My experiment with fasting

Most people think of Monday dread in terms of their jobs.

cranky yeti cat

Hat tip to my sister for having a Persian cat who always looks cranky.

My early-week apprehension has recently been directed towards something else entirely:  fasting. I have been restricting my food intake on Mondays and Wednesdays for the last couple of weeks.

For someone who gets “hangry” on a regular basis, this seemed like a crazy idea. (I’m sure Bugman would agree!) I remember wondering how in the world my Muslim friends could tolerate their daily fasts during the month of Ramadan. Sometimes I could hardly wait for dinner without getting snappish.

If not for a couple of well-timed articles and the desire to lose some weight, I never would have tried fasting.

The backstory:

I had been dealing with stress by overeating (cheese-and-chocolate addiction!) and drinking more beer than I should (I love craft beer!), and I wasn’t getting any exercise. I gained 15 pounds in six months. Yikes!

I thought about getting back into running and cycling, to lose weight that way.

I am working on an exercise program (will post about that later), but there are a couple of problems with using that as a way to lose weight – for me, anyway.

1. When I increase my exercise, my appetite increases.

2. I have this bad habit of getting injured. I would love to be able to go knock out a 7-mile run and burn 1,000 calories, but, right now, that would kill my [choose a body part: ankle/hip/knee].

While I was thinking glumly about my New Years resolution to lose weight, I read an article on the BBC: In search of a personalised diet. The article talks about pairing the right solution with the right problem, explaining that there are hypothesized to be three “types” of overeaters, which are determined by personality and hormones: feasters, constant cravers, and emotional eaters.

The article included a link to a quiz where I could find out what my type was. (Oooboy! A quiz!)

Based on what I know about myself, I thought for sure I would classify as an emotional eater.

Nope.

My quiz results were: 11% emotional eater, 26% feaster, 63% constant craver. The following was included in the explanatory text accompanying my quiz result:

You have a strong biological drive to eat[,] and in today’s world, where there are many eating opportunities, you easily put on weight. It will take more effort for you to diet than for most people.

Oh, goody.

Then, the kicker: the recommended strategy to lose weight is “intermittent dieting” AKA “fasting.”

Double goody.

The type of fasting recommended in this approach is not a complete abstention from food. You’re supposed to consume something like 600-800 calories on two fasting days out of each week – ideally two consecutive days.

“Aw, what the hey – couldn’t hurt to try it,” I thought, and started right in on a mini-fast. My food intake that day, a Monday, consisted of just bran cereal with skim milk, a banana, and black beans with Sriracha.

Poor Bugman.

I was pretty hangry that day.

But worst of all, I found myself engulfed in a mental fog, unable to think clearly or make quick decisions.

I probably would have completely scrapped the idea of fasting, but for another article I read on NPR that same day: Minifasting: How Occasionally Skipping Meals May Boost Health. The article said that scientists were studying the potential health benefits of fasting: memory improvement, better immune system function, blood sugar control.

I was definitely interested in blood sugar control. Diabetes runs in my family. I don’t have it myself – yet. I’d like to avoid developing it if I can.

There was also the fact that “intermittent fasting = health benefits” made intuitive sense to me. The NPR article noted:

There may be an evolutionary explanation for [the health benefits of fasting] because humans (and other animals) have fasted intermittently for much of our time on Earth, after all. As a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences notes, “The most common eating pattern in modern societies, three meals plus snacks every day, is abnormal from an evolutionary perspective.”

I decided to give the idea of fasting another go.

On Wednesday, my next fasting day, the hangry fog returned.

I returned to my regular eating schedule for a few days:  went lunch with a friend, had a crazy pile of nachos and a beer at a meeting.

And then – Monday dread! – it was time to fast again. That day was frustrating, filled with a “swirling-head-I’m-going-to-die-if-I-don’t-get-food” feeling.

I decided to complete the second fast that week only because my wii Fit program told me I’d lost four pounds the previous week. I’m suspicious of the accuracy of that number, but it was at least headed in the right direction.

Strangely, I seemed to better tolerate the lack of food that day. I could still think!

The following Monday, the fast seemed to go OK, though it was a little hard to tell because I was recovering from a cold.

Today, on my sixth mini-fast day this month, I am writing this blog post. Proof that my brain is now able to function well on a low-calorie day! (I await the rebuttals to that last statement.)

I’m not seeing the other benefits from fasting that some people have reported – more energy (ha!) or decreased appetite – but because I’m still able to think without having to constantly stuff food in my mouth, I’m hopeful that perhaps something good in terms of energy regulation is happening in my body.

**I will put a couple of asterisks in here, in case someone is reading this and thinking about fasting to lose weight. I am not just fasting. I am also working on an exercise program for strength and aerobic fitness. I tend to eat healthfully in general anyway. I made a few new eating rules for myself as well:

  • Write down everything you eat
  • No eating in areas of the house other than the kitchen, dining room, or TV room
  • No eating when you are not hungry
  • No daily alcohol – special occasions only
  • Do not buy cheese, ice cream, or chocolate for snacking – these are your triggers
  • Eat lots of fruits & vegetables – prepare weekly meal plans and on-hand veggie snacks
  • If you feel the desire to eat when you are not hungry, take evasive action: go for a walk, drink water or tea

I’m willing to keep up the fasting for another couple of weeks – especially if I still have weight to lose. I have reservations about this “5-2 diet” in the long term, though.

I wonder if the cold I caught last week was in part because the fasting stressed my body too much. On fasting days, I feel resentful when I’m around other people who are not fasting, which kind of puts a damper on my social life. I don’t think fasting would be compatible with half-marathon training or long-distance cycling.

Finally, I will note this: intermittent fasting has developed my empathy for food-insecure people and increased my propensity to donate to anti-hunger causes. I won’t claim that choosing to forgo some calories a few days a week has suddenly made me knowledgeable about world hunger. But I do understand a little better what hungry folks are going through.

It’s not easy.

Copyright 2015 by Katie Bradshaw

One thought on “My experiment with fasting

  1. It takes 6 months to a few years to receive the benefits. I’ve had some kind of fasting practice in one form or another for 8 years now and at first my brain didn’t turn on quite right. Now, I hate eating when I need my brain to preform!

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