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Self-Help Patrol: Intermittent Fasting

Can avoiding food for long stretches liberate me from the culture of office snacking?

I started a full-time office job in January and soon noticed that my days revolved around consumption in a way that made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Lunch became a break from the monotony of effort; deciding on healthy vs. delicious an overly fraught choice. Beyond that, of course, was the temptation of snacks around the office: baskets of fudge and birthday cakes as well as nut bars and healthier options like dried fruit or cashews. The moment I’d get assigned a big task from my boss, I noticed, invariably I wanted to distract myself with a little bite of something or reward myself for my efforts.

Worse than the snack-time behavioral patterns was the metal globe on the coffee table which, when opened, displayed an oval of American Spirit cigarettes always ready for an even-more-anticipated smoke break. This carnal pleasure was best accompanied by a coffee from the Nespresso machine inside. After work I’d add fuel to the fire by throwing a few cocktails into the mix or staying up late and then not getting dinner until right before bed. I had never worked five days a week in an office, and although I found the many opportunities to imbibe grounding, comforting and exciting in a Mad Men-esque way at first, I started to notice a sense of sluggishness and lethargy and wanted to change that.

How could I bring more discipline and self-control into my days without shocking my system with some strange diet that made me long for it to be over? I had previously attempted the Master Cleanse (which consists mostly of drinking a solution of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne) twice before — neither to completion, with one ending in Chipotle — and I didn’t want to do something so extreme.

A quick Google search for “intermittent fasting” lead me to the 16/8 method, a style of fasting people claim adds balance and moderation to their lives. It involves eating all of your food for the day within an 8-hour window, then fasting for the remaining 16 hours.

The Goal

To stop letting food and cheap rewards of caffeine and cigarettes rule my working days, and find extra energy.

The Strategy

Fast intermittently for 10 days, using the 16/8 method. I chose to skip breakfast and eat my first meal around 1 p.m., then my last meal no later than 8 p.m.

Does intermittent fasting really work?

Though an ancient practice, often for religious purposes, fasting has gained attention recently, thanks to celebrity as well as scientific endorsements. Studies on mice and humans have shown that fasting causes a reduction in “biomarkers for diabetes, cancer and heart disease,” according to The New York Times. It also decreases inflammation and aids weight loss. “From an evolutionary perspective, it’s pretty clear that our ancestors did not eat three meals a day plus snacks,” Mark Mattson, a neuroscientists at the National Institute of the Aging and habitual faster, told The Times.

Days 1–2

It is not difficult to wait until 1 p.m to eat at work. By the time lunch comes I am slightly more hungry than usual, but it’s manageable. The hardest part was to replace my morning coffee with ginseng and gingko biloba tincture— and my snacking with conscious breathing. By the end of the day I am beginning to feel pretty crazy from the caffeine withdrawal. I lie down on my bed and fall into a strange, almost feverish nap/dream cycle where I see strange abstract images of a volcano erupting.

Days 3–4

I get super busy around lunch time so I only manage to eat a cooked sweet potato I had in the fridge for lunch. By the time my 8-hour window is coming to an end, I find myself in a friend’s apartment cat-sitting, and I realize that a handful of nuts is probably going to have to sustain me for the night. My friend walks in while I’m mid-nut-in-mouth and asks, “I thought you were supposed to be fasting?”

“Yes but it’s an intermittent fast,” I tell him, slightly worried about having to wait to eat until 1 p.m. the next day. I have only eaten a handful of pistachios.

The next day I am still experiencing a caffeine withdrawal, which makes the morning drag. When my food finally arrives, I eat way more quickly than usual. It’s my boss’s birthday, so I allow myself a slice of birthday cake. When I leave work it is almost 7:00 p.m., so I stop at the prepared food section of the grocery store and eat a meal before returning home. In many ways, intermittent fasting doesn’t necessarily have to be full of sacrifices (although eating alone at the grocery store is never ideal).

Day 5 and beyond

After five days I am pretty in the loop with the fasting plan. I feel refreshed in the mornings after avoiding food close to my bedtime. The coffee withdrawals are nowhere near as bad. Somehow I think the discipline from the fast is helping me curtail my cigarette habit as well. Best of all, I’ve spent minimal time worrying about food.

Would I do this again?

One of the best things about intermittent fasting is that it’s not an all-or-nothing, extreme diet plan. According to its practitioners, it can be beneficial to fast as many or few days a week as possible, even if it’s just one, which makes it more realistic to keep up.

No matter what, though, I find it super difficult to be on an eating plan that restricts what I’m doing, or might cause me to have to explain my behaviors —whether it’s passing up food at a certain time or even just telling people that I am on a fast. I have a difficult history with food, and I always feel like I am being judged or critiqued when I tell people about my dietary habits. So many people suffer from dietary-related disorders and nutritional confusion that it always ends up being sort of a draining discussion with a lot of different opinions, inputs and biases. This can take away from the authenticity and joy of trying to stay in touch with your body and eating what you need while also being able to enjoy it.

But intermittent fasting can give some of that joy back. Without constantly thinking about my next meal and when it might be, I found I had more time during the day to focus on my tasks. Some of the stress about waiting too long to eat and getting really hungry, or just constantly grazing throughout the day and not really feeling satiated or excited about sitting down to eat a meal, went away. Each meal became an experience unto itself.

Evan McCune is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles.

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