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food for thought: my 5-day fasting experience

January 14, 2020

Last Wednesday night, I embarked on a 5-day fast. I currently have less than an hour left of my goal of 120 hours of no food (note that this isn't a pure water fast, as I'm supplementing with lemons, salt, electrolyte pills, some coffee, and LOTS of tea).

One of my biggest takeaways was that pain or discomfort usually codes as a signal of something wrong, in order to catalyze an action to decrease that signal. Fasting allowed me to decouple the ‘signal’ from ‘there is something wrong’. If you have assurance that the pain signal is actually safe, sitting through it provides longitudinal experiential wisdom / transcendence of instinctual reaction AKA practice in 'observing the thinker', similar to the states I experienced through my 10-day silent Vipassana retreat a couple years ago.

The intention behind the fast was to regain discipline into my life and to deeper understand my relationship with food. I tend to be an extremist when it comes to self-experimentation, either by cutting things cold turkey or going through full immersion. I find that this is the best way for me to understand the essence of whatever I'm trying to be able to tap more into nuance / more subtleties of that essence in the future. To test my determination, I put myself through a variety of challenges: attending a potluck, cooking for and sitting through full meals with friends, grocery shopping and basking in smells of the aisle, and even putting food in my mouth but resisting the urge to bite down.

By the 3rd day, I felt like my sense of smell had amplified to 5-10x what my normal baseline was. When I cooked meals for friends while fasting, I found that had an intuition for what exactly needed to be added, and I became a lot more inventive — likely a residual effect of some of my mental capacity operating from a food scarcity standpoint. I experimented with adding ingredients I otherwise wouldn't have added and got surprisingly positive validation, so I plan to explore the idea of a fasting chef: creating new recipes while fasting.

All in all, this fast has made me realize the extent to which food consumption is socially conditioned: there is an overwhelmingly large psychological component vs actual need to eat. It was interesting to observe every dimension of food EXCEPT the consumption part. Diving deeper in the elements of the experience (color / smell / intention) that occur the bite happens resulted in a naturally marked increase in appreciation for food.

After 5 days, I feel like I've achieved a state of mental clarity and productivity that I haven't had in months. Going to a back-to-basics mentality of hunter gatherer days where the body is able to rely on its own energy storages if unable to eat food for days: fasting is shown to stimulate growth hormone by 5x, increase insulin sensitivity, and is related to longevity / recycling old cell components through autophagy.

I'm sold on the benefits and would definitely do this again at some point in the future, so let me know if you have any questions or if you'd like to join through a fasting app!

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Additional food for thought: I also realized that I unintentionally snack for comfort or as a source of reward. Now without food to turn to for comfort, I was able to start addressing problems with more directness and clarity than before. Instead of looking to food as a reward (associated with dopamine release which can trigger addictive behavior), I'm starting to restructure my cost-benefit analysis on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. When making decisions over the last few days, I rationally thought about whether or not I was actually personally invested in outcomes when attending events or when undergoing day-to-day processes - the action itself becomes the reward and leads to more fulfillment from doing the thing vs the byproducts of the thing which may not be 100% related (like presence of food). I am curious whether or not this can be applied across a variety of reward systems like external social validation.