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Water Fasting: Like starving, only better.

Jesse Lawler
Jun 12, 2016 · 11 min read

Roy Walford was a medical doctor in the mid-20th century, and a major proponent of Caloric Restriction — a lifestyle of intentional, fairly extreme under-feeding, for the purpose of living longer.

A friend once said of him:

Caloric Restriction and Fasting are not the same thing. Fasting is a temporary-but-total halt to eating any calories. Caloric Restriction is eating significantly less calories than a person normally would, forever.

And yet, Walford’s friend’s joke works in both cases.

This week, I’m undergoing my second week-long water fast. A “water fast” is just what it sounds like: A time between meals when you’re only allowed to drink water.

In this case, the time between meals is 168 hours.

Admittedly, this is a while.

But here I am, almost 5 days into the fast at the time of this writing, and I’m getting along just fine. My brain is working well; I’m in a good mood; and although my stomach was growling earlier, it hasn’t made a peep in hours.

(Typically I find that my stomach voices its concerns about once a day, for just a few minutes, and pretty severely. Then it goes away to sulk until tomorrow, once it realizes I’m not paying any attention.)

Prior to my first week-long water fast (February of 2015), the longest that I’d ever gone without food was probably 18 hours, tops. But then, prior to my first 3000-mile bicycle ride, the furthest single ride I’d ever taken my bike on was probably 20 miles, tops. So I’m comfortable with the idea that what we are used to doing is often nowhere near the limits of our abilities.

But why go a week without food?

Well funny you should ask.

In November of 2014, I spoke with Dr. Thomas Seyfried, a leading oncologist and father of what is now called the “Metabolic Theory of Cancer.” Without going off into the scientific weeds, the gist is that there are many, if not most, types of cancer that can’t hack it in a low-blood-sugar environment.

While your healthy cells can nibble on your body’s fat stores for fuel during starvation (and to be brutally honest, that’s what a water fast is: temporary, voluntary starvation), cancer cells can’t draw power from fats. Some studies even indicate that the breakdown compounds from fat might be directly harmful to cancer.

Long story short, by turning your into body a sugar-free environment and living on stored fat tissues for a few days, any stray cancer cells that might be lurking inside you starve to death, while the rest of your body carries on with comparative gusto. This is a cartoonish oversimplification, but it gets the idea across. Days 1–3 of the water fast drain your body’s sugar supply to near zero, and Days 4–7 you wait for your next meal (the Day 8 “re-feeding”), knowing that any cancer baddies are starving to death, while you’re merely starving.

So the idea behind the fast was — and is — that this might be an effective preventative measure against developing a cancer. As I understand it, at any given time among our body’s billions of cells, we each have hundreds or thousands of random little cancer cells that haven’t gotten their acts together to form a tumor, begin multiplying, and become dangerous.

Doing a fast like this is basically an extermination measure, like my mom does in the garden with weeds. She knows that eventually the weeds will come back. But as long as she does a violent eradication every now and then, they’ll never take over.

So that was the primary rationale for my first week-long fast, when I did it last year. But what I learned from doing it was there are a ton of secondary benefits, most of which I didn’t see coming.

However, rather than re-list those, I’ll direct you to an earlier post I wrote about that experience, which you can see here.

For this post, I’d like to add some how-to thoughts on fasting that I’ve picked up this year — blessed as I now am with the wisdom of two whole rounds of experience. (Yes, that’s a joke.)

#1 - The ideal spot for fasting is somewhere out-of-town, not staying with relatives.

I’m pretty convinced of the merits of this rule, despite the fact that it’s something I stumbled onto by pure happenstance — or more accurately, my girlfriend pointing out that we’re overdue for a vacation.

I ate my “last meal” (more of an extended, buffet-style smorgasbord, but we’ll call it a “meal” for the sake of my dignity), ending at 11:59pm on Saturday night of this past week.

At 6:30am, we got into a cab and ultimately wound up at the beach, 5 hours out of town. So the first 5 days / 4 nights of my fast were spent at an all-inclusive beachside resort.

Now before this sounds like bragging, let me remove the luster from that last paragraph by stating that by the end of the first 36 hours, I had a brutal sunburn (pure stupidity to blame) and about 50 bites from some biting insect that apparently ignored everyone except me.

But with all that said, getting into an unfamiliar environment was amazing for the “fasting psychology” because — I’m going to highligh this so you know I’m serious:

The most grievously awful thing about fasting is the expectation of meals that you don’t get.

No, it’s not hunger. Hunger is child’s play. What sucks is the crushed expectations of having done your work, or survived until noon, or whatever Pavlovian trigger normally tells you “Good job buddy, now it’s meal-time!” — and then not getting to have a meal.

By putting yourself in an unfamiliar location, all those familiar expectations like “I eat lunch at noon” or even “I eat at all” are blissfully missing. You’ll still be hungry, sure. But the feeling of your expectations betrayed won’t be there.

Why do I mention the “not staying with relatives” as part of my vacation prescription? It’s probably obvious.

Relatives eat. And relatives are used to eating with us, taking us out to eat, and showing us how well they cook. Plus, we’ve all got that one relative who we suspect is secretly in a Fantasy Fat-ball League, competing with other graying moms to see how many pounds they can add to their adult children.

So stay away from all that.

#2 - Keep your fasting on a need-to-know basis.

Surprise, surprise: Some people are just going to have nothing positive to say once you step outside the well-worn ruts of civil society.

And few things are more universal than regular, voluntary eating.

One of the people fasting with me this year — who had previously completed a 7-day fast, so this was no rookie — was belittled out of completing the fast when she made the mistake of telling her mom she hadn’t eaten in four days.

The reasons for people’s reactions is normally a legitimate, genuine concern that you may be doing something that will inadvertently hurt yourself. But that doesn’t mean these people’s opinions are productive, medically well-informed, or non-hysterical.

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Here’s me, taking a “look ma, no hands!” selfie while riding a bicycle on Day 7 of my fast. Proof that physical coordination remains intact, even if judgment is questionable.

So consider your audience very carefully before mentioning that you’re not eating. If you do mention it, make it clear that your goals have nothing to do with weight loss. (Weight loss while fasting will inevitably occur — mostly water weight that will return quickly on re-feeding — but a zero-calorie fast is not a diet, and not the right way to approach any long-term weight loss goals.)

Secrecy aside, the people who do need to know about your fast are the people you live with, and possibly your doctor. The people you live with — if you give them fair warning — will probably be helpful in keeping the kitchen clear of your very favorite foods, which will be an unwelcome temptation. They might also be willing to eat a few more meals outside the house during your fast-week, if the thought of watching other people eating while you starve is too much for you to handle.

And if you have any ongoing medical conditions, it would be advisable to consult with your doctor before fasting, to see if he or she has any concerns.

That said, both of my fasts have been done outside any medical supervision, and that hasn’t been an issue. The great thing about fasting (as opposed to starvation) is that the moment you decide that you’ve had enough, you’re only moments away from consumable calories.

Both times I’ve fasted, I’ve done it with groups of people (members of the Smart Drug Smarts listening audience), and many have dropped out part-way through, because something “just didn’t feel right.” The somethings have varied pretty widely — ranging from headaches to heart palpitations to brain fog — but within a couple hours of eating, they have (in all cases that I’m aware of) felt substantially improved.

#3 - A Fast is Vacation-Aid for People Who Can’t Vacation.

This won’t apply to everyone.

If you’re one of those people who can switch off your work-brain on Friday afternoon and not reboot it until Monday at the strike of the alarm bell, I envy you. But that ain’t me. I dress and act casually, but I’m a card-carrying workaholic and punch my clock 7 days a week. I take my laptop with me when my girlfriend wants to “get away for the weekend,” and I secretly harvest alone-time so I can work more, like an alcoholic hiding fifths of vodka in the laundry room.

But here’s the thing about fasting: You’ve gotta take it easy. By the time you’re a few days in, you don’t have much choice.

Physically, this probably seems obvious. But if you haven’t fasted, the energy depletion may not be as you imagine. It’s not like you’ve got the flu and getting out of bed is a challenge. It’s just like you don’t have your high gears any more.

During this fast, I’ve taken multi-mile walks and I can bang out 100 jumping jacks and ride my bike across town — but I wouldn’t want to run wind-sprints or do anything requiring maximal exertion. My mind just rebels at the thought of going all-out. (And my body would too; try giving your physical all by 3–4 days into a fast and you’ll find that you tire out very quickly compared to what you’re used to.)

But what does all of this have to do with workaholics vacationing?

I’m speaking mostly from my own experience here, but this jives with others whom I’ve spoken with. A selection bias may be cooked-in, but here goes…

A starving brain is a reflective brain.

What do I mean by this?

First, let’s do a little conjectural thinking based in Evolutionary Psychology. (i.e. “Would our feelings about a modern situation have made any sense were we living in an African tribe 200,000 years ago?”)

For most of us workaholic types, we are go-go-go. Execute, execute, execute. Look for next to-do and execute on that too. Ad infinitum. Back in the Paleolithic era, this would have been a relatively limited pinwheel of hunt-gather-procreate-hunt-gather-procreate. Nowadays our to-do lists have more variety.

In a starvation situation, the hunt-gather portion of the pinwheel gains in immediate importance, and your attention to your to-do list increases. Try harder! You need food!

But after 72 hours of failure to eat, something starts to change. Trying hard has failed. Executing on the to-do list has not produced results. If we’re to survive, what we need is not re-committing our diminishing resources to an execution plan that has failed. We need broad, creative, expansive thinking to come up with something new if we’re going to get out of this jam.

That’s my theory — maybe right, maybe wrong — on why the back-half of a week long fast really lends itself to far-ranging, reflective, creative thinking. This is the sort of thinking our ancestors would have needed to save their own lives. But for us, because our physical deprivation is self-inflicted, we get the benefit of this rare, enjoyable mind-state and the ability to apply it to thoughts other than where will my next calorie come from?

Reading books, long conversations, daydreaming, rolling ideas over in your head… These are the sorts of things people are “supposed” to do to relax, right? And they’re the type workaholics have a problem finding time for. Fasting doesn’t find you the time, but it gives you the inclination. And if you don’t fight it, the time takes care of itself.

So is fasting a health thing, or a mind thing, or both?

If you’d asked me before I did my first fast, I would have unequivocally said “a health thing.” But now I’m on the fence.

Or rather, I think there is no fence.

The Body-Mind Division is probably one of the least helpful ideas that Western civilization ever came up with — and it’s surprising it has stuck around so resolutely, seeing how whacking anybody in the head with a solid stick can quickly call into question the theory’s basic tenets.

But as everything from yoga to golf to jiu-jitsu to Navy SEAL training will readily attest… advancement in a physical skill is predicated on increasing measures of mental self-control. And that feedback loop can go the other way too.

In the case of fasting, the mental willpower to force one’s self to go without food for a week can in turn cause physical changes that can (among other things: cancer prevention, immune-system restoration) prime the mind for fresh thinking and new realizations. And so the circle continues.

There are 52 weeks in a year. Can you think of a more interesting way to cut 2% off your annual grocery bill?

PS: Fasts shorter than a week can still offer significant benefits, although different from those discussed above. “Intermittent Fasting” (IF) is one popular protocol used by people who eat every day, but in a tight “feeding window” of hours, e.g. 2pm — 9pm only.

One Final PS: Nothing has ever tasted so good as your first bite of your first meal, post-fast. For me this time, it was salmon curry — which my girlfriend sent me this photo of a few hours before my 168-hour mark. Those last few hours were long ones indeed.

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