“It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.”
– Millard Fuller
Fasting is all the rage right now. Depending on who you listen to it is either an over-hyped waste of time or the fountain of youth, capable of transforming your physique and activating latent spidey-senses. Those in the pro-fasting camp cite a myriad of benefits—weight loss, increased insulin sensitivity, growth of stem cells, disease prevention, and world peace.
As much as I’d like to give you the definitive fasting interpretation, the best I can offer is that it might have health benefits. And while I can’t tell you with authority that fasting will do X or Y, I can attest to how invaluable fasting has been in my own personal development. In this age of mass consumption, willingly doing the opposite is transformative.
Fasting changes your relationship with food. This has been my own experience as well as the recurring opinion of the friends, relatives, and colleagues I’ve talked to over the years. But what does it mean to have your relationship with food change?
It isn’t like anyone is changing their relationship status to: It’s Complicated-with Food. What is the relationship with food in the first place? The best way to explain this is with my own experience.
The Diary Of Hungry Kid
For most of my life, I was praised for my appetite. I liked nearly every food and I had a voracious appetite. This was pleasing to my parents, who appreciated that I wasn’t a picky eater like my older brother, and to most adult male figures.
Anytime I’d visit friends or relatives I’d be lauded for the impressive amount of food I could consume. This became a point of pride that went hand in hand with my other major source of significance—natural strength.
When I got to high school and became committed to getting stronger for athletics, I was sold the belief that all I had to do was lift hard and “eat everything that isn’t nailed down.” Eating more became a testament to my dedication and I had no reason to believe there was any problem with this simple worldview. Blessed with a rapid metabolism, I broke high-school lifting records while maintaining speed and athleticism.
After sports, I channeled my need for competition and significance into muscle-building. If I wasn’t going to be known as Shane the football player, I’d be Shane the strongest looking dude in the room.
This led me to lots of supersets, mirror-staring, protein shakes, and food. I committed to eating every three hours and would grow anxious for my next feeding by the two-hour mark. I bought into all the get-swole adages, making sure that I entered the gym with food in my system and that I ate a large, carb-heavy meal within 30-minutes of leaving.
I became convinced that if I were to go more than five or six waking hours without food my blood sugar would crash and I’d be physically incapacitated. A sense of panic crept in around the four-hour mark and I’d become an undeniable jerk. These patterns took shape near the time of my challenges with OCD and it is clear upon reflection that I was using eating as an attempt to pacify my anxiety.
As I began my adult life, I built clean eating habits but continued to eat a ton. I began exercising twice per day so I could eat more. I became obsessive about my need to fill up. Anywhere I went, I’d have a bag of snacks on me to prevent a meltdown. To my memory, I made it through the entire first 26 years of my life without missing a meal.
Then, some time in the back half of my 20’s, I heard enough about intermittent fasting that I considered trying it. I was married now, less concerned about looking like the strongest guy in the room and becoming much more concerned about improving myself.
I’d begun meditating and, despite my CSCS-Joe Kenn background, I grew fascinated by Pavel, Max Shank, the kettlebell, and the MovNat world. I read the books Tribe and Natural Born Heroes. As a former history major, these resonated with me and suddenly the way I saw humanity and the human body began to shift.
We are adaptable beasts. The causes of mass mental and physical disorder stemmed from falling away from our natural living patterns. It was no longer normal to move naturally, work for the tribe, eat real foods, expose ourselves to the elements, or experience extended bouts of hunger. By shutting myself off from these experiences I was reinforcing my own fragility while shutting myself off from personal growth.
By this point, I was about 215 pounds of mostly lean muscle, and I was still eating the following menu each day:
- Breakfast – large omelet and fruit
- Snack – too many mixed nuts
- Lunch – three or four pieces of meat (yes, I had a problem), mixed vegetables, an apple
- Post-Workout Snack
- A sporadic snack before bed – fruit, a scoop of natural peanut butter, etc.
The Insights Born of Deprivation
I set my first 16-hour fast for a busy Wednesday morning, figuring that if it grew unbearable I’d have no option but to gut through it. I finished dinner at 5:30 pm on Tuesday and didn’t eat until 9:30 am the next day.
To my surprise, it was not that hard. The physical shutdown I’d predicted never came. In fact, I felt good right up to the time I began eating. All at once, that belief that I had to pacify every hunger pang or came crumbling down. Hunger didn’t just increase steadily until I was rolling on the floor in agony. Hunger came and went, oscillating up and down without any apparent cause. The whole thing just amazed me.
I immediately began working these fasts into a weekly structure with 16-17 hour fasts every Saturday and Sunday and a bigger 19 hour fast every Wednesday. When I got kids, I wanted to have a family breakfast on the weekends so I got rid of the weekend fasts but kept fasting every Wednesday.
Every now and then I stretch this to 24 hours. Whether the fasts create superpowers or not is really not the point. The real power of these fasts is how they’ve changed my relationship with food and the way I respond to hunger.
Shortly after that first fast, I got rid of all snacking. Not rigidly so. If my wife wants popcorn while we watch a movie, we have popcorn. But for the most part, I don’t eat anything but three meals per day, two if I’m intermittent fasting. It seems obvious to me now, that this is plenty.
I shifted my workouts to the morning and I’ve found that I prefer to workout in a fasted state. So now, on a typical day, I finish dinner by 6 pm, I wake up early to write, workout around 7 am, and then eat around 8:30 am.
Without trying to I fell into a daily structure where almost every day features a 14-15 hour break between meals. I’ve also cut down the amount of meat that I eat each day, considerably. Without having ever worried about weight, I’m now anywhere between 195 and 200 pounds, plenty strong and with better energy than ever.
My wife has also fit fasts into her schedule on and off for the past few years. After a break she started again recently, and her comment seems to summarize the benefits of fasting best: “It’s good for me because it changes my relationship with food. I feel less need to snack. Like, I’m good. I don’t need to eat every time I think I’m getting hungry.”
Courtesy of Ted Naiman, MD, h/t PD Morgan
That’s it. Sometimes we are bored and food seems like a good way to fill the space. Sometimes we’re actually thirsty. Particularly in a world programmed for consumption, adding a little more boundary to our consumption is not a bad practice. And that’s the real reason to fast every now and then—because you are a human and not feeling capable of going without food for a bit marks a drastic departure from basic human capabilities.
Fasting For The Holidays
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
Henry David Thoreau
So much of the fitness world exists to counteract overconsumption. Consumerism is fueled by a system where we are always reminded of what we are missing and then pointed to something that is supposed to fill that void.
Food and the engineering of cravings is an obvious example. Yet, things are rarely the solution to our problems. The change we are seeking doesn’t come from adding the things we think we need. In fact, it is just the opposite.
We are happier when we are less dependent on external circumstances being just right. We are happier when we need less. That is why the wealthy, Stoic philosopher, Seneca, suggested a monthly practice of self-denial. As he frames it, just as soldiers train during times of peace and prosperity, we should train ourselves amid times of abundance. Well, the abundance is here and it isn’t going anywhere.
We’ve always known we needed to train. We will be happier if we are active and healthy, but this only happens when we flex our muscles and challenge our bodies on a consistent basis. In the same way, we can structure other challenges to bring us towards gradual growth.
At IHD, our Pillar Experience Calendars, are a structured method of pulling yourself towards experiences like fasting that grow your ability to thrive through a challenge. Each month calls you to a group lesson and a challenge that will grow willpower and instill healthy values. You’ll be doing these alongside a community that can share the wisdom of their own experience and supports each other in healthier living. This seems especially necessary during the holidays.
I love the cheer and tradition of December but it also seems to be an exaggeration of some cultural patterns that are already out of control. Thus, I thought it was the perfect month to stretch myself by doubling my old record for time without food.
This month I’m going to go for 48 hours with only water. I wouldn’t start here if you don’t have much experience, but I do encourage you to consider an intermittent fast this December—maybe that is just skipping breakfast one day.
It is an experience common to humankind and one that might enrich the rest of your holidays. After all, the pleasures of life are always much sweeter after a bit of struggle.