🔒 The wellness benefits and pitfalls of the modern intermittent fast: Howard Chua-Eoan

In this thought-provoking exploration of fasting, Howard Chua-Eoan delves into the evolving perspectives on abstaining from food. From the traditional spiritual roots of fasting to its modern manifestation as a wellness trend, Chua-Eoan discusses the potential health benefits, challenges faced, and the commercialisation of fasting. He shares personal experiences with intermittent fasting, raising questions about the scientific basis of popular fasting ratios. Ultimately, Chua-Eoan reflects on his journey towards weight control, suggesting that while fasting may not be a universal cure, it can empower individuals to reclaim control over their health.

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By Howard Chua-Eoan

For the pious, fasting mortifies the flesh to fortify the soul. For those who profess a secular faith, however, fasting has come to be associated with wellness. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

From lots of recent reports — both breathless and scientific —  fasting has become a tantalizing path to health. Non-religious fasting can range from 24 hours or more without food to intermittent periods of up to 16 hours a day. It supposedly pushes your cells toward autophagy, from Greek for “self-eating” or “self-digesting,” one of the body’s housecleaning functions that rids your system of the junk accumulated. Autophagy may contribute to the prevention of diabetes, dementia and heart, liver and kidney disease; and it’s triggered when your energy levels are depleted — that is, when you’re hungry.

For a couple of years, I’ve practiced intermittent fasting —  roughly 16 hours of no calories, plus an eight-hour window to snack, and consume a large evening meal. Charts are all over the web and social media about the ratio of fasting to feeding each day based on one’s age. The older you are, the more hours you need to fast because autophagy supposedly slows with the years.

Anyway, the 16:8 seemed to work — until a few months ago. That’s when hunger got the better of me. Instead of just dinner toward the end of eight hours, I also front-loaded my eating with a hearty lunch at the very beginning of the “free-to-nosh” period.” The double-ding has expressed itself on my waistline. I was well-fed but worried about the prosperous bulge. I was already walking six to eight miles a day. What else could I do?

There’s little off-the-shelf that will help. Fasting is negative economics: You don’t consume anything. When calories come down, it’s not good for most businesses — maybe except clothes.

Still, there are ways to monetize fasting, commercial shortcuts to buy your way into the body you want. These measures aren’t cosmetic for diabetics and the extremely obese — for whom medical supervision of diets is a matter of life or death — but they are available to those willing to pay to sate their vanity. Ozempic, the diabetes drug, has a doppelganger in Wegovy to  get your weight down. A month’s supply of the once-a-week jabs, however, may cost as much as $3,000, according to some estimates. Bodybuilders pursuing a ripped physique have been known to use a much older diabetes drug — metformin — to help them reduce fat in muscle (60 pills cost around $20). There are substances designed to treat bipolar disorders that can induce autophagy without your having to starve. Depending on the type, bariatric surgery can cost close to $30,000 (or as little as $3,000 if you’re a medical tourist in, say, Turkey).

I’m not ready for Wegovy to take over my life (if you stop, the brain centers that suppress appetite get a reboot to the original you). I avoid surgery if at all possible. As for autophagy inducers, I’d rather starve.

Then, a few weeks ago, the UK’s perpetually slim prime minister, Rishi Sunak, revealed that he begins each week with a 36-hour fast. He said the day-and-a-half of deprivation (beginning 5 p.m. Sunday and ending at 5 a.m. Tuesday) plus exercise allowed him to indulge his sweet tooth the rest of the week. That’s 20-hours longer than the 16 hours that already had me hangry in the morning, when I only have two cups of coffee (no milk, no sugar). Could I do it?

Quick answer: After pushing past 20 hours on three days and collapsing back to 16 on another, I managed to get to 23-½ hours. That record was notched only because I spent most of a Saturday lying in bed, trying to sleep and not think how hungry I was. Cranky and easily triggered by imaginary threats, I wasn’t fit for human companionship. “Why are YOU crowding ME off the stairway?” “Don’t COUGH so CLOSE to ME?” “I’M WALKIN’ HERE!” (I never really shouted these, but they were very loud in my head.)

I had visions of the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno, specifically of Count Ugolino, who had been walled away in Pisa with his four sons by an enemy. Within days, the young men would die of hunger but not before urging their father to eat their flesh to keep himself alive. The famished Ugolino grieved until “fasting did what misery had not done” — the poet’s dreadful presentiment of cannibalizing the dead. Which brought me back to autophagy. You remember, when your cells eat part of themselves. So I did a bit more reading.

The science itself is relatively new: Autophagy in mammals was first observed in the 1950s and its actual mechanism not documented until the 1990s (both milestones led to Nobel prizes  in 1974 and 2016, respectively). Still, advocates of extended and intermittent fasts attribute to autophagy to everything from robust health to improved mental clarity. It may be triggered between 24 and 48 hours in animals deprived of food. However, we don’t know when the process sets in after humans begin fasting — or how much is enough to be effective against illness. It’s still not clear how (or if) it contributes to weight loss.

I now wonder if numbers like 16:8 have as much research behind them as the 10,000-steps-a-day recommendation that originated in Japan. For years, everyone seemed to accept it as a scientific approach to health and weight control only to discover that it was just a big fat number grabbed out of thin air to make the point that you shouldn’t be sedentary.

It also struck me then that increasing my fasting hours was simply giving myself a smaller window of opportunity to eat  — that is, I had less time to consume calories. You can binge on both ends of an eight-hour-long feeding band; but it’s physically harder to gorge the same calories when you only have four hours (or less) to eat. I was doing was an old-fashioned calorie-reduction diet in the shape of a fancy fast.

I won’t say I’ve slimmed down, but I feel less lumpy and am more comfortable in my clothes; and I think that’s enough (sorry, Uniqlo). I’m going to make room for lunch once again — with moderation in mind and aware that too much of a good thing may require me to go into extended fasting mode once more. Perhaps Sunak’s 36-hour fast does have real benefits. But I don’t think I’ll have anyone left to dine with if I actually reach that cranked-up level of caloric deprivation. And I do like eating out, hence the Instagram account proving it. Fasting isn’t the panacea everyone wants it to be. But, with this temporary push, it has helped me retake control of my weight so I can enjoy the restorative benefits of restaurants.

One of the joys of Ramadan, which starts this weekend, is the iftar dinner at the end of the day. The discipline of fasting is solitary and excruciating. But at the end comes the feast, with its revival of society and conviviality, and its reunion of family and friends over food. If you must fast, let a heaven like that be your goal.

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