What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without eating? This week I did a 72-hour fast, from 1pm Monday to 1pm Thursday. I ate zero calories and only drank water and tea the whole time.
Many people fast for religious or weight-loss reasons, but that’s not why I did it. My main goal was to stop using eating as a mindless escape. I noticed that when I’m bored or procrastinating on work, my mind goes “hmm, am I hungry?” and I tend to wander over to the kitchen looking for parmesan chips. I wasn’t actually hungry, just trying to get away from a slightly uncomfortable feeling by distracting myself. By taking a break from eating, I wanted to cut that connection for at least a little while. Will it work? I don’t know, but I can tell you that I’ve written this whole piece without getting the urge to snack.
A side benefit of a long fast is the opportunity to practice weirdness. I like to inject bits of weirdness into my life to become more intensely myself. Humans are social animals, and we naturally mimic those around us and conform to the expectations of others. We tell ourselves that each person is unique, but we only show our uniqueness in socially-acceptable ways. Even a minor rebellion like fasting in an unconventional way is a visceral reminder that it’s fine to go outside social conventions. “Most people eat three times a day. I ate zero times for three days and I’m fine.” This habit of small transgressions inoculates you against the stress of bigger norm-breaking. Think of it as weightlifting for your “doing what’s important to me” muscle.
Finally, I wanted to do a hard thing just because it’s hard. A long time ago, when my wife and I were just starting to date, we made a bet. She would give up coffee for as long as I gave up beer. Whoever caved first had to make a fancy dinner for the other. We started on a Monday, so she had to go first. If you’ve ever tried to go cold-turkey with coffee, you know the first few days are tough: headaches, tiredness, irritation. She put up with it like a champ. Then the weekend rolled around and I decided I’d rather make her dinner than skip the party that night. I didn’t even try to avoid drinking. As you can guess, she was furious.
That’s a silly story, but there’s something to it. Perseverance is a skill, and just like the skill of authenticity, it can be trained.
So was fasting hard?
Only at times, though I didn’t expect it to be that tough. When intermittent fasting first became a fad years ago, I had a habit of doing a 24-hour fast every two weeks. The strategy was to skip dinner the first day, then avoid food till a late lunch the next day. Having that experience, I knew the first part of this fast would be easy. I ate a large-ish lunch and mentally settled in for the ride.
The next day started ok but got rough. By evening I was tired and unfocused and even strangely sore in my legs (turns out fasting and standing desks don’t mix). It didn’t help that my daughter and I were both having trouble sleeping, so I only got a few hours of shuteye. But once I woke up on day three, I felt pretty good. My stomach rumbled more than most days, but urge to eat was no stronger than usual. Even being around delicious food at mealtime was fine, not the torture you might expect it to be.
On the morning of the last day, I was still going strong but ready to be done. My stomach muscles felt tight all the time (though not painful or desperate), I was tired, and the messed up sleep was getting annoying. I held out till 72 hours on the dot, then ate a small meal to ease back in slowly. The food was great, but the coolest part was how quickly my energy came back. Like a frog being slowly boiled, I didn’t realize quite how weak I was getting. The injection of calories felt like taking off a weighted backpack after a long hike. After an hour I was bursting with energy, and I used it to vigorously feed myself two dinners that evening.
Would I do this again? I’m not sure. Quality sleep is near the top of things I care about, and if fasting ruins that then I’m less likely to repeat it. On the other hand, maybe I’ll just take the hit instead of fighting and read a book all night. If fasting were easy, what would be the point?
Never give up,