Fasting with the boys

Fasting with the boys

With the juiciest of intentions, I suggested to my boyfriend and his roommates that we all participate in a communal 72-hour fast. No calories, no carbs, no diet sodas that hide behind lobbying and advertising that claim Coke Zero is “good for you”. Just water (and black coffee and tea, if no creamers are added). I was jazzed for this fast because I’ve never gone a full day without eating before - it’s the pinnacle of living in the first world, as is writing this blog post on a mac laptop and wearing a Zara sweater knitted in Turkey. My hunter gatherer ancestors would go weeks without eating anything but grass and their own nails - and yet me, the product of their long evolution, can’t go a few hours without feeling hungry and sluggish.

I usually intermittent fast on the weekend by snoozing until 9 o’clock and eating a late lunch at 1 or 2 p.m. My energy levels are constant, and I enjoy the cleanse from feeding on the food pyramid all week. My tummy is hollow but drinking black coffee or turmeric tea makes up for any hunger. Exercising (i.e. hiking or morning yoga) on this routine also feels light and nimble, like my limbs have flattened between glass. I started this casual schedule a few months ago because of Nikhil and have {begrudgingly} absorbed his IF lingo and research (“It’s got magnesium in it, babe!”).

Fasting is a biohack that can lead to ketosis, autophagy and an LSD-like “high” that keeps you wired. The concept of autophagy is fascinating to me: your body is literally eating and recycling dysfunctional cells that could lead to cancer or other negative health effects (i.e. Alzheimer’s). Not eating for a few days in exchange for lower cancer risk seems like a no brainer - and yet, most Americans continue to gorge on fast food ( 85 million daily, to be precise) and ignore their health. I consider myself to be a relatively healthy person, exercising daily and limiting alcohol/sugar, but even I hadn’t skipped more than one meal in my life.

My boyfriend and his roommates are fasting veterans and biohackers to the max. We determined a weekend, sent around a calendar invite and scribbled our “before fast” weights onto the living room white board. I was a ripe 101 pounds and ready to dip into the 90s; I wasn’t sure what to expect from 72 hours of fasting, but I was confident I could do it. It helped that the roommates were also my pseudo-shamans; Kenton doled out supplements and created a pill schedule tailored to our body weights. Maybe it’s the general zeitgeist of Silicon Valley, but everyone is sharp and enterprising here - nights are spent discussing credit score hacks and engineering levels at Facebook or Apple. There’s a miniature stirling engine piping away in the kitchen, atop a steaming cup of mushroom coffee. From an accountant’s perspective, this is the jungle gym of intellectualism and an alarming way of living. I’m perplexed but happy, although everyone seems to be three steps ahead of me.

The eve of fasting approached and my mind was unconcerned. I was convinced my stomach would give up the fight and sign a truce with my ketogenic state. 72 hours later and I would be an enlightened being, all skin and ketones….here’s what actually happened the weekend of October 23, 2020:

Part I: The Night Before Christmas Fasting

Getting ready for a weekend of austerity

Getting ready for a weekend of austerity

I was hyped, inhaling granola and hot sauce eggs like it was The Last Supper. The roommates and I crowded around the kitchen table and rated various nuts from most delectable to least (I firmly stand by peanuts and walnuts). We swallowed our magnesium pills together and reviewed the fasting game plan for the upcoming days. Fasting with a group of people makes it way easier to hold yourself accountable and actually restrict food intake, especially when those people are excitable tech dudes. I didn’t appreciate my last meal because I was nonchalant about the whole thing - not eating for three days? That was nothing compared to working insane hours during close week and surviving a months’ long pandemic. I watched half an episode of Man in the High Castle and drifted into sleep, dreaming of bicycle backflips and water.

Part II: Yacc Macc

Why, Green Tea?

Why, Green Tea?

It was Friday morning as usual: twenty minutes of core yoga, steaming cup of chamomile tea and the ole’ grind anxiety as Microsoft Teams notifications started pouring in. The roomies and I diligently swallowed our potassium pills and suffered through a solution of cold tap water and pink Himalaya salt (the most disgusting liquid I’ve ever tasted). My stomach started feeling queasy but I downed the electrolytes since they were essential to a semi-okay fast. I usually eat a light breakfast (bananas and dark chocolate), so skipping this lil’ snack made no difference in my mindset and physical state. My work day was the Friday before “close week” - meaning stress levels were peaking as were the demands on my time/skills/mental sanity. But I powered through, skipping lunch and breezing through the five meetings of the day. Of course I decided to fast during an accounting stress fest, when my meetings were actually taxing and required me to think. I was naive and thought fasting would lead to a wired, more acute mental state - which it does for normally distributed humans.

By around 3:30 p.m., an unabating nausea had taken the place of hunger and my mind was disassociating from the living room. I wasn’t feeling exhausted but it was a regular tsunami inside my digestive track (pour one out for my intestines!). I was giving Kenton a status update on my belly when it felt it rear up - my mouth was watering copiously, whatever was left in my body was writhing and I knew the retch was near.

“Excuse me, Kenton. I have to throw up.”

Stomach roaring, I burst into Nikhil’s room and threw my head inside the toilet. Wave after wave of clear and brown bile was violently ejected from my organs. Not to be gross or anything, but I was choking on all fours and heaving. Nikhil was a trooper and held my hair back; he’s seen me yacc multiple times now (thanks green tea and alcohol), so it was a normal boyfriend duty for him. It was the kind of yaccing where I was puffy-eyed and crying into Nikhil’s chest, mumbling “I can’t fast anymore.”

On the traumatic scale, this would only be a 5.5 (out of 10 being most traumatic) - having a needle stuck in my foot and vomiting because of blacking out is 10x worse. I powered through a few more journal entries and was laughing at the whole situation - I am yacc mack. If anything, I felt rejuvenated and cleansed because my body physically rid itself of accumulated toxins. Drinking more salt and popping more electrolyte pills wasn’t in the cards for me though. And when I started researching the potentially harmful effects1 prolonged fasting has on female reproductive organs, I decided to tap out.

My mom always said that I had a “delicate composition,” but I would get offended/exasperated when she said that. Being limited by my own physicality - when my brain is running marathons every day and never shuts up - is the most frustrating feeling to me. Breaking my fast felt like defeat, but I knew that listening to my body was the smart thing to do. After all, I’m lucky to have legs that can bike 35 miles, to have joints that bend during hot yoga, and to have arms that paddle my canoe across Lake Pleasant. 😌

Part II: Breaking the Fast :(

Prepping my caved-in belly with a banana

Prepping my caved-in belly with a banana

Once my resolve crumbled, I was counting down the minutes to seven o’clock p.m. Bananas and burritos and smoothies were taunting me, refusing to leave my thoughts. I was still researching the effects of fasting on small women, but it was all confirmation bias at this point. Once I knew the end was near, nothing could’ve convinced me to restrict calories any longer. I don’t even know if I want kids, but I’d feel guilty if my irresponsible fasting habits led to infertility.

At 7:03 p.m., I poured a glass of almond milk and unpeeled a speckled, thick banana.

cue slow motion bite into fruit flesh

It wasn’t the best banana I’ve ever tasted, but my stomach gratefully accepted the offering. I felt guilty and weird about eating, like it was a nasty habit I shouldn’t be encouraging. The almond milk slid down my throat and filled the empty cavity - the banana quelled the nausea. Nikhil rubbed my back and assured me I wasn’t a loser or a quitter, but I was still embarrassed and disappointed in myself. I wanted to be one of the boys, to be able to enter ketosis and tweak on fat deposits. Reality often doesn’t align with incentives2 or goals and fasting is no exception - but as Nikhil kept reminding me, fasting for 24 hours is a big deal, especially when most people don’t attempt it at all.

Precita Park was twinkling during our nighttime walk and the restaurants lining the boulevard - Domo and Marcela - were buzzing with patrons, all twirling forks and sipping craft beers. The air was biting right through my Uniqlo windbreaker and enveloping my bones; I was airy, lighter than a bedsheet hanging on a laundry line by the water.

Part IV: Fasting Takeaways

A few insights struck me during my failed fast - 1) I am limited by my composition and biology in ways the average male is not, 2) my literal biological purpose is to reproduce and preserve my species and 3) no matter how many chins up I do or heads of broccoli I eat, I’ll probably be weaker than a boy. Feminists would skin me for coming to these conclusions, but evolution has never been so glaringly obvious to me. Dr. Peter Attia, the celebrity doctor and fasting guru, explained how famines and lack of nutrients (“a calorie restricted state”) affected women and men differently during prehistoric times. For women, our fsh and lh hormones drop, signaling to our bodies that reproducing isn’t a great idea. The effect is opposite for men: their testosterone levels are unaffected so they can hunt wooly mammoths for their women & children to eat. It doesn’t get more primal than that, no matter if women have the right to vote and close the wage gap.

Coming to terms with these factual limitations was the hardest part of my fast - the yaccing quickly became a meme in the household (“ha ha you yacced and went back to accounting"), but my own internal struggle with biology wasn’t so memey. I could’ve powered through the 72 hour fast, but the (potential) long-term ramifications on my reproductive health wasn’t worth it. It’s so frustrating, being constrained by Darwinian forces. The more I thought about this base inequity though, the more I came to accept it as something beyond my control. Society, technology and opportunity have dramatically outstripped the pace of human evolution, so women will have ovaries and a uterus for millenia to come. But that’s okay - if a weakness in fasting capabilities is offset by being the vehicles of new life, that might be a fair trade off.

Even though I only fasted for 24 hours, my relationship with food is altered forever. Sweets are less appealing, alcohol looks goofy and overeating in general has no purpose. I’ll continue to intermittent fast on the weekends and possibly attempt another 24 hour fast, but half the battle is recognizing and accepting your own limits. I yacced, I broke the fast early, and I went from 101 pounds to a clean 100. So be it. 🤙🏾

  1. The research in this area is underdeveloped and inconclusive. The Zero app had a few articles related to fasting and the menstrual cycle, but concrete facts were missing because “context is key.” If a woman is lean and on birth control, the effects of fasting are vastly different than for a woman who is overweight and naturally menstruating. Fasting isn’t the only area I’ve noticed a conspicuous lack of research as it relates to females, but I wanted to play it safe. If anything, all of the articles (and completely reliable subreddit threads) I read all agreed on one thing: multi day fasting for smaller, leaner women is not recommended. This longish quote from a Zero article by Kristi Storoschuk sums it up: “The female reproductive system demands a lot of energy, which makes sense. The whole purpose is to build and support the life of a human being from scratch. Thus, in order for a woman to be fertile and have a normal menstrual cycle, the body needs to know it has enough reserves to do so. If it starts receiving a repeated signal that nutrients are low, reproduction can shut off, and Mother Nature’s monthly gift vanishes.” ↩︎

  2. This isn’t directly related to this article, but I wanted to provide an example of when reality doesn’t align with incentives. Nikhil and I frequently discuss the broken higher education system, especially as it pertains to student debt and choice of degree. Young people are incentivized to get college degrees by their parents, society and banks that advertise low interest rates for student loans. Teenagers have so many incentives to attend college, but if they choose a degree like history or political science, the reality of the job market is crushing. Graduating with $200,000 of debt and then working at Starbucks is such a fucked up system that is actively perpetuated and encouraged. Reality is not at all aligned with incentives but the wheel continues to spin; the grease is flying everywhere. ↩︎