human behavior

How it Feels to Fast

Posted in Habits & Manners, Health & Medicine by humanb on March 7, 2013

Yesterday was my first day on The Fast Diet, and I started on a ‘fast’ day. See my first post on the diet here.

As expected, there were some difficulties…

Symptoms

1) Hunger Pangs

To my surprise, the hunger pangs themselves were nothing, but we’ve grown so accustomed to satisfying them immediately with snacks, that we’re intolerant of them. But I found that I could tolerate them just fine when I asked myself: Is this really that big a deal? They weren’t. They were mild, in fact. Because I drank plenty of water with lemon, I didn’t have that gnawing and nauseating kind of hunger that can sometimes catch you off guard when you’ve skipped a meal.

2) Lightheadedness

A very mild lightheadedness stayed with me for most of the day, but I was never at risk of fainting, being so well hydrated. As for my blood sugar level, the body still maintains it within an optimal range while you’re fasting (in the absence of pre-existing conditions). If you’re not consuming much sugar, your liver extracts it from its own stores of glycogen. When glycogen stores are depleted, the liver actually generates glucose from a process known as gluconeogenesis. But since I’ll be eating normally for 5 days out of 7, I’ll always have adequate glycogen stores.

3) Headache

A mild headache stayed with me for most of the day, but not severe enough to warrant taking a painkiller. If I hadn’t maintained my hydration, it would’ve been worse. It went away after my evening 300-calorie meal.

4) Sullenness

Make no mistake. The hunger pangs of fasting are not why people hate fasting. Humans can tolerate much higher levels of pain and discomfort than that. A bad headache, a tooth ache, a sore throat, acid reflux, arthritis, period pain – these are all more unpleasant than hunger pangs. No. It’s not the hunger pangs that make fasting so unpleasant an experience. It’s the psychological conflict of wanting something so readily attainable, to satisfy a need so fundamental to man, and not getting it, that is most difficult. Maybe you don’t need to eat in response to every mild hunger pang you get, but when you don’t eat, it’s almost impossible not to be sullen about it.

5) Temptation

Temptation is a feeling in itself. It’s like an overwhelming lust that generates an excitement and urgency inside you. It’s only a pleasant sensation when you can give in to it. When you can’t, it makes you – well, sullen. Between my 200-calorie breakfast and 300-calorie dinner, my only temptation was to eat my dinner early. I should really finish reading The Fast Diet book, because I think the author suggests that you try to separate the two meals by twelve hours. I managed 10 hours I think. Maybe nine.

The real temptation, however, came after the dinner. As midnight approached, various foodstuffs were starting to look very sexy: the bowel of plums on the fruit table… the aged blue cheese in the fridge… the peanut butter jar in the pantry… I had to remind myself that the fast wasn’t over at midnight – even though I would’ve technically spent more than 24 hours already on only 500 calories. It somehow seemed a form of sabotage to start eating then. No. I decided the fast would be over the next morning. But it was certainly during those last hours before bed, when you’re sitting in front of the TV, that you grow greedy for a glass of wine, or a sweet thing, or an anything to gnaw on for the sake of it.

Strategies

I tried a few things to keep myself sane.

1) Hydration: One quarter wedge of lemon in a tall glass of ice water. I refilled my water glass routinely, leaving the lemon wedge in the glass. Drinking water not only ensured I maintained adequate hydration, but it settled the stronger of the hunger pangs by filling the stomach, albeit very temporarily.

2) Mindless chewing: Before I was a doctor, I was a smoker, and a diehard one (pun intended). I’ve been on Nicorette Gum (2mg classic flavor) for eight years. It’s an addiction, but it’s also an appetite suppressant, a distractor and a reason to chew.  If I didn’t chew Nicorette, I’d try regular (sugarless) gum.

3) Activity: Distraction, distraction, distraction.  Before I started fasting, I never thought about food – not even when I was eating – which is a problem, I know. The whole ‘mindful eating’ thing was lost on me. While I was fasting, I thought of nothing but food. It didn’t help that I was off from work.

So I did the laundry, read the newspaper, sorted through emails, planned my 300-calorie dinner, watered the plants, and made a to-do list for the next few days. And you know what? I still thought about eating. When I happened to look at the photo I’d taken of my 200-calorie breakfast that morning –  a simple banana and boiled egg – my mouth actually pooled with saliva like Pavlov’s dog. It had only been eight hours since I’d eaten it.

The Surprising Benefits

1) Food Tastes Good

I won’t depress anyone with a picture of my 300-calorie dinner from last night. It was tuna salad on plain white toast with four grape tomatoes on the side and two passionfruit for dessert. The tuna salad was made with two cans of tuna (in water) mixed with 1/8 cup of onion, 1 teaspoon of mustard, 1 teaspoon of olive oil, and plenty of salt and pepper.

And you know what? It was fu**ing fantastic. I could taste every single flavour in that sucker. The flavor of that dry white toast exploded on my tongue. Those two measly cans of tuna filled my tummy like a buffet brunch. And the passionfruit was hands down the sweetest and most aromatic thing I can remember eating in an age.

My whole relationship to these pantry staples had changed. My whole attitude about portions had changed. I was full after that meal. Sure, I was eyeing the blue cheese and the peanut butter later. But not because I was starving. I was just feeling greedy again.

2) Pride

There was a real sense of pride in the self-discipline and self-sacrifice involved in fasting. I felt more in control of my own body –  both my physical urges and my psychological ones. If you can resist eating, you can resist anything.

3) Enlightenment 😉

It was only through fasting that I came to realise that it’s the mind that sabotages our efforts to fast – not the body. I know it’s my thought processes that need to be trained, more so than my gut. Withdrawal from regular overfeeding isn’t like withdrawal from heroin. You’re body won’t revolt. It’ll adapt.

4) Enduring Effects

With my ‘fast’ day behind me, I fully expected to wake up this morning and raid the fridge. I woke up a little hungry, but still had my coffee and Nicorette first, as per usual. Once I’d stuck into those, I didn’t even feel like eating. But I did anyway, because I kept telling myself that this experiment involved eating as I normally do for 5 out of 7 days. So I ate a banana, like I had on my ‘fast’ day. I didn’t eat it mindfully though. I ate it while surfing the internet and wasn’t even aware of how fast I was eating it. I felt like crap afterwards, and didn’t even enjoy it. I wasn’t hungry anymore.

But I was sure that I’d be hungry again soon…

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So I made myself a packet of bacon.

There are few foods on this earth that please me more than a handful of thin, crispy bacon strips. The smell of melted hog fat in the oven is surely one of the world’s most glorious aromas. I wish it wasn’t.

I made that bacon two hours ago and still haven’t eaten it.

WTF? Why am I not eating it?!!!

Impressions

In all honesty, I found the experience of fasting difficult, but more than tolerable – especially knowing that I could wake up the next day and resume a normal diet. The hardest part is not eating fewer calories in a given meal, but rather eating nothing for 8-12 hours between low-calorie meals. If I could’ve had a 3rd mid-day meal of 200 calories, it would’ve been easier. (Duh.)

It’s also pretty hard not eating at night. It’s such a habit of ours, especially if you’re watching TV, which doesn’t fully engage your attention. Perhaps you’d be less tempted to eat if you were fully absorbed in a good book.

I’m sure the secret to fasting is activity and distraction, so I suspect it’ll be easier when I’m working, and don’t have the luxury of thinking about food all day. But I also think it will grow easier with time. I know what it feels like now, and I know that it’s only temporary.

The only challenge that remains is coming up with more interesting meals for future ‘fast’ days. But that should be fun too.

So let’s do this thing.

Does The Fast Diet really work? Is it sustainable? Will it change your whole attitude towards portion size, mindful eating and the kick-ass flavour of tuna?

We’ll see. So continues our study of one…

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2 Responses

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  1. Constance Arter said, on March 8, 2013 at 7:16 am

    It is true that the less you eat the better foods taste. I plan to start this soon.

    MoM

    ________________________________

    • humanb said, on March 8, 2013 at 8:14 am

      This is a study of one! I offer myself as a guinea pig. 🙂


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