On fasting

Discipline in an age of abundance

 Life is the gift of the immortal gods, but living well is the gift of philosophy. - Seneca

Through the writings, myths, and models developed by the great minds of antiquity it is evident that fasting from sustenance plays a major role in health and wellness. Unfortunately the practice of fasting has largely been forgotten and its adherence due to endless nutritional abundance.

Many people do not practice any form of abstinence nor feel a need. When every desire is just a click away and there are no counteracting forces it is very easy for one to over indulge. The classics and many religious texts outlined the necessity of not only fasting but to regularly self impose discomfort. Strenuous exercise, fasting, and rigorous study were not the exceptions but the rules in antiquity.

I would like to posit on the principles of fasting. I will approach this thesis with a multidisciplinary approach to answer the question of “why would one fast?”

Let’s first look at four major disciplines that are applicable to the matter of fasting. Biology, Economics, Psychology, and History. I will attempt to elucidate how each discipline relates to the topic of fasting. Through a multi-disciplinary approach, I hope that the costs and benefits of fasting are readily apparent by the end of this essay.

To most people it is easy to grasp that biology is a vital component of fasting, however at first glance the other major disciplines listed above may seem unrelated to the practice. In its most base form, fasting is going without food and certain liquids for an extended period of time.The time applied to a fast varies from as short as in between meals, to weeks at a time. Some of the most common fasting protocols are for 24 hours and can last for up to 7 days. The time chosen to fast is dependent upon the person performing the fast. You may say to yourself “I can fast, I have tremendous will! I will forgo sustenance for 5 days.” If this is the mindset you possess, let me provide an analogy to exercise - if you have not been regularly exercising, it is unreasonable for you to begin getting “in shape” by running a marathon next Tuesday, not to say people can’t do a 7 day fast or a marathon with no preparation, but it will not be an enjoyable experience for most. Fasting will be more easily adhered to and enjoyed through a gradual buildup of time fasted.

A definition of terms is warranted before going further into things. Terms related to fasting protocols seem to change fluidly throughout time, much of this is due to cultural mores and trends, which I will cover later. I will be use the word fast to mean the simple restriction of food and all liquids, time restricted eating to mean eating only within a specified window, intermittent fasting to mean a fast lasting 8–12 hours, and a water only fasting meaning nothing is consumed besides water. There are many other ways to fast, but they are outside the scope of this essay.

Logical questions arise such as why are fasting practices present throughout so many cultures and religions and why is it something that is no longer followed in most peoples daily lives? To answer the latter (I will cover the former in a another essay), I will call on the disciplines listed above, as I feel a multidisciplinary approach will shed light on the whole matter.

I will do this by covering core concepts in biology, chemistry, economics, psychology, and history and how they are interwoven with fasting. Once finished, I will attempt to show how approaching a simple subject like fasting with a multidisciplinary approach will allow one to 1) to understand the mechanisms involved 2) show overlaps in the disciplines that can be leveraged for better adherence and 3) better construct a curated fasting protocol.

Biology: Hormesis, Autophagy, Encoded DNA

In regards to biology, I would like to initially address the principle of hormesis. Simply, hormesis is the body’s ability to endure short intense bouts of pain or stress the elicit a beneficial long term effect. Increased cardiovascular endurance, increased muscle strength, increases immunity are all consequences of hormesis. A flu vaccination is an example of your body using a tool to activate your body’s natural hormetic response to fend off future illness, by injecting a small amount of the flu virus your body to ready ones body for future inflictions.

When fasting, ones body undergoes many of the same mechanisms as getting a flu shot, by following a fasting protocol, a mandated restriction from sustenance, your body will begin to build up the strength to go for prolonged periods of time without the need to eat or drink. It is a self imposed stressor that trains ones body to forgo sustenance while maintaining homeostasis and health. To some, this may seem like a super power, as now it is estimated that the average American eats between 12 and 15 times a day (includes snacking).

Another modern interpretation of hormesis is explained nicely by Nassim Taleb’s principle of antifragility. Taleb describes the principle of antifragility as the ability to come back from a shock stronger than before. It is not simply being resilient, as in the damn can hold up under conditions of increased rain fall, but rather, the damn is adaptive and responsive to increased rain fall and actually increases in impenetrability in line with the amount of water it is holding back. A simpler example is lifting weights. Short bouts of intense weight lifting allows one to undergo a short term stressors to be stronger throughout ones life. Taleb is a fan of deadlifts…

Friedrich Nietzsche also writes about this concept, most notably with the line

“that which does not kill you, makes you stronger.”

Now, to autophagy, a little-known benefit of fasting that is widely discussed in cancer treatment circles and biohacker communities. “Auto” means self and “phagy” means eat. So, the literal meaning of autophagy is “self-eating.” It’s also referred to as “self-devouring.” This process is extremely beneficial when the cells that are eating themselves are cancerous. One might ask why this is beneficial to someone that is not diagnosed with cancer, autophagy is beneficial because almost everyone living has cancerous cells in their body and following a fasting protocol may inhibit the metastasis of these cells. Autophagy, to the point it has been researched, seems to be an easy way to combat cancer and its debilitating effects. In times of starvation (fasting), autophagy keeps the body going by breaking down cellular material and reusing it for necessary processes. So it seems that fasting is a simple way for one to rid oneself of some of these harmful cells.

Next, we look at encoded DNA and how the genes passed down through generations are hard coded into ones biological framework. Genes can be influenced internally in many ways, but they are also altered epigenetically through ones environment. It is the battle of what one is born with and what one is exposed to. True nature vs nurture. Many genes will lay dormant if not activated by epigenetic factors, other genes will be active while in utero. For instance, ones great grandparents experienced a drought or famine and had to endure prolonged periods of restricted eating or fasting, these experiences become encoded into the DNA that is passed down and makes one more susceptible to the effects of fasting.

Epigenetics influence ones genes through environmental triggers such as stress, food, and air quality, only to name a few. So, the decisions one makes on a daily basis are of important significance. Where one chooses to live, where one chooses to work, where one chooses to eat all have an impact on ones overall health through epigenetic factors. If one is working in a polluted environment, eating processed foods, and living in an area with poor air quality it will be much harder for one to maintain health and well being. These factors may even inhibit someone from being able to receive all the benefits of fasting due to ones body being berated by a multitude of negative externalities. One should still fast even if one is in a suboptimal environment as the benefits will still be advantageous.

Economics: Game Theory, Opportunity Costs, Incentives

When applying game theory to fasting one needs to be aware of the factors within the game - actors, rules, and competitors. Eating or not eating is not a finite game that one plays once, it is an infinite game one plays throughout life. What one chooses to eat or not eat has an effect on the next string of meals, ones health, ones sleep, ones mood, ones relationships, and ones overall ability to flourish.

Realizing that there is so much at stake, one discovers that there are other forces at play trying to persuade one to over indulge, consume more, spend more and and avoid fasting. Consider that if a large enough percentage of any population decided to forgo meals on a consistent basis the national GDP would take a hit. This simply cannot happen, modern economies are built on consumption. If an economy is not growing it is dying. Hence the pervasive use of targeted ads and influencers used to get people to eat more at each meal and to eat more often.

Man is born ignorant, not stupid. He is made stupid through education. - Bertrand Russell

There are certain rules or customs constantly at play, many people feel trapped by the rituals of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many view meal times as a chance to take a break, catch up on emails, and meet with others. No one wants to be classified as an outsider or lose out on opportunities to “network” due to skipping meals. However, the ability to go prolonged periods of time without eating or thinking about eating for that matter is remarkable. One may not realize just how much time and mental bandwidth is used to plan, prepare, and eat. Many fasting practitioners laud the productivity benefits of not preparing or worrying about meals. Time and effort is unlocked to do other things that may provide benefit. When was the last time one just went on a walk and contemplated the meaning of what does ‘it’ mean?

When one is constantly eating or simply over eating the opportunity costs manifest in the amount of time and money lost on buying food, preparing food, and eating food in the short term. In the long term opportunity costs are present in negative health outcomes, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. The risk to reward ration is not a positive one.

Incentives are the key to any habit. The current incentives related to eating are skewed in the direction of over consumption. Food is now readily accessible at all times and often the cheaper the food the worse it is nutritionally. There is also constant engineering being applied to make food to make it more addictive and palatable. Again, the modus operandi is to consume more, not consume better. Head this insight when considering what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. Ask the questions of why are things structured this way? Who wins, who loses? What are the long-term impacts on my health and longevity? Once one asks these questions long enough it becomes apparent that the environment around food and eating has stacked the cards against ones health and well being. When there are no good options - fast. Forgo rather than consume.

Psychology: Operant Conditioning, Pavlovian Responses, Social Proof

The psychological component involved in fasting, or any habit formation, is the most important component and the least understood. Operant conditioning is an act followed by a consequence that will then influence the performance of the act in the future. The consequence (both good and bad) matters greatly. When applying the principle of operant conditioning to fasting, one must realize that there will be little to no immediate positive effects. Fasting, for most, does not provide instant feedback like in the case of a coin flip where it is immediately apparent if one guessed heads or tails correctly. This is one of the most difficult aspects of any imposed self-discipline one chooses to pursue, most are conditioned for immediate feedback. Instant gratification is just that instant, while most self-restraining activities are not enjoyable, and their benefits are not readily evident, they are the ones that have the biggest asymmetric upside.

Pavlovian conditional responses are the reptilian complex part of the brain that elicits automatic responses to stimuli. These responses happen unbeknownst at the subconscious level and one is unaware they are occurring. Things such as reproduction, breathing, fight or flight responses, and hunger, are for the most part tracked and controlled by your reptilian brain complex.

Once one understands that many of the vital aspects of survival are automated makes one realize why fasting in a modern context is so difficult. Our bodies are not yet designed to be optimal in abundance, our bodes are still programmed to fend off violence and starvation at all costs. Something as simple as abstaining from food can cause myriad sirens to go off in ones body. Unlike our ancestor’s, who fasted out of necessity due to drought or food shortages, which in itself did not always elicit positive effects, one just needs to look at the babies of pregnant women that suffered through droughts and famines while pregnant.

In modernity we no longer face those same kind of challenges - food, safety, and shelter are overly abundant in modern times. Fasts are now optional, where as in previous generations they were conducted without choice and inability to sustain a fast and stay productive meant you did not survive. Often these fasting protocols were self imposed due to religious beliefs, but often times they were a sheer product of externalities outside the control of the person. The lesson is to be as resilient as possible so that in any environment one can not only survive but thrive.

Mimetic desire: we don’t want, we want to be. - Rene Girard

Next, let’s look to social proof and its role in fasting. Social proof is a termed penned by Robert Cialdini. Social proof is a social phenomenon wherein people mimic the actions and decisions of others to undertake behavior in given situations. If you don’t know anything about the power of memetic I urge you to start with the works of Rene Girard on this subject, I will also release an essay on mimetic in the coming months. Think of social proof as your friend John is following a fasting protocol so I will too. It is a signal that the behavior is warranted because a peer or idol is behaving in such a way.

History: Culture, Religion, and Trends

Fasting has been a part of life for humanity from the days of the savannah to modernity, much less so in modernity. Fasting has gone by many names and has been practiced in various fashions throughout time, but the one constant is that it seems nearly universal throughout various cultures and epochs.

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible. - St. Thomas Aquinas

Fasting is used in nearly every religion in the world, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam. Many of history's great spiritual leaders fasted for mental and spiritual clarity, including Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed. In one of the famous political acts of the last century, the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi fasted for 21 days to promote peace. Although the when, how and why of fasting for different faiths and traditions, for example: 

Buddhism: Usually on full-moon days and other holidays; usually abstaining from solid food with some liquids permitted; a method of purification. 

Catholicism: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; two small meals and one regular meal, with meat forbidden; teaches self-control, penance and solidarity with the poor. 

Islam: Fasting the month of Ramadan is one of the main pillars of Islam. It is obligatory upon every sane, healthy Muslim whose reached puberty and is not traveling during the time of fasting. As for women, they must not fast if they are menstruating pregnant or having post-childbirth bleeding.

Many readers may have first been exposed to fasting through one of these religious rituals, in fact, fasting is a staple in most of the dominant religions. To look at a few other religions - Jewish culture fasts for certain holidays, Mormons fast one Sunday a month, even Pagans fast on seasonal equinoxes. It is evident that fasting has played an integral role in culture for millennia. So, why has fasting fallen out of practice in modern times?

Our current zeitgeist does not regard fasting as an essential part of culture or survival. People may still be religious, but not follow the customs as closely as previous generations. Previous generations fasted because that’s what their parents did and so forth In modern times we are more averse to suffering and displeasure. Hedonism reigns supreme.

This is not entirely our fault, incentives, media, and advice work actively against fasting and abstaining from over indulging. Advertising is now staffed with some of the smartest people and complex algorithms the world has ever seen. They work in tandem to get people to consume more, not less. We have been conditioned to give into our desires and to consume ad infinitum, without considering what the trade offs really are. An aspect of modernity is that the “right” way of doing things has largely been replaced by the expedient way of doing things. Time preferences are much higher and we all want immediate gratification, lack of suffering, and constant pleasure. Although this all seems great in the present the future is less bright due to lack of foresight in critical decision making.

In sum, it is now more important than ever to begin creating a culture in which fasting is encouraged and practiced. Glorification of over indulgence has led our culture astray. Note, being a foody is not a hobby. Strategic cultural mores can be cultivated or rediscovered to lead our species down a divergent and healthier path because the current path is only leading to death and despair. It starts with committing yourself to establishing the habit of fasting, creating personal skin in the game, and holding yourself accountable. Write it down, tell a friend, put some money on the line, and avoid anyone and anything that may get in your way to establishing the habit of fasting.