Fasting is booming. Google Trends shows us that interest in fasting has increased by over 400% since 2004. Both medical experts and self-proclaimed health gurus have jumped on the bandwagon and pretty much all of them praise the benefits of fasting.
If you fast regularly, you will grow older, your insulin response will dramatically improve, your skin and hair will become stronger, you will leverage the power of a metabolic process called autophagy, and, above all, you will lose weight.
Now, fasting in itself is not new. Most notably, fasting has played an important role in many religions for millennia. But the acceptance of fasting as a main stream health hack is a relatively new development.
This, in itself, is a great thing. Obesity plagues much of the western world as we are literally eating ourselves to death. Fasting helps to prevent this. In fact, there are no real health concerns with thoughtful fasting that I know of — apart from the obvious.
The real problem with fasting is in fact cultural.
More, more, more
Much of the western world — the one plagued by obesity — revolves around the concept of more. More equals better. More money is better, more work is better, more cars are better and more Belgian waffles is better.
This drive to always want more plays a key role in the current explosion of cardiovascular disease, cancers and other diet-related deaths. More Belgian waffles equals more fat and carbs, equals overweight. More availability equals around the clock eating, equals — again — overweight and obesity. Add to that bigger portions, all you can eat restaurants, discounts, and coupons, and… you get the picture.
We’ve created a world in which food is so abundant, that fasting is a very logical (and welcome) next step.
But fasting does not address the underlying cause of our obesity problem: the never-ending yearning for more. And that’s why, from the corners of the internet, you can see a new epidemic arising: the epidemic of obsessive fasting.
A thirty-day water fast is pretty extreme. Yet, if you go online, you will find plenty of people doing 10, 20 and 30-day water fasts, if not longer. Surprisingly, hardly any of these people are obese. In fact, some would not even be considered overweight.
In general, prolonged water fasts are a last resort for morbidly obese people. Healthy people should only engage in fasts longer than 36 hours if they wish to fully leverage additional powers of fasting such as autophagy, T-cell production, and apoptosis. Apart from that, it should be done under medical supervision, and the individual should be very aware of what they are doing, and why.
It is very likely that many of these healthy people fasting for days on end have aimed their more-arrows at just another target. They’re not fully aware of the metabolic reasoning behind the longer fasts. Instead, their logic is: “If a 24 hour fast is good for you, a 48 hour fast must be better.” Take that a few steps further, and suddenly you have healthy people water fasting for weeks on end with the only goal being to go longer.
This is a problem because sooner or later there will be cases where prolonged fasts go wrong. Someone will get malnourished or run into other health problems. We only need one case to go badly. And when that happens, every form of fasting will be vilified.
Suddenly, you will have to defend why you follow an intermittent fasting schedule of 16:8 hours, which is perfectly fine in pretty much any case.
Streaks & Records
Another factor contributing to this problem is the rise of fasting apps: smartphone applications designed to help you fast. I, myself, am a happy user of Zero. It’s a great looking, simple app, and it does exactly what you need it to do.
But it does more. With its most recent update, it has incorporated some forms of gamification. You can now go on a streak if you fast
for multiple days in a row, and your fasting history shows an “all-time record”.
These are subtle but very powerful motivators to push people to go further. It challenges you to outdo yourself — fast more this month than last, push a little harder.
With running, or lifting weights, that’s great. With fasting, to go further is not necessarily better. At some point, quite the opposite.
That is why we need experts in this field to address these issues, and we need the makers of applications and tools to be really careful about the messages they send.
Fasting is a fantastic tool for becoming a better, healthier version of yourself. But, just like eating more protein does not endlessly improve how quickly you build muscle, fasting more and longer does not endlessly improve your health.
At some point, more is simply pointless, apart from breaking your own record or adding yet another checkmark to your streak.