Why Fasting—Intermittent or Otherwise—Will Destroy You

It was not a typical Sunday, the day I first learned to hate chewing gum. For as long as I could remember my parents went without breakfast and lunch for the first Sunday of every month, sometimes also without dinner the night before. It was part of their religious practice, and I never gave it much thought because it didn’t have much influence on my life, until the day they asked me to join them. “Nathan,” my Mom said the night before, “we think you’re old enough to start fasting with us, so don’t eat or drink anything tomorrow until we have dinner.”

My parents were Mormon, and so I was raised, without my consent, in the same wacky religion. Moms and Dads usually go out of their way to make sure their children are fed, not always because it’s the responsible thing to do but sometimes just to avoid the impending emotional apocalypse which would otherwise occur. Going without food on purpose was no small request for a twelve-year old, and I really didn’t want to fast. But future gay boy that I was, pleasing my parents became a higher priority than it might for others who aren’t afraid of being cast out from their families, so as usual I did as I was instructed.

In the late afternoon during a long and arduous religious service my stomach began turning itself inside-out, as if an alien baby had been laid inside me and would soon burst forth. My head was spinning and it felt like I was going to faint. Eyeing the baggie of Cheerios two of my toddler sisters enjoyed in ignorant bliss, I whispered to my Mother about my tortured condition. Wordlessly she reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of gum and handed it over. Disappointed, I put it in my mouth anyway since at that point I would have eaten a Hymn book. The gum only took the edge off my hunger, so I sat patiently, dreaming of the roast that was in the oven which would both greet and taunt me when we arrived home later that afternoon.

This scenario repeated every first Sunday of every month for the rest of my childhood, and the hunger was so bad at times I literally felt the urge to vomit and would have done so if there was anything in my stomach to actually vomit. For a long time I honestly strove to understand the point of fasting and to receive the promised benefits of doing it, but after years of the same thing over and over without any worthwhile result, and desperate for food but afraid of incurring the wrath of my unreasonable parents, I began trying to sneak clandestine bites of leftovers or a quick swig of milk here and there when the pain was too unbearable. This was impossible to do in a house crammed with eight people, and a few times when I felt like I was going to pass-out from hunger I even resorted to eating toothpaste.

One such fast Sunday when I was a few years older I asked my Mother again for a stick of gum to abate my misery. This time the gum did not have the desired effect, and my body immediately called my bluff and suddenly I was in the bathroom dry-retching over the toilet. Giving up on my fast I drank enough water to settle my stomach. To this day the mere thought of gum makes me nauseous.

Fasting has a long history of purported health benefits, and people starve themselves for all sorts of reasons — faith, fitness, vanity, or even to help with certain diseases. When I was a young adult I began using starvation as part of my arsenal of fitness strategies in order to try to lose the weight that so persistently pursued me, and even though I was a competitive swimmer and engaged in dedicated fitness regimens including yoga, weight lifting, and even fitness bootcamps, eventually found that dieting and exercise alone were not enough to achieve my desired fitness results. At thirty I discovered the eat-stop-eat approach as developed by Brad Pilon. Because of my indoctrination as a child to the evils of food it didn’t take much to convince me to try it and that soon I would have my greatest physique ever.

How wrong I was.

After trying eat-stop-eat for just a week my body, already under great stress from my many years of over-exercise and under-eating, entirely stopped responding to calorie deprivation and portion control, and for the next few years no matter how hard or frequent my workouts or how how few calories I ate my weight began to steadily climb. At the age of thirty-two I was desperate, and tried a diet recommended by a nurse practitioner from an established weight-loss clinic out in Palm Springs, California where I was told to only eat protein for a week and slowly introduce the lowest carbohydrate carbohydrates available. Just as happened when I was a child my body rebelled, only this time it just gave up, and health problems like insomnia, hair loss, depression, and weight gain which had been relative nuisances became debilitating, until finally I was diagnosed with cancer and nearly died.

There is a long story about my recovery and return to health in my book Fuck Portion Control, but in the end I came to understand the fallacy in fasting and how it destroys the body, ruins the metabolism, and robs us of other bodily functions such as the ability to grow hair or get an erection and sets the stage for the development of serious diseases like cancer and hastening death. Most proponents of fasting for fitness believe, for some inexplicable reason, that starvation consumes only fat, or probably just promote it that way. This is so far from the way the body actually works it’s amazing to see intelligent and well meaning people fail to recognize the dangers inherent in fasting. Because of our mammalian biology our body needs a constant supply of nutrients in order to run the systems which support and maintain life, nevermind vitality. When supplies of nutrients stop our body falls into backup modes of life support that both lower the metabolic rate and consume its own tissues in order to prevent death. This is why we don’t immediately die when we starve, but it’s also why every person who starves for an extended period of time, such as Holocaust victims kept in prisons without access to food, become walking skeletons. The same thing happens to our own bodies every time we go without food and ignore the hunger impulse, which is not a challenge to our self-determination but a warning that dangerous things are happening within the body, urging you to make better choices. That is the point of pain — to alarm you to impending doom and prevent our demise as living organisms. The phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is total bullshit when it comes to the physical body. What doesn’t kill you destroys your thyroid, your kidneys, and even your brain function, and then it will kill you. Take for instance that the brain is the most metabolically active organ in our entire body. What do you think will happen to it when you are repeatedly starved of nutrients?

The fallacy behind fasting is made worse by the example of idealized, young, healthy men who fast and experience weight loss then plaster Instagram with their “results,” put forth then as evidence that fasting works. Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate those photos, but the stress method of weight loss only works for young, healthy people (and typically only men) who still have well functioning systems and hormones, and some life histories, including the health of your parents when you were conceived, make each of us more or less resistance to the effects of such stress in varying degrees. But even for those who are resistant to the harmful effects of fasting it still comes with consequences that cannot be avoided by just mixing up your pattern of starvation, consequences that aren’t photographed for Instagram which at first are things like insomnia, depression, anxiety, and loss of libido, and boys and girls are left wondering why they have these problems because nobody told them that fasting comes with consequences. Because fasting damages organs and triggers such a visceral stress response, more and more stress is needed to achieve the same results in the future, a solution which is ultimately unsustainable and ultimately fails. A few years after those pictures are posted worse things will begin happening like feeling suicidal or experiencing premature hair loss, then eventually more serious diseases like neurological disorders, cardiovascular failures, and even cancer just as I experienced, because the body has been put in a position where it must always battle against stress with an insufficiency of nutrients rather than thriving with plenty, on top of dealing with every other environmental challenge with which it is already burdened. You didn’t need to fast a teenager to be lean and healthy, and you don’t and shouldn’t as an adult. Fasting merely serves to break down organs and destroy the body. Take each course of action to extreme and you see the result of it. Starvation only has one eventual outcome. Women have long known that fasting has a different effect for them, even if they keep fasting and keep getting fatter, because women’s bodies are a lot more resistant to stress than Men’s, which is why they live longer but also why fasting doesn’t work to help them stay lean but rather promotes weight gain. This is further evidence of the deleterious effects on the human body when going without food, and even if you’re young and healthy, fasting is only going to bring you the opposite of what you really want, which is to thrive.

Of course there are better ways to get in shape and be healthy, and this involves eating in a way that supports human physiology and minimizes stress. For instance, lowering stress hormones through a healthy and consistent diet makes muscle retention effortless, so very little work is needed to build large amounts of muscle and none to retain it. Health and fitness is much easier than what you’ve probably been doing, and I had to find out the hard way. And you can read my story about falling through the depths of disease and how I achieved a return to health and wellness while enjoying a leisurely, almost hedonistic lifestyle in my book Fuck Portion Control.