Feast & Famine

David and I have started fasting once a week, just for 24 hours.

No – it’s not a religious thing, which is the first question another friend asked me in horror. It’s a health thing.

It’s interesting: we have this built-in cultural fear of going without food. The first question most people ask is if that’s healthy. Between our ancestral, and very real fear, of starving and our modern cultural icons of body-image psychosis that leads to anorexia, the idea of not eating is frightening to us.

But yes, it is healthy. A 24-hour fast once a week cleanses the digestive system and stimulates the immune system. It’s a good practice for warding off chronic disease, especially now that we’re middle-aged. We simply stop eating after dinner on Sunday night, then drink only water until Monday evening, when we break fast with a salad of red cabbage, beets and carrots.

Yeah, it was hard the first few weeks. My blood sugar dropped. I was headachey and dizzy, having a hard time concentrating. After that, my body got a lot better at unlocking the sugar I needed from my fat stores, which is what I want it to get good at doing. My body got a lot better at keeping an even balance, rather than demanding caffeine and sugar to keep going.

The best part is how good I feel the next day. The process leaves me feeling vital and energized.

The most interesting part though, is the food fantasies.

I’ll be working away and suddenly a daydream will seize me. I’ll want a cupcake, more than anything in the world. Or my mouth will suddenly flood with the taste of a baked potato oozing with butter. I’ll think I want food I never eat, or haven’t eaten in years. Sometimes, my brain will try to trick me, but inserting a random thought that I should just pop into the kitchen and grab a cookie. It’s not even being hungry so much as having little temper-tantrums of wanting.

For the first time in my life, I really understand now what emotional-eating is about.

It’s become almost a cliche now. “I ate my emotions” Reese Witherspoon says in defense of her teenage fat in Four Christmases – and it’s a funny line. (Yeah, I know I’m the only person who liked that movie. I laughed and laughed.) But it’s a truism, that much of our eating choices are driven by emotion, not nutrition. We eat to soothe ourselves, to ease the pain of whatever hurts us, to add to the happy.

I’m not saying that’s wrong either. I’m the first one to enjoy that chilled glass of wine. I’ll absolutely gorge on brownies with you to salve the pain of a rejection. Is spaghetti with meatballs one of my favorite comfort foods? Oh yes, yes, yes.

But I think it’s useful to know that. It’s good for me to know that I’m eating my big plate of pasta because it makes me happy, not because my body needs that kind of nutrition.

The other thing fasting does is break the habit of nibbling.

Once I overrule that little pop-up window in my brain that suggest grabbing a cookie, some nuts, a handful of chips, after a while that subroutine stops running. Eating becomes a deliberate choice rather than a habit. Since I work from home, with easy access to a kitchen full of enticing food, I’m pleased to break that particular habit.

Now if I could get people on Twitter to stop sending pictures of their treats…

7 Replies to “Feast & Famine”

  1. Jeffe,
    I college I went through a vegetarian phase. Didn't eat meat or anything made with meat products for six months. In other words, no hamburger, no Oreos (made with lard) and no chicken noodle soup. The first few months were fine, but after a while I started dreaming about meat. Bratwurst. Steak and eggs. Bacon. I'd wake to the phantom smells of sausage biscuits. It got to the point, I would have killed my brother for an Oreo. At that point, I decided I was a carnivore and just embraced it.

  2. I'm interested in this from a metabolic perspective. It's long seemed to me that the caveat that ever EVER going under 1200 calories a day will send your metabolism into a tailspin from which you may never recover is ridiculous.

    For one, we're all special snowflakes who will react each of us in our own special way… but are we really so unadaptive that a day or two or even a couple of weeks of limited calories will ruin us?

    It seems short-sighted of Nature, and I've rarely seen Nature as short-sighted.

    I hope to see an update from you on this down the road.

  3. I did the same thing, Keena. I gave up all meat for a year and have been vegetarian at other times. And I came to the same conclusion, that I need meat. Still, I think there's a difference between recognizing a craving that indicates a long-term nutritional deficiency and one driven by a short-term emotional need.

  4. That's a good point, Marin. Especially for those of us who come from sturdy peasant stock. I have no doubt my metabolic ancestors were well able to withstand extended periods of limited calories. (Potato famine, anyone?)

    We've been doing this for about eight weeks now. I'll make a note to report back in another eight.

  5. I'm with Marin, I'm intrigued. Some nutritionists recommend fasting for short bursts to shock the system out of a plateau. Even those who consume as little as 900 cal/day (Liz Hurley, anyone?) hit the lull and can actually put on weight even though they consume less than the recommended minimum.

    I'm not sure how well I'd do with the woozies once my blood-sugar plummets, but I like the idea of retraining my body to use what's already there.

  6. Though I'm not doing this for weight loss, KAK, I do think it's having that shock effect. I've been at a pretty stable plateau for quite a while, even though I've decreased portions and increased exercise. It's definitely worth it a few days of the woozies to get the blood-sugar running better! I don't experience the highs and lows like I did before.

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