Chapter 9: Too fast, too furious?

I am ashamed to say that for the last few weeks the blog has been quiet. The main reason being that I have been studying for my first year viva; a process where I have to justify all the work I have done during my first year on the PhD. Now that the viva is over I have a little more time to dedicate to the blog. This week I will be talking about fasting, in particular a recent experience I had when I tried fasting out for a few weeks. I tried my best to come up with a “fast” based pun for the title of this post, if you can think of anything funny let me know so I can steal it and pretend I'm funnier than I actually am.

The process of fasting involves voluntarily giving something up for a certain period of time, when fasting is mentioned most people think of food; it is the most common example, another  being alcohol. Fasting has received attention lately because of some arguments that have suggested that it provides both physical and mental health benefits. However, rather than seeking to gain any benefit I was curious about how I would personally handle going without food for certain periods of time; in the past I have had an unhealthy relationship with food (especially pizza...mhhh pizza). Based on some light research I decided to try two different types of fasting over the course of the last month. I won’t be diving deep into the science behind fasting, I will do that in a future post, instead I am going to talk about my experience while trying it out.

24 hours, one day a week

As the subheading suggests this type of fasting involves going without food for 24 hours once a week. In my case, I choose to do it middle of the week, from Tuesday evening to Wednesday evening. The night before I ate a medium sized meal, woke up, did some exercise in the morning then went to work without breakfast. I didn’t really notice that I’d skipped breakfast till it reached mid-morning when I felt a slight pang of hunger, but I was fairly busy with work so was able to ignore it without much difficulty. Come lunch time I was most definitely hungry, and when I turned up to lunch with nothing more than a bottle of water I got a few questions and some strange looks. During this whole period I made sure to drink plenty of water and managed to survived lunch, despite being slightly jealous of other peoples food. The hard part came when I went back to the office. As the afternoon wore on I could feel my concentration slipping and it became hard to focus on anything that required too much brain power. As such I decided to catch up on paperwork and emails; tasks which didn't need a lot of energy. When home time eventually arrived I had managed to power through the afternoon slump and my stomach no longer noticed that it was hungry, but I could tell that I was a little more impatient with the traffic on the drive home. Once at home when early evening rolled around I prepped another medium sized meal and happily sat down and tucked in. After this first day I waited a week and repeated the process. Having done it before I knew what to expect. I made sure to plan my day accordingly, I did lab work in the morning and then caught up on paper work during the afternoon. I felt less irritable this time round and as a whole it wasn’t nearly as difficult as the first week. I only tried this version of fasting for two weeks, I might give it another go in the future and if I'm feeling brave extend the fast to more than 24 hours. Other than a lack of  focus during the afternoon it wasn't nearly as difficult as I had expected and it really made me appreciate that first meal once the 24 hours was over. If anyone did try this method I would say to make it easier on yourself and if you can, the first time you do it, do it on a day that you know won’t involve too much stress.

Intermittent fasting

After the first attempt with fasting had went off without any major problems I decided to try a different approach, intermittent fasting. In this case, you don’t forgo food for a full day instead you have a limited number of hours during which you can eat. There are no specific rules, most of the reading I looked at went for leaving a 14 to 16 hour gap between meals and only eating during a 4 to 8 hour window. During the first week this meant that, for the full week, I only ate between 11am and 6pm which equated to skipping breakfast and making sure I had an early evening meal. After surviving the 24 hour fast this felt significantly easier; I didn’t suffer from a lack of focus during the afternoon. After doing that for a full week I felt fine, the hardest part was avoiding snacks on after 6pm an evening when at home. To make the next week a little more challenging I decided to narrow the window and only eat between 3pm and 7pm. This meant that there was a 4 hour window when I would eat, which would consist of a small meal at 3pm and a medium size evening meal at around 6pm. This defiantly made it a lot harder, particularly as the UK was having a glorious heat wave during the week I decided to do this, meaning I had to fight the urge to grab a lunch time ice cream. With this new schedule I found that at the start of the week at around 2pm I begun to lose focus, like during the 24 hour fast. However, once I had been doing it for a few days I was able to regain that focus pretty quickly. This method, while harder in some ways as you have to carefully schedule your meals, was the easiest to follow and ended up being a lot of fun. That was two weeks ago and since then I have been trying to stick to that schedule as best I can (although as I write this someone has brought in a Caterpillar Cake at 11am and I am not ashamed to admit that I had a cheeky slice). I plan on sticking to this plan, at least the next couple of weeks. 

A summary

For now that covers my brief foray into fasting and I can say it has been an interesting little experiment. It took my body a while to realise that being hungry isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that if you skip a meal or two it’s not the end of the world. Like I said I plan on keeping up the intermittent fasting to see how it affects me long term. If anyone is considering giving fasting a go a big disclaimer (and a good rule for life) do your research before you try anything. If you are interesting in reading more there are loads of resources available. This experiment was partly inspired by a pair of art of manliness posts (here and here) from a few years ago. The articles give a brilliant introduction to fasting if you wanted to learn more. If anyone else has had any experience with fasting I would love to hear about it, feel free to tweet at me and we can get a discussion going.

Now that I have some more time available I hope to be back and posting regularly, so until next time this is Steve the Scientist signing off.