“Fat boy waiting to burst out” and “cookie monster” are just two among other beloved nicknames that I have been called, which I’ve undoubtedly earned thanks to my propensity to binge-eat, especially when it comes to junk food. If this was a real sport I’m pretty sure I’d rank within the top 5% percentile. And no..it’s not something I’m proud of.
Which is why recently I decided to go on a mini experiment and see how long I can go without food while going about my daily routine. I was curious about how it would impact my performance both my cognitive and physical performance.
While the experiment will not win me any awards for scientific rigor anytime soon, it did give me some interesting insights pertaining to my body and psyche.
“Okay. But why the hell did I really do it?”
3 reasons that made me “starve” myself for fun
This is not a post about how long I can fast, because 132 hours is really not that long. As much as I’m a self-improvement nut, big changes in our lives are usually preceded by compelling reasons to do so. I’ve been wanting to do this experiment for a while but 3 specific events happened that led me to pull the trigger.
1. Depression made me do it. Start with fire, right? Before the experiment I was going through the worst depressive episode I have ever experienced, which was triggered by an incident that tipped me over the edge at a time when I was already juggling a few fire pois in my life. Luckily, I like getting burned. Metaphorically I mean. I believe that some of the most valuable lessons in life are found within adversity. You can always spot a silver lining in every unfavorable scenario if you just look at it from the right angle.
My approach to dealing with adversity is perhaps a little unorthodox — I like to double down and lean into the pain. Why? This may seem counterintuitive but in my experience, I’ve found that it’s possible to reframe and associate the negative emotional states of suffering and pain, be it mental or physical, with the positive emotional states from positive suffering and pain. Which reminds me of an old chinese idiom that translates into combat poison with poison “以毒攻毒.” Specifically, I do this by trying something new and challenging, often effortful and somewhat unpleasant, but ultimately rewarding when completed.
Much of the ailments we suffer in life, whether it’s depression or anxiety, tend to be abstract and hard to quantify, which in turn makes them hard to handle — how do you fight what you cannot see or touch?
Conquering challenges which are specific and measurable — in this case the fasting experiment for me- not only serve as a timely distraction, but when done successfully they can signal the turn of the tide, lift you out of whatever rut you’re in, and herald in a new phase of life. This was my banker bet.
2. I haven’t felt real hunger in years. Yeah..I know. Ridiculous but true. Seriously, when was the last time you felt actual hunger? You know that unmistakable aching discomfort you get when you overeat? I’m talking about its opposite. No, cravings don’t count. All of places, this epiphany struck when I was standing in the buffet line (of course) at a silent meditation retreat a few months ago, waiting my turn for my 3rd pass.
“When was the last time I felt the physical sensation of actual hunger?”
“5 years? 10 years?”
I was stumped. How scary is that? Apparently it was scary enough for me to start eating mindfully with a teaspoon for the rest of the retreat…
Upon deep reflection, I realized that my eating patterns have been entirely geared around habits, and I’ve mostly only been eating due to automatic conditioning.
Around the same time I was also toying with the idea of trying out the Ketogenic diet (HT Tim Ferris’s excellent podcast ), and having watched the documentary “Meru” and read the book “Deep Survival” where in both cases there were plenty of stories where people survived for days and on, with very little to no food, really got me to thinking about how our body is built to go without food for a decent amount of time.
Am I a survivor? Or am I that guy who eats all the rations when everyone is sleeping? I needed to know.
3. Not super fat but super fed. Alright, let me level with you. In a minute you’re going to see my picture and you’ll think that I’m garbage for having the audacity to say this. With hand to heart, this is a big problem in my life. Some of my most self-defeating moments include me getting dressed at 3AM in the dead of winter nights and hauling myself to 7–11 stores a good 10 minutes away and coming back with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, half a KG of mixed candy and chocolate, and on top of that, cookies or chips. Sometimes both! All which I proceed to devour within an hour. Or let’s not even talk about the times where I would stuff down 20 hot wings, a 3-piece KFC meal with large mash potatoes and a 1.5 litre of soda in one sitting. No wonder I can put on 4–5 KG over the course of a day.
You know you need to do something when you start measuring everything by the caloric amount of Snicker bars.
Alright, so you get it. I overeat and I stress eat, and I’m really good at it. What really irks me is that I have managed to establish a slew of positive habits — meditating, a daily routine, gymming etc. — , things that took a lot of effort for me to get into, and yet somehow with eating I continue to struggle.
This for me creates a fundamental misalignment in my life, one that I’m desperate to fix.
My weight vacillations…
☞ My vital stats and work out routine
- Height: 174cm (182 with stripper heels)
- Weight: 77 kg at the start of the experiment.
- Mostly sedentary but I try to hit 10000 steps daily.
- Gym 3x / week — bodyweight and weights training.
- Run 2–3 times — HIIT, Steady state and longer distance running.
- Try to sleep at least 7 hours per day
- Vo2max according to my Polar running watch is 190.
- My body fat according to a hand held Omron body fat monitor says that it's hovering between the range of 11–16%. The measurements were taken over multiple sessions as these things are not known to be the most accurate devices.
My weekly workout schedule.
Monday / Wednesday / Friday — 60 minutes of strength/functional training + 15 mins of core training.
Tuesday — 15 mins of Calisthenics + HIIT Running(High Intensity Interval Training) 25 minutes. The whole cycle is about 5-5.5 km. More details below.
Thursday — Steady state training (40–60 minutes) at 65–75% max HR (Heart Rate) Usually about 7–7.5 km.
Saturday — Long distance running (anywhere from 12–21km) at my normal pace, without holding back / or a compound exercise, usually deadlift.
Sunday — Rest
I usually end each session with a
- 10–15 minutes sauna session
- 2 mins ice shower
- 5 mins foot ice-bath
In addition to my workout, where I was most interested in uncovering insights, I also recorded 2 more “soft” data points.
- My energy level 1–10 (10 being highest energy)
- My hunger 1–10 (10 being hungriest)
During the fast I did allow myself some coconut oil with my coffee & tea, besides water.
Lastly, you should know that I have experimented with IF(Intermittent Fasting) in the past on a 16 hour fast/8 hour feast schedule.
I usually don’t eat lunch — 95% of the time in the past 3 years, and my breakfast usually consists of 2 hardboiled eggs.
Note: Some days are a bit thin on data because it’s amateur hour here since I only decided to write about this after the experiment. Next time I’ll record more data more conscientiously. Okay?
- Morning energy 9/10
- Hunger level 2/10
- Cravings sensation: 6/10
- Steps for the day: 8637
Monday Notes: Nothing noteworthy — I’ve done quite a number of 24 hour fast so this is nothing new. I was able to work out in the gym at 100% capacity, i.e. I was able to perform my exercise routines as I usually do.
- Morning energy 8/10
- Hunger level 3/10
- Cravings sensation: 7/10
- Steps for the day : 13898
HIIT Training while fasted
As compared to the previous week in a non-fasted state
Note: My average heart rate is higher in the fasted state, operating at a slightly lower intensity.
A breakdown on my HIIT routine
- Warm up — 100 to 200 metres @ 6.5km/hr
- High intensity —200 metres @ 14.5km/hr
- Low intensity — 100 metres @ 11.5km/hr
1 high + 1 low intensity set = 1 cycle.
I do 5 of these cycles before ending it with a super set, as shown below.
- 60 sec @ 15.5km/hr
- 90 sec @ 12km/hr
- 90 sec @ 9km/hr
- 60 sec @ 6.5 km/hr
- 60 sec @ 18km/hr
- 90 sec @ 12km/hr
- 90 sec @ 9km/hr
- 90 sec @ 6.5km/hr
- Started off the day feeling pretty great, my brain fog was slowly beginning to clear.
- The HIIT training was more tiring than usual.
- Cravings hit me like truck from 9pm onwards.
- Morning energy 7/10
- Hunger level 4/10
- Cravings sensation: 5/10
- Total steps for the day: 11929
Wednesday notes: I Started off the day feeling pretty great, with zero brain fog and above average focus ability. Training at the gym was more tiring than usual…I was at about 85% capacity I would say, e.g. instead of 40 kg barbells, I had to use 35 kg. Questionable math..I know. Anyway, by nightfall around 10pm, cravings were through the roof. Probably due to the fact that I was in the cinema around distractions. All these savages had zero consideration for me. On another note, I don’t think popcorn has ever smelled so good.
- Morning energy 6.5/10
- Hunger level 3/10
- Cravings sensation: 6/10
- Total steps for the day: 17344
My steady state training is pretty straightforward — keep my heart rate zone in zone no.3 or between 60–80% (I try to keep it under 75%)
Again, as compared to the following week in a non-fasted state
As you can see, my average heart rate was much higher. Usually during normal steady state training I would start at 10km/hr and slowly down regulate to 8.5km/hr by the end of the workout. During that fasted session, I ended up somewhere around 7.5km/hr just to be able to maintain the same Heart rate zone.
- Morning energy: 7.5/10
- Hunger level: 2/10
- Cravings sensation: 11/10
- Total steps for the day: 11509
Friday notes: I was really struggling at the end of the night, it didn’t help that I had a conversation about food with a friend and I slept late. My willpower bar was almost completely depleted and I was feeling light headed and low on energy, and by 2am that I was almost completely shutting down.
- Morning energy: 9/10
- Hunger level: 4/10
- Cravings sensation: 8/10
- Total steps for the day: 11509
Saturday notes: Feeling pretty super. Previous night’s hunger was completely gone and I was fully recharged. I found myself deliberating whether to continue my fast to 7 days, but decided against it as I had already planned a meal with a friend. Also, I didn’t want to overreach for my first effort, and I thought that I’ll perhaps go for 7 days in my next fast.
What I broke my fast with…
Right off the bat, the most surprising finding was that I was able to operate at 85–95% of my normal capacity during training. Pre-experiment, I thought it’d be in the range of 60–70%.
- Starting weight: 77.7kg
- End weight: 72.3kg
*It didn’t take me long to get back to my average weight range of 74–76Kg.
During the course of the experiment, I found myself thinking about food a lot, naturally. Especially cheese, which was weird since I never had a passion for them. Perhaps my brain was craving fatty food. Anyway, since the experiment I have developed a new enthusiasm for cheese. I wonder if it’s due to the intensity of the association that has rewired parts of my brain circuitry. *Nibbles on cheese while proclaiming “Interesting” aloud*
So did I starve? Hell yes. But it’s not what you think.
The only thing I felt I was starving from was from the cravings that I was resisting.
In fact, I did not really feel hungry throughout the fast, even up until the point I broke fast. So it seems like I remain in search of the physical sensation of hunger…
Overall, the mornings were always great, and by nightfall I’d start faltering. Unequivocally, it has showed me the power of sleep and how our willpower depletes along the day and refills after rest. This was most evident during the last night of my last, Friday, around 2am where I was flat out drained of energy. When I woke up the next morning however, I was brimming with energy, my hunger factor reset to 2/10, and I was ready to play a game of tag in the open field.
Still here? Congrats! Your attention span on the internet places you firmly in the top 0.000000001%. As a reward, here’s a list.
Cons of not eating
- As you can imagine, it’s pretty anti-social.
- You also miss out on one of the greatest joys of life.
Pros of not eating
- I can go without food for a long time!
- It’s a great way to save money $$$
- More free time — at least an extra 2 hours per day.
- Clearer thinking and better focus. The brain fog was gone. Short of mentally levitating, it was amazing. Throughout the experiment my thinking was exceptionally clear and my ability to focus was much better.
- Meditation was a cinch and highly enjoyable. I was able to enter “The zone” — a state of effortless focus — much quicker, and remain there for a longer period as compared to normal sessions.
☞ Closing thoughts
As humans, we are wired to seek comfort and avoid pain. That may have been an useful default programming on an evolutionarily basis, but when modern life is an endless buffet of easily accessible temporary comfort, we risk drowning in the excesses afforded to us. For me, obviously one of mine is food. Perhaps for you it’s exercising, socializing, checking emails, buying clothes, exercising, reading, etc.
More importantly, we live by the stories we tell ourselves: who we are and what we are not and what we can or cannot do. The right stories empower and inspire us, and the wrong stories limit and deflate us. The scary thing is that we tend to unwittingly invest a lot of emotional capital into stories that have fed to us through social conditioning, or the hypothetical stories that we invent and subsequently convince ourselves to be true.
So I say it’s worth examining the basis of some of these stories, even though they may seem insignificant, because often we use them as convenient excuses which in turn creates limiting behaviors..
- Will you really become “hangry” if you don’t eat dinner?
- Do you have really a short attention span?
- Are you really not a morning person?
..and thus giving you a free pass to behave a certain way?
Whatever it is, I’m saying that you hold the power to decide; to continue buying into that story, or to rewrite it. I’m a “try everything once” type of person because experiences (within reason) are far more powerful than theoretical knowledge. You can’t learn to swim by reading about it.
Gosh. This turned out to be a long post — it was a good thing that you kept your Christmas decorations up. Time to bring it in.
This little experiment has helped me unravel, and allowed me to rewrite an lifelong internal story that I have been telling myself: that I’m a person who thinks he has no self-control around food. And to experience first hand how much of that is simply a false narrative, one that loses its power over me with every moment that I refuse to vest any further belief.
Life is growth and growth is pain.
Anything worth doing is likely to be effortful and pain is an inevitable part of that process. Growing, essentially involves a breakdown of what currently exists, and a fundamental restructure of it into something new and better.
Here’s what I’ll leave you with:
Why not harness the process for its strength, rather than seeing it for its unpleasantness as a debilitating enemy?
Seek out some of them intentionally and use them as an opportunity for growth, and you’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn.
Found this post useful? Kindly tap the ❤ button below!
Interested in more? Sign up for my newsletter here.
Thanks to Benedict. W & Fiona. T for reading a draft of this post.