter fasts (1-3 days) throughout this year to keep my system acclimated to such deprivations.
If any study comes out refuting Dr. Seyfried’s idea that “deep ketosis” (that is, living off fat stores with flatlined and minimal blood sugar) may be an effective cancer prophylactic, I’ll certainly look at that carefully. Seven days of deprivation is too much to incur just for the novelty. But as of now, my feeling is: Even if there’s just a 50% chance that this is effective, isn’t a week-long inconvenience once per year, for a 50% reduction in ever getting cancer a pretty great gamble?
But for me right now, the main question on my mind isn’t “Will I do this next year?”…
It’s “What am I going to eat in 26 hours and 29 minutes?”
* It is advised that food be re-introduced slowly to any stomach that’s gone food-free for more than 5 days. I may or may not heed this advice. Currently, being a good little boy in this regard feels unlikely.