15 Months of Intermittent Fasting Didn’t Transform My Life
Lessons learned from the latest biohacking fad
I’ll admit it: The hype over intermittent fasting intoxicated me. As a consumer of all things health and performance, I could not resist the urge to give it a go.
My parents gifted me wonderful genes. I’ve never been overweight in my 48 years. My physicals have only once turned up anything alarming — and that turned out to be a false alarm. So, what was I hoping to gain?
Having kids later in life encouraged me to do everything in my power to stay healthy. And despite my lucky streak of health, I was feeling the effects of getting older. I could feel my memory losing some of its sharpness. I also seemed to lack the mental stamina I once possessed especially in the early morning, my most creative time of day.
I’ve made a habit out of self-experimentation when it comes to health — playing around with everything from vegan to paleo diets, prebiotics, probiotics, exercise routines, sound therapy, and a few other things I’m too embarrassed to mention. Intermittent fasting, therefore, felt like a logical next step.
Most of the available studies on intermittent fasting focus on weight loss. But some studies, according to the NIH, also show the practice may boost neurological functioning. After 10–16 hours of fasting, your body releases ketones as an energy alternative to sugar. Early indications show this could have a protective neurological benefit.
It was that type of nascent research, and the propagation of it on health podcasts, that first intrigued me. Like other health experiments, I figured if it didn’t work out I could always go back to the way I’d been doing things before.
I chose the most popular variant of intermittent fasting — the 16:8 method. In other words: 16 hours a day of fasting (except black coffee and water) and eight hours of nonfasting. In practice, this translates to eating my first meal around 12:30 p.m. and my last snack around 7:45 p.m.
I follow this pattern seven days a week. Some approaches allow you to eat your regular diet five days a week and then restrict calories for just two days. I advise against that approach as I have found sticking to a new routine for seven days makes it easier to adapt. When you break up the routine, you make it harder to form a habit.
The early struggle
For years, I always snacked before bed. During the first week of fasting, I’d get into bed and feel hunger pains. I was able to stifle the hunger by drinking copious amounts of water, but then I’d wake up at 2:00 a.m. with the urge to pee.
Late mornings posed the hardest challenge. I found it hard to focus on anything other than hunger. By the time noon rolled around, I’d attack my lunch as though knives and forks were impediments to the eating process.
To stay on track during those early days, I’d distract myself with work, do a power walk, and then drink an extra 12-ounce cup of coffee. These distractions proved mildly effective.
Slowly, the discomfort gradually faded. After a month, I was able to make it through evenings and mornings with only the briefest of hunger pangs.
Within two months, my new routine felt established. I no longer thought about it. I no longer fantasized about breakfast. I no longer went to bed craving a snack. Fasting felt as routine as brushing my teeth.
I started this experiment to improve my mental energy, and on that front, I have experienced improved mental acuity and more energy (especially in the morning).
How I do it now
On an average day (weekends included), I wake up between 5:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. I grab a cup of black coffee and begin my writing session. At 6:30 a.m., I pour my second cup of coffee. Once I finish, I consume only water until 12:00 p.m. or 12:30 p.m.
For lunch, I’ll usually have a salad with hard-boiled eggs, vegetables, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, and apple cider vinegar. In the midafternoon, I’ll munch on a Bulletproof bar, or a bag of plantain chips if I’m feeling risqué.
I eat dinner just before 7:00 p.m., anything from beans to bacon. I’ll snack around 7:45 p.m., and then that will be it until bedtime — which is generally around 10:00 p.m.
Yes, I break from my routine when life gets in the way. I make exceptions for date night with my wife or the occasional Sunday brunch with my family. But otherwise, I stick to this plan almost religiously.
I compared before and after lab tests to confirm there weren’t any adverse effects of fasting on my health. It turns out that 15 months of intermittent fasting produced neutral results. The before and after numbers show slight differences, which could be due to everyday variation. For the most part, my diet has been the same — high fat and low carb — for over two years.
My numbers were already at optimal levels before intermittent fasting and stayed in optimum range long after. I know some folks in the performance-seeking world begin their experiments with the hope that a new diet, supplement, or practice will result in superhuman numbers.
Unfortunately, disappointment often sets in when they realize their new ritual fails to transform them into X-Men. In my case, I started this experiment to improve my mental energy, and on that front, I have experienced improved mental acuity and more energy (especially in the morning).
Sure, my evaluation of mental acuity and energy is entirely subjective, but that’s okay. Intermittent fasting makes me feel better. There’s no detriment to my health, as far as I can tell, and if the long term neurological benefits of this lifestyle pan out, so much the better.
Hope for positive, not spectacular
The science will continue to evolve on the merits of intermittent fasting. My results were far from spectacular, but I’m okay with that. We need to look at lifestyle choices with a long view — considering the impact over years and decades, not weeks and months.
I’ve tried dozens of health and wellness regimens over the last two decades. Only rarely have I experienced a noticeable difference, let alone a spectacular one. If nothing else, skipping breakfast eliminates a daily decision and saves me time. I’d argue that alone makes me more productive.
The truth is, if you’re reasonably healthy and in good shape, you can’t expect miracles.
No supplement, exercise, or wellness routine will turn you into a superhuman. An unrealistic expectation like that will only lead to disillusionment. So, set reasonable expectations. If a new shift or habit makes you feel a little better, and there’s no adverse effect on your health, that’s good enough.