The initiation of a fast

Mark Baker (AKA Guru Anaerobic) is a champion of the fast. Here’s an excerpt from a short paper on the topic of fasting:

“We know that the stress of intermittent physical exercise is good for health; however, until recently, nutritionists and dietitians missed 50% of the health equation in that this also applies to food – nature delivers nutrition in an unbalanced and stochastic fashion. They missed that the supply of food matters just as much as its constituents. Keeping energy levels topped up, balanced meals, five (or more) portions of fruit or vegetables a day, calories in/out, three meals a day – are all based on the unnatural idea of regularity in food supply.

The environment ‘talks’ to our cells and genes, telling our body what’s going on around it. These signals or messages influence cell function and gene expression. Deprivation is information, powerful information – absence of food is understandably a strong and urgent signal, so the body has developed strategies to enhance survivability and increase its chances of finding sustenance. Again, health professionals got it wrong when they said constant feeding is good; actually the reverse, constant feeding is sending all the wrong signals as far as human health is concerned. They looked at the ‘destructive’ aspects of starvation without realising that what was being destroyed (and recycled) were the body’s damaged and dysfunctional cells. And the reverse, they failed to see the beneficial effects, in that, 1/ the brain ‘improves’ in response to hunger; 2/ the body preserves itself in response to deprivation.

Seen as an evolutionary survival mechanism the fasting rationale becomes clear. So, if we look at food as information; just the same as refraining from the news, taking time off work or being on our own for a while is beneficial, we can assume that resting from the ‘noise’ of food has its benefits. Too much information in the form of constant feeding dulls the senses and causes harm. Just as water tastes better when we’re thirsty, if we go off sugar for two weeks our taste buds can detect it in parts-per-zillion – we can practically smell it from a distance. And the opposite, when we eat a lot of sweets (candy) it’s not surprising that an apple tastes bland – the excess sugar has desensitised the taste receptors and/or the processing part of the brain. Absence of food means the senses are upregulated. As anyone who has fasted for 36hrs or more knows, eyesight improves and sense of smell becomes more intense. This makes sense in that when we most need to find food, our senses are heightened – we become ‘sharper’. The theories that this happens at the cell receptors or in the neocortex, or both, is being researched, but we do know the effect regardless of mechanism.

Studies show that aging and disease back off in the face of hunger. Intermittent fasting promotes the body’s ability to remove and recycle molecular ‘rubbish’ (defective and damaged organelles, proteins, mitochondria…) in a process called autophagy, reduces inflammation, and seems to have neuro-protective and tumour suppression effects.”

I happen to strongly agree with Mark—the ideas above resonate. Partially because I’ve read Taleb’s Incerto and understand the human need for regular exposure to the Extended Disorder family. But mainly because two experiences strongly demonstrated to me the absurdity of our nutritional habits.

First, a few years ago, I stumbled upon the positive mental effects of nutritional fasting. I cannot remember the specifics of the scenario, but what I do remember is that I needed to get some work done. However, I was very much a student of the eat-little-and-often school of thought. And as anyone who did or does this regularly will tell you, it takes a lot of time to prepare and consume five or six meals a day. So, pushed for time, I decided not to eat for the majority of the day. Outcome: more time, more work done, and a surprising amount of mental clarity. (This also resulted in a periodically used productivity strategy—don’t eat.)

Second, I used to work in a department store. Usually, from nine till five, and often I wouldn’t bring any lunch with me. I’d have breakfast and dinner, but nothing from about 0800 to 1800. Instead of using my lunch break to eat, I used it to read. One of my colleagues at the time commented on this. She said something to the effect of, “How can you not eat lunch? You’re going the whole day without food! If I do that I get the shakes. I have to eat something.” Immediately, I thought this was bizarre. Surely such dependency on nutritional intake is a problem. Our bodies should be able to function without food for a time.

There have been other experiences and other learnings which have contributed to my agreement with the idea of fasting, but they have all resulted in the implementation of fasting in my day-to-day existence. For example, I keep a document called “The Archipelago” which has things like my current priority, an assessment of bottlenecks in my life, a plan for the upcoming week, a project and next-action list, and an assortment of daily, weekly and monthly practices. One of my weekly practices is a twenty-four water fast. A normal evening meal and then no food until the following evening. Similarly, a monthly practice I’m trying to implement is a multi-day fast, lasting somewhere between two to five days.

However, when considering a multi-day fast, I always end up asking myself a question. First, the point of fasting is the replication and/or reintroduction of wildness into our ever-so unwild modern lives. Second, it is widely accepted that there is an undeniable and complex link between physiology and psychology. So I find myself asking, “Does it matter what initiates the fast?”

Consider two fasting scenarios. Both are fasts of three days, and during both I will consume nothing but water. However, in the first, I will remain at home and go about my normal routine. I’ll wake up at the usual time, I’ll do my regular work, I‘ll do Brazilian jiu-jitsu and weight train. Everything will be the same except I won’t eat, nor drink anything except water. The second scenario differs. Instead of staying at home, I’ll leave. I’ll pack a tarp and bivvy bag on my bicycle—bikepacking style—and head into the countryside for a couple of days. I’ll have no set routine, avoid human contact and sleep anywhere that seems suitable and not-too-dangerous.

Would the effects of the two fasts differ? Does a fast made begun deliberately have the same effect on the human organism as a fast initiated by need and external, uncontrollable circumstances?