If you have not seen a friend or family member for the better part of a decade, the assumption is that, when you do meet, you’ll notice that you’ve both added a pound (or five) for every year of absence. If you did not gain weight in the interim, blunt relatives demand, “How do you stay so thin? You don’t eat?” For a growing number of people taken with the intermittent fasting craze, the short answer is yes, as a matter of fact, that is how they “stay so thin.”
It’s not as though people who are intermittent fasting never eat. It’s just that the new word for skipping meals is “fasting.” In the secular world, intermittent fasting is primarily pursued for health benefits, and those who practice it are often more than willing to share their enthusiasm. What is their eating window? How long was their longest fast? How much more energy do they have? Do they fit in their jeans from high school? You may not have asked, but you are likely to get the answers to these questions and more.
The scientific inquiry into the possible benefits and drawbacks of fasting is available and includes decades of findings. These may not be persuasive for many people, abstract and disembodied as the data are. So much of health is individual, not captured by longitudinal studies of unidentified masses. But after listening to an enthusiast, why would people not be convinced to give intermittent fasting a try?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Sure, it may not work for you, but it has worked remarkably well for the many people who rave about it. People who have struggled for decades to lose weight find a sustainable lifestyle in which they can enjoy food but not lose control. People with migraines and mental fog find relief. What do you have to lose by not eating at regular intervals and seeing what happens?
Many otherwise levelheaded adults think they have a great deal to lose. Their metabolism will be ruined! They will gain fat! They will be hypoglycemic! The maladaptive culture of food in a libertine society of superabundance has convinced people that the normal human condition is to eat every hour on the hour, grazing into a diabetic stupor. This may sound harsh, but we seem blind to the fact that two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. In such a nation, we have managed to convince ourselves that we’ll suffer from the loss of a meal here or there. For most people, that is not true.
For the individual, it can seem that steadily gaining weight throughout life and veering toward an early grave is the only way. Fasting is a choice that demonstrates reality. People who fast regularly show that we do not have to continue down the path of least resistance.
In order to succeed in fasting, no one should be foolish enough to embark on a 72-hour fast during which he feels faint and ends up gorging on pizza and donuts, wallowing in a sea of shame, self-loathing, and general emotional dysregulation. Such a path is emblematic of the “diet culture” that the fat acceptance movement rails against. This is the idiocy that people point to when they proclaim with finality, “Diets don’t work.”
Instead, one should follow the advice of a great many people who have successfully modified their lifestyles. The advice is so often the same: start small. Fasting can begin with the act of refraining from food after dinner. Simply eliminating a bedtime snack tracks a different course from the norm in a nation with a gluttonous excess of food. If someone can consistently refuse the bedtime snack, that habit becomes part of who he is. There is no longer need for a decision each evening: Do I dive into a pint of ice cream or eat a carrot stick? Or, the more likely scenario: Do I consume all the carrot sticks, remain dissatisfied, and then consume the better part of a pint of ice cream? For the person who is fasting regularly, with practice, there is no longer need for a decision.
And herein lies the excellence of fasting: simplicity. Instead of constantly deciding between the array of perpetually available foods, some nourishing, some toxic, people can rediscover hunger and its purpose. Fasting can be a way of ordering our relationship with food. Through the practice of intermittent fasting, people can discover the spiritual heritage of fasting. As Suzan Sammons observed:
I’ve now come to better understand the spiritual giants who lived a life of fasting, like St. Anthony of the Desert. I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult for him, but I don’t think he felt crappy like I used to. I imagine he felt free, more like I do now. Leveraged properly, fasting can break your over-reliance on food. For someone like me who used to be afraid not to eat breakfast, it is truly freeing to know that I do not need to eat.
How encouraging that, absent significant external motivation in a society increasingly celebratory of ill health, the human spirit rebels. People of all walks of life are rediscovering the wisdom of fasting and feasting, rhythms in the days and year.
Where is the Church? It seems unthinkable that an article about fasting should address the cultural phenomenon and only as an afterthought address the spiritual dimension. However, given the current milquetoast guidelines set forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it’s no wonder that the faithful Catholic is more likely to discover fasting in the local health food store or chiropractor’s office than in living the liturgical year with Mother Church.
The silliness of trying to parse exactly what constitutes “one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal” really pulls the rug out from under serious Catholics trying to mortify the flesh and focus on the really real. For some, the minimum fasting requirement is a way to eat just enough to be dissatisfied and obsessive about food for the whole day. As so many people are finding, there is a better way.
No one will force you to fast. The Church has been excused from this function in the United States. If you are pregnant or nursing, hypoglycemic or infirm, if fasting makes you tetchy and unlikeable: don’t. But it remains a lifestyle worth trying, part of the wisdom of the ages from which we have severed ourselves in so many areas of communal life. Fasting is not a golden ticket to Heaven, and losing weight is not guaranteed, though if practiced consistently you probably will. For the disgruntled activist who made it this far, let us be explicit: being thin is not synonymous with being holy.
If, God forbid, the rumbles about food shortages pan out, intermittent fasting becomes compulsory. Exercise freedom while it lasts and try intermittent fasting today. As others have wisely advised: start small. But start now.
[Image Credit: Unsplash]