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How the Fasting Craze Reinvented the Diet Movement for Men

Of the millions of people who use Slack, a messaging platform used throughout startup culture, a few thousand belong to a conversational channel called “We Fast.” Thousands more have joined a related Facebook page that styles itself as an “Intermittent Fasting and Metabolic Performance Community.” The virtual club is organized by Nootrobox, a company that sells nootropics — “cognition-enhancing” supplement pills — but they aren’t directly marketing their products with We Fast. It’s just a place to discuss and crowdsource information on the latest dieting craze: not eating.

The fasting frenzy has been in the works for a while, and, like any dieting ideology, it’s drawn converts and critics from all corners. Notably, however — given how diet-related advertising once focused almost exclusively on women — it seems that men are most vocal about the movement, with the male execs of Silicon Valley leading the charge, likening the process to “biohacking.” In the cutthroat world of tech where overrepresented men want to stand out by optimizing brain and body performance, the thirst for scientifically adventurous, be-your-own-guinea-pig solutions is indescribable, and fasting has a whiff of radical transformation about it. Aggressive and extreme, the choice to go entirely without food is as uncompromising as a corporate warrior ought to be.

But hot trends are never confined to the early adopters. Fasting theory has spread far and wide, and as with nootropics, the boys of Reddit are especially keen to jump on the bandwagon. “I spontaneously decided to water fast 20 days ago,” wrote apotatoflewaroundmy on the r/fasting forum. (A water fast, also known as a water cleanse, is a set period of time during which an individual consumes only water and no other sustenance). “My last meal was ramen noodles, popcorn, and three cups of coffee with a lot of creamer because I had a sweet tooth and no junk food around the house,” he revealed, claiming that ever since, he’d lost an average of a pound per day, down to 197 lbs. from a starting weight of 217 lbs. For the first two weeks, he confessed, he occasionally took a pinch of table salt, but now he’d stopped. And while he had originally planned to fast for just three days, he kept pushing the goalposts back, wondering if he should go for 40 days, which he called the “gold standard” for long fasts.

The only problem, as apotatoflewaroundmy saw it, were meddlesome parents who wanted him to eat: “My dad thinks I’m stupid, my mom is really worried, etc.” A couple of the people who replied said it was fine to wrap up at the 30-day mark, “if only to avoid the family drama,” and that going further was “not really necessary.” The rest urged him to test his limits: “Push for 40 if you still feel good, listen to what your body says,” one supporter wrote, while another commented, “Do 41. You get to beat Jesus!”

Christ’s 40-day fast and temptation in the desert, observed annually during the liturgical season of Lent, is one of many religious calls to a form of digestive abstinence. Hindus fast during religious festivals and sometimes once a week, on a day devoted to a particular god or goddess. In some Native American tribes, a fast served as a rite of passage that cemented a “personal relationship with the supernatural.” Jewish high holy days like Yom Kippur require fasting — even on Shabbat — to demonstrate penitence. Members of the Mormon church may go without food the first Sunday of each month and donate the money saved on meals to feed the less fortunate. And during the month of Ramadan, Muslims are obliged to include fasting in overall efforts toward moral purity.

All of which is to say that for the greater part of human history, “fasting” has not been synonymous with “dieting,” or a means of simple weight loss. Fasting offers a spiritual dimension; it aspires to elevate the soul, sometimes at the expense of the body, per the various religious traditions (and political hunger strikes). It’s also been a path to earthly advantages apart from a svelte figure: In the Victorian era, young women achieved celebrity by allegedly going years without food. Now, as we’ve seen, fasting has become a faddish lifestyle in the vein of trend diets that first sprang up around that time.

The term “diet” itself once typically referred to meager rations allotted in prisons — e.g., a “bread and water diet” — so you could argue that fasting is the logical extreme of the common low-calorie deprivations following this model. What it’s actually come to resemble is a way to sell the male population on the kind of restraint that has been pushed on women since the Industrial Revolution: The dieting market, for more than a century, has preyed on women’s anxieties about appearance, promoting products and programs that retain the punitive element of limited consumption in practice if not theory.

But as one landmark study showed, men don’t care as much what they look like, are better at mentally suppressing hunger, can’t be bothered with nutritional facts, and are more disposed to view losing weight as a competitive sport. As a feat of endurance that does away with labels and products, fasting meets the criteria for a men’s health craze.

Not incidentally, it’s also a convenient screen for fragile masculinity. The tech bros who preach this stuff insist it’s for cognitive performance, not just metabolic balance or improved physique. “There’s a mild euphoria,” Phil Libin, CEO of the artificial intelligence startup All Turtles, told The Guardian. “I’m in a much better mood, my focus is better, and there’s a constant supply of energy. I just feel a lot healthier. It’s helping me be a better CEO.”

Over at the Good Men Project, fitness and health blogger Marwan Jamal declared diets “boring” while extolling the virtues of “intermittent fasting” — which, again, is not distinct from dieting in the current parlance. “It’s not a diet, it’s just a pattern of eating that reduces your eating window each day to about 8 hours,” James Clear explained in a piece for Lifehacker. Whether these guys realize it or not, their fasting gospel converges on a single problematic message: “Dieting is a woman’s idea of health, based in pseudoscience, and it’s wrong. The rational solution is to just not eat.”

Fasting methods like the 8-hour feeding window described by Clear and the 5:2 diet, in which you cycle through five normal eating days and two tightly restricted ones, erupted at the same moment that low-fat frozen dinners and diet colas began to die off. The assumption is that our food ideology has shifted from shedding pounds to overall healthy routines. Of course we would then gravitate toward fasting, which promises resistance to disease and aging in addition to a better beach bod — a way to trim the fat without admitting vanity. That these long-term benefits are largely unproven, and may come packaged with dire consequences for your immune system and major organs, is beside the point for Bay Area “biohackers” who enjoy the guru status afforded by the appropriation of ancient techniques for personal refinement. Would anyone write a trend piece about venture capitalists drinking kale smoothies and using elliptical machines?

Much as male entrepreneurship yields ill-fated products that already exist or address nonexistent demand, dudes are bound to frame their preferred style of ingestion as a revolution, even though it’s older than Pythagoras. What they can’t or won’t realize is that this fashion exemplifies the cyclical nature of conventional wisdom surrounding food, from the all-liquor diet of William the Conqueror (recapitulated as “drunkorexia” for the millennial age) to the Paleolithic diet, which sought to restore the eating habits of prehistoric humans. Worse still, they’re touting a potentially addictive fix that can lead to binge-and-purge eating disorders more likely to manifest in women due to — you guessed it — social pressure to stay thin and sexy at all costs.

For all that the public proponents of fasting have tried to shift the conversation away from them, we may be seeing men succumb to body image issues that have plagued the opposite sex. Attempts to rationalize this urge toward beautification give us breathless talk of productivity and professional edge—the things men are encouraged to seek in lieu of a smaller waist size. While shrugging off calorie-counting as a feminine overcomplication, guys put a similar emphasis on different dubious numbers, opting for either the brute machismo of bodybuilding — bicep circumference, how much you can lift — or the cerebral, white-collar appeal of bonus high-efficiency hours at the office.

If we can say anything with absolute certainty about managing metabolism, it’s that there is no universal regimen to maximize our capabilities and minimize our shortcomings. People will avail themselves of any diet until it is discredited, and afterward, too. I’m not about to bash men for jumping on the fasting train as I sit here stuffing myself with chips, honestly. I’d just caution them against buying into congratulatory press on the fad, which makes it sound as though an elite squad of male disruptors has outsmarted a $60 billion industry with a holistic weight-loss solution that cuts brands off at the knees. Because while you won’t need SlimFast to slim down like the Silicon Valley boys, you might pay for the apps they’ve created to make fasting feel like a data-driven cybernetic experience. Hardly the first time hucksters have pushed a diet scheme for a quick and dirty buck. But targeting men? Now that’s innovation.