As I write this I have not put food in my body for over 48 hours.
Over the last three months, I have been intermittently fasting — going up to three days with no food — and I feel great.
Here’s how this happened.
In February a friend I hadn’t seen in years told me he was fasting “for health reasons.” Alarmed (he’s about seven years older than me), I pried further, and he clarified that it was just for general health. He had read that fasting two to three days a week is good for you.
He was right, of course. I’d long known about the benefits of fasting; for over 10 years I’ve taught a college course on the art and culture of food. I’d read up on some of the nutritional guidelines.
So, soon after that talk, without consulting a doctor (except Doctor Internet, natch), I stopped eating pretty much cold turkey (so to speak). Humans are deeply social creatures, and sometimes you just need the “permission” of another person to light the fuse.
But for me this is not just about health.
Rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly), I think of myself as the sort of person who does not do things unless I have several good reasons for doing them. I offer the following reasons for my fasting:
1. The feeling of discipline and control. I get to decide when to eat, not my stomach. By coincidence the Muslim holiday of Ramadan (when the faithful avoid food from sunrise to sunset) was happening as I was starting my new regimen, and that was a nice reminder that people the world over have done some version of what I’m doing since time immemorial. Having a vegan wife provides another model of self-mastery — though I should add that neither vegetarianism nor veganism, contrary to popular opinion, necessarily mean “healthy eating.”
2. Time saved. I no longer have to organize my days around meals nor stress about what to stuff my face with in a few hours. As described by Lizzie Widdicombe in a New Yorker article on Soylent (another radical alternative, which eliminates what most people consider meals): “You begin to realize how much of your day revolves around food. Meals provide punctuation to our lives: we’re constantly recovering from them, anticipating them, riding the emotional ups and downs of a good or a bad sandwich.” Not so much now.
3. Living in truth. I don’t like the idea that for most of my life I’ve just mindlessly bought into the myth that we need to eat three solid meals a day. We don’t. We’re just spoiled living in the richest, most wasteful nation in history. (This doesn’t apply to all of us, of course. We do also have real food insecurity and hunger in our land of the free.)
4. Ka-ching! Do you realize how much you can save if you don’t eat?
5. Protesting, in my small way, the U.S. food system. It is bloated with government subsidies. It is unhealthy, anchored by fat, sugar, salt, corn and chemical additives. It is profoundly unethical, creating hell on earth for billions of animals tortured, then killed for their meat. The pesticide runoff from farming alone is a huge environmental disaster, but there are many others it creates. I feel better about myself giving rich food conglomerates slightly less of my money.
6. More pretentiously: solidarity with the hunger-ridden suffering of those less fortunate, including animals.
I don’t feel right calling this a “diet.” I’m not really doing it to lose weight, though I am curious to see how many pounds I shed. So far 15. I also don’t consider this a Supersize Me-type experiment on my body, though it certainly is an experiment in the sense that I want to see where this all leads, and it certainly is my body.
Once in grad school I was co-teaching a literature class. The topic of anorexia came up in one of the readings (for what it’s worth, I had not chosen this particular reading; my co-instructor had.) One of the undergraduates in the class told me in confidence that she was anorexic, but she didn’t see it as a stigma. She thought of it as an empowering identity. Anorexia gave her a strong sense of owning and controlling her own body.
It was a troubling but also illuminating conversation. The student told me about the online communities who supported her and other anorexics to resist the “tyranny” of food. I knew that such support communities had tragically contributed to anorexics starving themselves to death in quest of corporeal perfection. I told her so, and that I hoped she would get some counseling. It might save her life.
Food is social, food is contextual, food is weaponizable. Food is illusion. Food is blind custom, inertia.
Sorry to sound so judgmental. I speak only for myself. This works for me.
I will just leave you with this: habits are made, and habits can be broken. Your mileage may vary, but it can definitely be done — maybe more easily than you think.
José Alaniz is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Department of Cinema and Media Studies (adjunct) at UW. He lives blissfully with his wife and many animals in Longbranch.
Editor’s note: It is essential to check with a doctor before starting intermittent fasting, which is defined as eating food within a specific time frame. Avoiding food completely or eating very few calories over an extended period is often associated with anorexia nervosa, a complex and potentially dangerous mental health disorder.
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