The last time I fasted (if you don’t count morning sickness and blood work) was on the Master Cleanse right after college in 2001. I returned to Townshend before moving to New York City and talked my mom into subsiding with me on a maple syrup-lemonade concoction laced with cayenne pepper for 10 days. My impetus, at 22, was not health. It was weight loss. This was the thing I had been seeking! This was it! Finally, I would starve for a week and a half, feeling no deprivation, emerging a skinny butterfly.
I squeezed lemons with conviction, added water with newfound confidence and shook it with cayenne in a Mason jar, imagining my svelte new physique. Sipping this lemony potion, I embraced the cleanse with certainty. This time I would finish the diet!
Though some set out to do so, very few “diets” actually teach us how to eat. They guide us through the opening, most rigorous phase, eventually leading us to phase two, where we reimplement some of the “bad” foods we initially cut out. Phase three is the maintenance stage that (I don’t know about you) I’ve never made it to, because I found phase one so untenable and never graduated to the next level.
Doing this Master Cleanse, I lasted exactly nine and a quarter hours before I dove into the snack mix we served when I was a bartender at Metropolis. I came home from my shift, feeling guilty as I met my mom, who had maintained her fast and was eager to hear about my shift.
“I ate some snack mix. I couldn’t help it. I was hungry!” Preliminary disappointment washed over her face, immediately followed by a wave of relief signifying that, now that it was broken, she no longer had to fast. But is fasting, if done the right way for the right reasons, the illicit evil I made it out to be? Scientists have found numerous health benefits from fasting and, if done correctly, it can be done without suffering.
Not So Fast
I have often advised clients to eat two small snacks a day between meals to keep their blood sugar from dipping and to stoke their metabolism, but fasting has been reported to do the same thing. It can control blood sugar levels by reducing insulin resistance, which means that our body gets more efficient at delivering glucose to our cells to use as energy.
Instead of promoting a blood sugar dip as one might expect, fasting is rumored to not only prevent spikes and crashes in our blood sugar levels, but to reduce inflammation levels in our bodies as well. Studies have shown that fasting aids blood pressure and cholesterol levels and may stave off neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Deprivation and restriction are not near and dear to my heart, so fasting for me makes me want to dive into a vat of whatever I can’t have, which in this case would be everything. There are ways to fast in a controlled manner where we don’t feel deprived, we just have to know how to come off of it gently without jumping into the cookie jar.
The truth is that many of us fast by default. Our first meal of the day literally breaks our fast, or it should if we’ve eaten dinner at a reasonable time and slept enough. Mild fasts are a fact of life, but new information is coming out that eating three squares and dropping the snacks might behoove us. Giving our bodies time to run out of fuel prompts it to release our fat stores (think triglycerides). When we constantly take in snacks, we have no need to tap into them, which simply compounds the fat stores.
Snacks didn’t used to be a thing unless you were in kindergarten. Processed food companies (aka Big Food) introduced us to this concept in the mid 1980s. They gave us permission, through their advertising campaigns and labeling, to eat more often. These companies were great supporters of eating larger portions as well. (Triscuits were deemed “not for nibblers”). When Taco Bell coined the phrase “Fourth Meal,” they weren’t kidding. Neither were we. For most of us today, snacks account for an additional 580 calories of food intake on a daily basis. There’s our fourth meal.
It is still my position that we should eat when we’re hungry, but an article in a special edition of Time from early 2020 entitled “Three Times a Day?” argues that training our body to depend on snacks may make us hungry all the time. Perhaps that’s because of what we’re snacking on. When Big Food invited us to eat snacks with their beautifully wrapped handy packages of munchies decorated with bright, shiny logos and pictures of perfect, seemingly harmless foods, we gladly accepted their invitation. What we snack on may be the issue. Instead of reaching for an apple, most of us grab a handy on-the-go package where we mindlessly eat its contents, barely registering that we’ve chewed anything at all. This package is no doubt laced with stuff that makes us come back for more.
Three squares are even considered too many meals in some circles. In the mid 1900s, most people ate only twice daily. We’re not just eating more often, but a higher volume of food at each meal, which has led to our jaw dropping national obesity rates.
It’s no secret that our hunter-gatherer ancestors worked extremely hard for their food, scavenging for hours to find enough for one meal, let alone three. The animal and plant matter they found had to be chewed for hours. On average, they spent six hours chewing food and probably even longer than that foraging for acceptable stuff to chew. The advent of cooking aided this problem, making the food more digestible and easier to chew. We needn’t even chew our food today if we don’t wish to. High calorie protein drinks, smoothies, juices and meal replacements abound, tantalizing our taste buds, but barely registering as calories to our gut and brain.
As with many food and nutrition topics, there are various points of view on this subject and it’s difficult to know what’s what. Some say to eat a big breakfast — bigger than you want. Others say to eat your biggest meal for lunch followed by a light dinner, and even more say to eat a big meal for dinner. It makes sense to me to break the fast with some protein, eat a large meal during the day when you’re still running around burning energy, ending the day with a lighter meal and then fasting for twelve hours.
We have forgotten not only what to eat, but how to eat. We (myself included) need directions on the most fundamental element to being a human aside from breathing. There are too many cooks in the kitchen, and too many differences among each of us to apply a blanket way of eating. My thought is, if you’re hungry during the day, nibble on something that contains protein like nuts or a hard-boiled egg, or something that is high in fiber like veggies or a piece of fruit.
Fasting isn’t for everyone, but if you’re fasting curious, don’t go it alone. Too many blood sugar spikes and crashes can mess with our metabolism, so make sure you’re prepared. Support yourself with various liquids, so it doesn’t go into teenage starvation-diet-mode.
¾ cup organic rolled oats
½ organic unsweetened, unflavored almond milk
¼ cup full fat plain Greek yogurt
1 ½ tablespoons peanut butter
2 teaspoons maple syrup
Dash of cinnamon
In a small glass bowl with a top, layer ingredients, adding oats, almond milk and yogurt first.
Drizzle peanut butter and maple syrup on top of yogurt, finishing with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Cover and refrigerate overnight. Enjoy in the morning with berries as desired.