When I was a kid in the 1980s, I learned from my television that Lucky Charms contained seven essential nutrients and was part of a complete breakfast. At the end of the commercial it would show this complete breakfast: a modest bowl of sugary cereal in the middle of a spread of traditional foods, including a plate of toast with jam, a glass of orange juice, a glass of milk and a plate of fruit.
I don’t think I ever had a “complete breakfast” as defined by General Mills, but that image is what appeared in my mind whenever somebody said, as everyone did, that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. I was never tempted to doubt that maxim, because I loved food so much that I couldn’t imagine somebody voluntarily going to school or work without eating something.
When I did my liquid food experiment last year, the response taught me something that seems obvious in hindsight. I learned how stubbornly people will defend their beliefs about food even when they cannot tell you why they believe those things. I found that the more certainty people expressed about their food beliefs, the less able they were to provide evidence supporting those beliefs when asked. Claims of certainty make me skeptical.
Where did the “three meals a day” axiom come from? It probably has more to do with what time daily mass was held in the Middle Ages than anything related to nutrition. But tell someone you’re not eating lunch today, and they might prepare an intervention.
“If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, you shouldn’t be eating it!” is a more recent favorite. But it has some strange implications: well-read people can tolerate obscure ingredients that would harm others, and the illiterate shouldn’t be eating anything at all.
I am gradually coming to the conclusion that most of our popular notions about eating are nothing more than unexamined folklore — all culture and no science, bolstered selectively by food marketers wherever it suits them.
Excess made normal
Certainly one effect of marketing is that it has successfully convinced us to eat too much. Unlike many other types of product, there is a natural ceiling on how much food can be sold. If there are 300 million Americans, who require 2,000 calories per day on average, then only 600 billion calories per day can be sold to them until the market ought to be saturated.
This natural limit gave food marketers a particular problem they had to solve if they wished to grow: “How can we get people to eat more calories than they need?” We’ve seen how they’ve done it. Increasingly absurd portion sizes. Comically large soft drink containers. Grooming an expectation for meat at every meal, and displaying close-up images of high-fat, high-sugar foods almost everywhere we go.
The most effective strategy is something we now take for granted. From the television era on, food has been marketed primarily as a source of gratification and reward. Food advertised for its nutritional value is a “niche” product.
This artificial market growth translates directly to excess fat growth on the bodies of the population. Famously, about two-thirds of the US population is overweight. The habit of excessive consumption is held in place by what have become our normal expectations surrounding eating: what a plate of food should look like, how often you should eat, how enjoyable it should be, how you should feel after a meal, what you should do when you feel hungry, what “balanced” means, and so on.
Ignoring normal for normal’s sake
Now that I’ve decided to turn my back on conventional food axioms, it feels like a trove of options has been uncovered. Maybe I don’t have to eat three times a day, or eat the same amount of food every day. Maybe, on a given day, I don’t have to eat before noon, or after noon, or even at all. There may be good reasons to follow some of our conventions, but I’m not going to follow them unless I can find these good reasons.
As if they were reading my mind, a few readers have asked me when I’m going to do an experiment on what’s called intermittent fasting. Put most simply, intermittent fasting is the act of limiting your food intake to certain periods of the day (or week.)
This may mean no more than making sure that you get all your eating done between noon and 8pm every day, and maintaining a fast for the other sixteen hours (for half of which you are asleep.) There are other forms too: two-day-a-week fasting, or alternate-day fasting.
Note that the goal isn’t necessarily to eat less, but to do all your eating in a restricted timeframe. Of course, most of us do eat too much, and intermittent fasting (I.F.) might make it a simpler matter to consume fewer calories overall.
Why do people do this?
The central idea is that the body operates differently in a fed state than it does in a fasted state. Normally we spend nearly our entire waking day in a fed state, eating from shortly after we wake. Advocates of I.F. claim there are health benefits to spending more time in a fasted state than just the normal 8 or 9 hours surrounding our nightly sleep. Intermittent fasting has been associated with extended lifespan, and resistance to age-related diseases such as cancer, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and neurodegenerative disorders.
The science on I.F. is far from settled, however. Basically, the results of animal trials are extremely promising, but there isn’t much conclusive science on humans. The anecdotal evidence, for what it’s worth, is quite positive, even glowing. People claim they have experienced loss of excess bodyfat, lowered stress levels, improved cognition, reduced signs of aging and more.
I’m not sold either way. There are doctors and scientists who advocate intermittent fasting, and they seem to have legitimate credentials. But I’m also aware there’s probably a lot of hidden entrepreneurship going on anywhere we see “breakthroughs” in the science of fat loss.
While I’m agnostic on the health effects, I’m extremely curious about what it’s actually like to do it. So intermittent fasting will be my next experiment.
There are four reasons I’m doing this experiment:
1) To see what it’s like to go without food sometimes. Food insecurity has been a real part of life for many or most of history’s human beings, yet I have missed maybe a dozen regular mealtimes in my entire life. Voluntary fasting obviously isn’t at all the same as genuine food insecurity, but it will give me a taste of what it’s like not to be able to eat whenever I want to, or am used to. I suspect it will make me a bit better at refraining from indulgence in general, and a bit more grateful.
2) To see if it makes for a simpler way to reduce my caloric intake. I mentioned that reducing the amount one eats isn’t necessarily a part of fasting, but I do believe I consume more than I need to, and restricting my feeding times might make it simpler not to eat too much overall.
3) To discover people’s reactions. For me this might be the most interesting part of the prospect of fasting. I’ve discovered that whenever you change your eating patterns from the norm, many people around you suddenly become health experts, certain that you are ruining your life by the minute, and perhaps diagnosing you with anorexia nervosa on the spot. Their sermon usually begins with, “Don’t you know that’s terrible for you!?” followed by a lesson in some popular bro-science. I find this hilarious, and quite revealing of the baselessness of our cultural beliefs about food.
4) To see what else I learn about my habits, my body, and my relationship with food. Quite often the greatest benefits of my experiments are unforeseen; just getting myself to behave differently for a while reveals better ways to do certain things, even if they have nothing to do with my original intentions for the experiment.
First of all, I want to be clear that I’m not recommending anybody else do this. While I don’t believe for a moment that human beings fall to pieces when they deviate from normal eating patterns (just ask your Ramadan-observant friends), the science on I.F. is inconclusive. There are also people who definitely should not be fasting. From what fasting advocates say, I’m an ideal candidate for it: young male with no health problems and a flexible schedule.
This will be a thirty-day trial, in which I will follow what’s sometimes called the “16-8” protocol:
- Consume calories only between 12 noon and 8pm, every day. Work out at the end of your fasting period.
This is actually not a huge adjustment for me, as I seldom eat much in the mornings, and I normally work out at 11:30 am. But having hard edges on my eating period will make it easier to stick to my caloric goals.
I am tracking my weight and caloric intake daily, and calculating my body fat percentage weekly. At the end I’ll report everything. I’m aiming for about 2200 calories per day on average, which represents a slight deficit for me for my size and activity level. I expect and intend to lose a bit of weight. I run three times a week and do moderate strength training two or three times a week, and I walk everywhere, but my line of work (writing) is just about perfectly inactive.