Tuesday, January 04, 2005

My Fast Food Diet

Since Glen has posted about his dietary auto-experiment, I'll likewise relate my role as lab rat. Once a week, I fast for an entire day. More precisely, since I stop taking in calories after dinner the day before my fast and don't start again until the morning after, I fast for around 36 hours every seven days.

I fast for a number of reasons. Firstly and most importantly, I figure it helps to develop my self-discipline. I regard will-power as akin to a muscle: The more you exercise it it, the stronger it gets. (That view, by the way, nicely dissipates the need for philosophical bloviating about the supposed paradox of akrasia, or weakness of will.) Granted, fasting primarily developes will-power over my appetite. Consistent with the athletic metaphor, however, I calculate that I get cross-over benefits in other areas of my life. Fasting thus arguably helps me get my work done on time, control my temper, avoid smoking meth, and so forth.

Secondly, fasting gives me a weekly opportunity to develop good psychological habits. Especially in the afternoons of my fast days, when my blood sugar starts to crash, I tend to feel cranky and depressed. Knowing the physiological causes of my mood, I have a sound basis to reason my way through it. Later, should I find myself feeling similarly, I can draw on the cognitive skills I've practiced while fasting.

Thirdly, to recur to Glen's theme, I hypothesize (not "theorize", Glen!) that fasting replicates conditions somewhat like those that obtained during the formative years of the human species. I doubt that our ancestors routinely ate three square meals a day. I thus reason that our digestive systems are adapted for occasional fasting, and that I may do myself good by recreating, in small measure, that environment. At the least, I don't seem to be doing myself noticeable harm. As far as I can tell from searching my long-running journal, I've been fasting once a week for at least fifteen years.

Fourthly, fasting reminds me how lucky I am to live in a world of plenty. Until very recently, starvation threatened almost all humans. It still threatens many. I appreciate my good fortune much more deeply when I feel the sharp pang of hunger.

Note that I do not include weight loss among the benefits of fasting. It may or may not have that effect. I eat rather more than usual on the day after my fast, so I am not sure whether on net I reduce my caloric intake. Granted, I'd say I'm quite trim for a 40 year-old, but perhaps my genes or my ardent exercise habits deserve the credit for that.

Why do I call this my "fast food diet"? Because the oxymoronic flavor of that phrase—"fast" food meaning not just speedily prepared food but also no food—nicely fits the rationale for my habit. It's a "diet" in the sense of a dietary practice, but not in the sense that I primarily aim to lose weight. Instead of "fast food diet," then, you might call it a "non-food non-diet."


Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the benefits of fasting. I used to do it a lot back in college as part of a routine encouraged by the church I attended.
It's supposed to help with self-control like you said dealing with raw physical animal instincts, like hunger and sexual urges. And of course the benefits of focus, self-denial, and discipline. Not to mention the health benefits of detoxifying your body with water and nothing else.
I have gotten so lazy now. The only time i "fast" is when skipping 2 meals when I feel that I've gained weight.
What keeps you going? Either you're an exceptionally disciplined person or you have an ultimate purpose. People like you and Glen just seem internally motivated. And I'm not talking about diets. Maybe I lack an ultimate purpose...


Tom W. Bell said...

Just to clarify, sk, I don't limit myself to water when I fast. On a normal day, I have a cup of strong coffee in the morning and a cup of tea (usually green) in the mid-afternoon. I usually do likewise on fast days, though I (somewhat surprisingly) sometimes find I prefer to skip the afternoon caffeine. I fast with regard only to calories, in other words.

Do I have an ultimate purpose? I do aim to live indefinitely, for what that is worth. That is not exactly an end in itself, however; I have that goal because I love living. As to *that* preference, I tend to take a somewhat Calvinist view: some people relish life and some don't.

Still, one who like me relishes life but holds skeptical views about life after death might experience crushing despair at the prospect of eventual doom. (I say "might" advisedly, since one of a Stoical bent might still enjoy life in spite of its recognized limits.) I don't sweat that, though, since I think indefinite material existence lies within the realm of possibility these days.

Anonymous said...

What is the Calvinist view you're referring to? I only know of the John Calvin of the Christian doctrine.

It's nice to know that you relish life. Yeah, it's strange that given the same life, two people can live such starkly different lives. Maybe it's brain chemistry? I also think it's good that you subscribe to Stoicism; why fight the universe over things you can't control?

"...since I think indefinite material existence lies within the realm of possibility these days." --Does that mean you're agnostic? Or believe in some kind of an afterlife not necessarily the Judeo-Christian one? Another planet? Aliens or the likes of Raelians?
But I guess it's possible to believe in an afterlife without a belief in a deity.


Glen Whitman said...

I think the "Calvinist" view to which Tom refers is the notion that you are either saved or not saved by the grace of God, and your actual behavior (such as sinning) just reflects your status rather than actually affecting it. Or in this (non-religious) context, you're either a happy person or you're not, and your actual experiences reflect your happiness rather than creating it.

As for indefinite material existence, I'm pretty sure Tom means the possibility of staying alive for as long as you want, with the assistance of superior medical technology.

Tom W. Bell said...

Glen pretty well nailed my take on both questions, though I don't think I would put my Calvinist views quite so strongly. It's not that I think people are born (i.e., fated) to happiness or unhappiness. Rather, I suspect that each individual has a unique "set-point" (to, appropriately, borrow a dietician's term) for happiness. Some people find it relatively easy to feel happy; others do not. But even someone predisposed to happiness may feel miserable if, say, suffering intense pain and the loss of his loved ones. Conversely, even someone predisposed to unhappiness may learn to achieve contentedness upon learning good cognitive habits, establishing a loving relationship, and achieving material wealth.

Anonymous said...

I thought of Mr. Burns at reading the 'staying alive forever' comment. "Eexxellent."
I guess staying alive forever at my present age won't be so bad, but staying alive forever with Alzheimers seems depressing.
Cryogenics/Cryonics or whatever, I can kind of understand, but staying at an optimal level forever? Our cells die and I don't understand how science can possibly reverse that natural law, even with huge advances in stem cells.

And yes, I think constant positive cognitive reinforcement definitely helps one achieve contentment, but it's a lot of work for someone who's pre-disposed. But I also think initial medication helps too for some people.
It was all philosophical and nice then BAM! you hit me with "achieving material wealth". But I guess you are right. Even though money doesn't make you happy necessarily, having it allows you to do things that make you happy; I think not having it makes you unhappier. I'd rather be miserable with money than poor and miserable. =)


Tom W. Bell said...

I think you got the idea, sk. In most cases, wealth operates as a necessary but not sufficient condition of happiness. Folks who tell you otherwise very often want your money.

Gil said...


I admire your self-discipline, but I'm a bit suspicious of your repeating this exercise every week for fifteen years.

Haven't you proven you can do this? Wouldn't a less frequent, pseudo-random, fast help keep your self-discipline "muscles" in shape? Aren't you concerned that you might have cultivated a dependency on this practice?

Do you have the self-discipline to break this pattern, or are you a slave to it? :-)

Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks for your concern, Gil, but I've got no problem with developing a habit of right action. That, after all, is how Aristotle defined virtue! Less high-mindedly, consistent with the athletic metaphor I've touted, I observe that to stay fit requires consistent practice over long periods of time.