I Used the COVID-19 Pandemic to Try a 5-Day Fast. This Is What I Learned.
All it took was a brief text conversation with a friend about how he planned to keep the quarantine weight off for the algorithm to find me. In an hour, my Instagram feed filled up with ads featuring indistinguishable influencers selling weight-loss juices, estrogen-suppressing health bars and militarized yoga routines. The one ad I saw most frequently was for an app that guided the user through an “intermittent fasting” program. A cheap, animated graphic showed a translucent, genitalia-free body emptying itself of some evil-looking red liquid like it was an hourglass dropping sand. The fast was simple enough: You have an eight-hour window to eat every day. For the remaining 16, you fast and only drink water. If I adhered to this, I would become a new and better man. I’d burn fat, increase my ability to focus and have more energy. I’d also slow down my aging process, prevent Alzheimer’s and cure cancer.
I’ve always wanted to try fasting but never got around to it because I worried it would disrupt my lifestyle too much. But stay-at-home orders during a global pandemic gave me the perfect opportunity, since I no longer had a lifestyle. It will cost me less than nothing and it might come in handy to know what it would be like if our food supply chain goes haywire. While intermittent fasting seems like a reasonable, everyday program, we are not in reasonable, everyday times, so I decided to do something a bit more intense. Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights. The longest recorded fast was done by a 456-pound Scotsman who only consumed water and supplements (under supervision) for 382 days. I settled for a more realistic fast of five days and nights. From Monday morning until Friday night, I’d only drink water.
Sunday night, I ate a big meal and I weighed myself: 205 pounds. I plugged my data into an online Body Mass Indicator calculator on the internet. At 6’3 and 205 pounds, I was deemed “overweight.” Insulting. But they also said I could be 145 pounds and be “normal weight.” I went to bed and dreamed about cookies.
Not eating is easier than I expected. On the first day of my fast, I feel surprisingly energized and I don’t experience that post-lunch crash that wipes out an hour of my day. Wow, am I bored though. Didn’t realize how much of the day revolves around eating. The prepping, the act of eating itself, doing the dishes—I bet that’s at least three of my waking hours each day. Now, I have more time than I know what to do with. Maybe that’s part of the reason why fasting is all the rage amongst the Silicon Valley types.
Eating, if done for pleasure and not strictly as caloric fuel, is a distraction from the work day and your competitors will eat you (metaphorically) alive. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is a fasting proponent and recently tweeted about his habits:
Been playing with fasting for some time. I do a 22 hour fast daily (dinner only), and recently did a 3 day water fast. Biggest thing I notice is how much time slows down. The day feels so much longer when not broken up by breakfast/lunch/dinner. Any one else have this experience?
— jack (@jack) January 26, 2019
A predictable culture war backlash ensued and pundits who write about women’s body issues responded in haste. Roxane Gay tweeted: “Ahh yes. Disordered eating to approximate the suffering induced by poverty and/or access to potable water. Playing is so much fun.” Feminist writer Virginia Sole-Smith wrote, “When teenage girls do it before prom, it’s an eating disorder … but when (very rich) Thin White Guys do it, it’s … still a fucking eating disorder.” I can’t disagree, but it’s fair to note that eating three square meals a day is a relatively recent phenomenon for the human species.
Even more bored today, and maybe a bit irritable. Stood on the scale and weighed 202 pounds. I figure most of it is water weight. The energy I felt yesterday is gone and I sleep a lot.
Fasting advocates claim all kinds of extreme health benefits. And the science appears to back it up. In 2016, Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work that revealed how cells “self-eat” in order to recycle and renew their damaged bodies. Fasting activates this process, which aids against viruses, bacteria, cancer, infectious and immunological diseases, neurodegenerative disorders, and even slows down the aging process.
Most doctors and associations, however, do not prescribe fasting as a panacea. The conspiratorial thinker in me could be sold the idea that fasting does fix most things, but because it’s the cheapest health remedy available, our healthcare industry has little reason to promote it.
I stop pooping and weigh in at just over 200 pounds. Now, the hunger sets in. I spend most of the morning and afternoon daydreaming about food; baguettes and burritos, pizza and anchovies. I chew through about a dozen toothpicks. Practicing fasters say the hardest part of the fast is between the second and fourth days. At this point, the body has used up most of its glycogen, the sugar fuel that feeds the body’s organs.
The brain uses a surprising amount of energy for its size. It makes up two percent of the body’s mass, but it consumes 20 percent of its resting energy. I find that my ability to think is slower, more deliberate. I stick with a single train of thought for longer than usual. I bike around without any issue, but when I try to pedal up a steep incline, I feel woozy, sit for a moment and walk my bike the rest of the way.
One hundred and ninety-eight pounds. I find myself taking longer glances in the mirror than usual. Whether I actually look skinnier, or it’s a psychosomatic response to my hunger, I certainly feel skinnier.
Health is inseparable from vanity. I find the impetus to look leaner and more powerful stronger than living longer. This may be because I see the results right away and the idea of living longer doesn’t always appeal to me. But, I also find my libido to be nonexistent. Maple syrup cascading over blueberry pancakes seems way more erotic than sex itself. What good is looking sexy if I am wholly uninterested in reaping its benefits?
One hundred and ninety-seven pounds. I stop being hungry, and start feeling lonely. I could binge all six seasons of The Sopranos with all the time I’m not spending with food. I watch Tony drink a beer and have never wanted a cold one so badly in my life. I miss beer. But what I miss most about beer is drinking beer with other people. I realize I haven’t seen a single person since I stopped eating. Even if my social life is a shadow of its former self, I had been finding time to safely share a meal with my family or a select group of quarantine friends. Fasting turns me into a Pandemic Monk.
BACK TO NORMAL
On Saturday morning, I weigh 196 pounds. I decide to break my fast decadently: a thick PB&J and a whole pint of salted caramel ice cream. Fasting is good, but fasting is a solitary exercise. Food feeds us beyond nutrition. Do we eat to live? Or do we live to eat? I call my friends and say I’m picking up a case of beer for the night.
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