Up until very recently, fasting held as much appeal to me as a nude beach with a red-ant infestation. I crave, celebrate, and savor food. Which is probably exactly how I ended up having to consider going without it from time to time.
Intermittent fasting, as laid out in the recent bestseller The Fast Diet, co-authored by medical journalist Dr. Michael Mosley (the BBC’s answer to Sanjay Gupta), is based on an understanding of how our genes are programmed to metabolize fuel. Humans evolved in an environment of scarcity—long stretches of little to no food punctuated by massive feasts; hardly today’s recommended diet of three square meals augmented by snacks.
With this in mind, the Fast (or 5:2) Diet calls for two days of “gentle” fasting (500 calories for women; 600 for men) per week. The five remaining days are blissfully free of calorie counting, restrictions, or guilt. Rather than make modest caloric cutbacks every day, the reduction is concentrated into two discrete periods. But is the intense deprivation worth the tradeoff?
I, like many Americans, have an unfamiliar and fear-based relationship with hunger. I tend to panic at the first pang—how can I make this feeling stop as soon as possible, before my blood sugar crashes and I melt down into a weak, shaking puddle? Quick, someone hand me some trail mix!
What the book suggests, and my experience confirms, is that self-imposed, limited hunger is like the scary shadow in your dark bedroom that proves harmless when you turn on the light. It’s not a snowball rolling downhill, gathering mass until it crushes you, facedown and helpless, into a plate of French fries. For those of us with plentiful access to food, temporary hunger feels like a rising tide, with waves that come and go, which you can experience without negative consequence.
Once hunger loses its irrational grip on your mind, you are free to choose what and when you want to eat. Fasting is about learning your body’s signals, what they mean and what they don’t—information that couldn’t be more liberating.
Not that fasting days aren’t spent fantasizing about food. It’s sort of an aching anticipation of pleasure, like paging through the Seed Savers catalog in January. The old saw that absence makes the heart grow fonder holds true beyond the realm of romance. Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka wrote in his essay “Why Do I Fast?”: “I suspect that it is the truly sensual that take easily to fasting…Taste is selectiveness, choice.” I’ve found that fasting causes me to enjoy food more and need less of it to feel satisfied, even on non-fasting days.
Of course the real question is, “Does it work?” A recent small study at the University of Illinois at Chicago resulted in participants losing an average of 12 pounds over 10 weeks of alternate-day fasting. Other studies suggest that intermittent fasting may have beneficial effects on metabolism and prevention of heart disease. But Britain’s publically funded National Health Service has urged more research, stating that the evidence base of the safety and effectiveness of the 5:2 diet is limited compared to other weight-loss programs.
Katherine Zeratsky, a Mayo Clinic dietitian, says mindfulness is a much more powerful (and sustainable) tool than willpower when it comes to recalibrating one’s relationship to food. “If you’re going to fight the willpower fight, be prepared to lose,” she says. “There are too many forces against you physically, socially, and psychologically. But slowing down, eating for enjoyment, and fully experiencing your food and your body’s signals can be powerful. If intermittent fasting helps someone approach food from that perspective, the outcome is likely going to be positive.”