On 6 August 2012 I watched ‘Horizon: Eat, Fast and Live Longer’, an examination of the science behind the practice of fasting by the BBC’s Michael Mosely.
For the following 24 hours, I ate nothing. Every week since then, I’ve eaten nothing for two of the seven days.
If you’d like to watch the programme, it’s here:
Giving up eating, at least for part of each week, was a revealing and, ultimately, rewarding process. There is a scientific basis to intermittent fasting and there is good evidence for some long-term health benefits. It’s worth checking out. For me there was a more immediate effect, essentially a significant shift in my relationship with food.
I eat a lot. Luckily for my waistline, over the last 20 years I’ve also exercised a lot. I’m also vegetarian and have always blithely assumed that this gives me some sort of head start in maintaining a healthy diet, by significantly reducing the amount of fat I take in incidentally.
Beyond refusing to eat meat (strictly speaking a moral choice rather than a dietary one) I have never controlled my food intake in any way. I’ve always eaten what I like, when I like. I cook a lot, and, with my wife, I usually eat everything I cook. I’ve come to the conclusion that recipes which state ‘serves four’ are calibrated for people half my size.
I snack. I eat crisps by the massive-bag-full (by the way crisp makers, the heart surgeons of this world say ‘thanks’ for super-sizing those bags of yours – once you pop, you can’t stop stuffing your entire recommended daily intake of salt and fat down your neck). I eat chocolate when I need help livening up a cup of coffee. I eat cake and our office is usually full of cake. I’m lucky in that, somehow, I don’t get much bigger.
The day after watching the documentary, I found myself leaving the house without eating breakfast. I then refused the birthday cake I was offered at 10.30am and, by lunchtime, was feeling odd. It only took a couple of weeks to get used to not eating for long periods and, during this time, I don’t think I ever honestly felt ‘hungry’. I just felt weird.
I drank a lot of tea and coffee those first few days. Again, I had a leg up as I take them both black and therefore calorie-free, so can drink as much as I like. Certainly for the first few weeks my liquid intake went up significantly. I felt strongly that I needed to be taking something in, so constant hot drinks seemed my only option. After a while, this dropped off and now I drink the same amount on a fasting day as a regular day, which is to say barely anything apart from constant black coffee.
But it wasn’t just my stomach which felt it needed something in it. My hands were pretty freaked out too, which took me completely by surprise. When lunchtime came around, I felt an overwhelming urge to use them for something. I realised that their muscle memory was telling them to pick up a sandwich and help me to eat it.
Seeing this was a key moment for me. My immediate thought was that this must be how smokers feel when they have to reach for stress toys because their hands, regardless of what their heads are telling them, simply want to be manipulating something, preferably a cigarette and lighter.
I came to see that a fair amount of my eating was habitual, rather than necessary. Indeed, once I’d gone through several weeks of intermittent fasting, my perspective on the need to eat had changed significantly. Surprisingly, my body was already ahead of my mind. By the time I realised that I’d been eating because I could, not because I should, I’d already stopped.
I don’t feel anything like the urge I used to to grab food just to be eating something. Just to be clear, cutting that sort of snacking out is not a stricture of the intermittent fasting approach. So long as you stick to your two fast days per week, you can each as much of whatever you want during the rest of the time. It’s just, in my case, I suddenly didn’t seem to want to. Now, when I eat, I eat less.
As it happens I lost about 7 or 8 kilos in weight. That wasn’t one of my objectives but weighing the same as I did in my early 20s is okay.
So what were my objectives? What could I want so much that I would begin a fasting regime on the strength of a single TV programme?
As far as intermittent fasting and other forms of calorie restriction go, the projected health benefits include significantly lower rates of heart disease, cancer and other chronic health problems. Ultimately, reducing the chances of developing these conditions increases the chances of living healthily for longer.
So that’s good, and it has to be said that i’m not the only one who has tried intermittent fasting following that Horizon film, and the publicity and books and website which appeared in its wake.
I can’t point to huge health benefits, partly because I didn’t have blood tests done before I started, but I do feel a little better. I’d had a nagging stomach pain for some months before I began fasting and that, I realised after a few weeks, seemed to clear up.
However, i’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that part of the attraction for me, perhaps the major part. Here was a regime which promised significant benefits yet did not require me to change what I did at all. It just needed me to stop doing it for defined periods, with no other hassle entailed.
And that, I can do. I give up.
When I say I eat ‘a lot’, I mean I eat as much as you do, more than likely.
This post is about me stopping eating, not the specific process of intermittent fasting. But if you’re interested, here are the bare bones of what I do
On Mondays and Thursdays (usually, sometimes I shift the days around) I get up in the morning, make coffee and skip breakfast. I skip lunch too, and don’t snack or eat anything else during the day. By the time I get home in the evening it’s more or less 24 hours since I last ate, the previous evening. I have an evening meal of less than 600 calories and then eat nothing else until breakfast the following day.
And it’s fine. I play sport on both days, and that’s fine too. In fact on the odd occasion i’ve played the same fixtures having eaten through the day, i’ve felt sluggish and tired by comparison.