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21 Dec 2020

The experiment – Classes ended for me last Monday, and with all of my initial PhD dissertation and MA thesis committee duties taken care of, I finally have a little breathing room. I’ll have a post coming up before the end of the year looking back on the semester and 2020 in general, but I want to write today about a little experiment I’ve been conducting for the past two months and change.

“I can’t imagine ever wanting to go back to the way things used to be.”

This experiment is intermittent fasting, or time-restricted eating. If you’re not familiar with the concept, the idea is that you squeeze your calorie consumption into a smaller period of time and have longer periods of fasting in between. One of the many reasons why people do this is to lose weight—by increasing the normal fasting period (that is, overnight), you increase the time that your body is burning fat—but that was not why I decided to do it. Actually, the final push came when HJ said she wanted to give it a try, but it was something that I had always thought of doing.

To explain my motivation, we need to go back to my life before the experiment. I am the type of person who finds comfort in routine. This is not to say that I don’t like to experience new things, of course, but in general I find it easier to deal with the unexpected stresses of life that crop up throughout the day when I know that I can rely on a solid routine for the smaller things. One of the areas where I tend to stick to routines is in meals; prior to the experiment, I would have a bowl of oatmeal, a piece of fruit, and a cup of black tea for breakfast, followed by a salad for lunch. The problem is that I ended up being ravenously hungry by about eleven or so, and I would eat lunch at half past eleven because I couldn’t wait any longer.

It might seem a bit odd that my solution to being hungry before lunch would be to eat nothing at all, but it made sense to me. I had experience with fasting and knew that I didn’t have a problem with it once I got over the initial hunger hump. On the extreme end, when I was in university I once didn’t eat anything for four days straight and was completely fine. (I’m not recommending doing this, of course. It wasn’t a planned or systematic fast, I just stopped eating one day and didn’t start again until my friends convinced that it would be a good idea to do so.)

I also know from experience that eating a small amount is more difficult for me than not eating anything at all. Back in 2017, HJ decided she wanted to try a “fruit cleanse,” which involved eating one type of fruit for each meal. The idea was that you could eat as much as you want, but it could only be that single type of fruit. A medium-sized (roughly 180 grams) apple has about a hundred calories; I don’t know about you, but I can only manage about two apples in one sitting. Bananas are a better choice for calories, but I still can’t eat much more than two at once. The bottom line is that I was getting 200-300 calories per meal, and I was starving all the time. This made me miserable and irritable, and it made life miserable for everyone around me, so after a day I gave up.

Back to my original breakfast diet for a moment—a half cup (40 grams dry) of oatmeal boiled with water and then with milk added after, plus a piece of fruit. That’s not many more calories than the fruit cleanse. It also suffers from another issue that the fruit cleanse has, namely that it is almost entirely carbohydrates. This leads to spikes in blood sugar followed by crashes, meaning that I got hungry very suddenly. I could have remedied this by adding some protein and/or fat to my breakfast (the whole milk did add some fat, but I could have used some more), but when HJ suggested the intermittent fasting, I figured this was an opportunity to mix things up.

There are different ways of intermittent fasting, or time-restricted eating. One way is to eat normally for five days of the week and then fast for two. This seemed a little extreme. More appealing to us was the 16:8 schedule, meaning that all of our eating during the day would happen in an eight-hour window, and the remaining sixteen hours would be fasting. This did not require too much of an adjustment to our schedule. We do not generally eat after dinner (which we normally eat at seven), so basically it meant that we would be skipping breakfast.

Prior to the experiment, I was pretty confident that I could do it, but I did wonder how it would affect my energy levels, especially on days when I had morning classes. I also generally do light exercises in the morning, and I wondered how not eating anything would affect that. There was only one way to find out, though, so on the first Monday of October we skipped breakfast. I did have my black tea (taken straight, as I usually do in the morning), as that is a morning ritual of mine and it is nice to have something warm at any rate. I had also done the research and knew that tea would not break my fast. I did feel some stomach rumbles on that first day, but I did not feel especially hungry throughout the morning. I did not have any issue with energy levels during my morning exercises or my morning class. I did feel some hunger as noon approached, but it was definitely much less than usual (that is, after my typical breakfast).

I kept a fairly detailed journal of my experience over the next seventy-five days, only stopping a few days ago when I realized that I was doing it out of habit and not really getting any new information. So I think I can give a fairly comprehensive analysis of the experiment to date. In terms of hunger levels, my hunger ranged from “none” to “moderate,” depending on the day. There are a few important things to note in addition to the hunger levels themselves. For one, I generally knew within an hour of waking up how hungry I was going to be that morning. That is, once my body figured out how hungry it was, my hunger levels did not rise all that much, and they would often go down instead. Secondly, even at “moderate” levels, the hunger was fairly easy to ignore. This was something that I realized very early on in the experiment: that it’s OK to be hungry. That may sound like a silly thing to have realized, but I had always thought of hunger as a problem to be solved. Once I had committed to not eating breakfast, though, ruling out my usual solution (of eating), I came to understand that it was just my body talking to me, and that I could in fact ignore it for a while with no ill effects. It might be a slight exaggeration to say that this realization was “life-changing,” but it certainly was liberating. Finally, it is important to note that no matter how hungry I got, it was never as bad as it had been on a daily basis when I was eating breakfast.

In terms of energy levels, I can’t say that I was at one hundred percent energy every day, but I also suspect that didn’t have much to do with my eating. There are quite a few factors that might affect my energy levels, including how well I slept the night before (and after a little while I started adding information on my sleep patterns to my journal). Taking all the data into account, I can say pretty confidently that I did not suffer any drops in energy level due to not eating in the morning. More importantly, and in line with what I wrote about hunger above, my energy levels were stable throughout the day. In my pre-experiment life, I would generally be fine until about eleven, shortly after which I would just crash. Although I don’t know if I necessarily had more energy in the morning after starting the experiment, I did not have to deal with the crashes, and I felt fine throughout the day. This combination of hunger and energy data tells me that the experiment was successful in controlling my blood sugar levels, which was my primary goal.

Of course, the physical aspect was not the only thing I had to worry about. To be honest, the psychological adjustment was probably more difficult to make than the physical adjustment, which I made pretty much immediately. But going from eating breakfast every morning to not eating breakfast every morning has a significant psychological effect, or at least it did for me. Being a person of habit and ritual, it felt like something was missing. Continuing to have my cup of tea was very important in this regard, I think, as I began to think of that as “breakfast” even though it very much isn’t. That is, it is not breakfast in terms of nutrition, but it replaced breakfast as a ritual.

There are other psychological elements as well, namely missing eating breakfast foods. Both HJ and I dealt with this, and in the morning we sometimes talked about stacks of pancakes, fried eggs and sausage, or thick french toast. It wasn’t because we were hungry, and talking about these foods didn’t make us hungry. But eating is much more than just consuming calories to survive, and it is more than engaging in a ritual—it is also a form of pleasure and comfort. And breakfast foods for some reason seem to be particularly comforting. We quickly realized, though, that not eating breakfast did not mean we necessarily had to give up breakfast foods. Turns out there is no law that says you can’t have breakfast foods whenever you want (although if for some reason you are a young child reading this, please talk to your parents to see what local laws and restrictions may apply where you live). So, on weekends, when both of us are home at the lunch hour, I will often make whatever breakfast foods we might be craving. That’s what we did this past weekend, taking advantage of a sour-cream-and-oat bread that I had made and adding eggs and breakfast meats to that.

So, in the end, it didn’t really feel like we were giving up much of anything, and there were other benefits besides the general health improvements; I tend to be a relatively slow eater, and not eating breakfast meant that I had significantly more time in the morning. This was great because it meant that I didn’t have to rush (which I hate doing in the morning), and that in turn led to another health benefit. I mentioned above that I do light exercises in the morning, but in the past I often skipped those exercises on days when I was running late or just feeling lazy. With this new-found extra time I was always able to get my exercises in, except for the occasional day when I wasn’t feeling well (and I did still have those days, of course).

This was not all there was to the experiment, though. My morning exercises mostly consist of stretching along with planking, crunches, and push-ups, but I also used to (and we’re talking years ago) add HIIT to the mix for some efficient cardio. HIIT stands for “high-intensity interval training” and involves short, very intense periods of exercise in between longer recovery periods. My HIIT regimen was a simple one, using a stationary bike and a 5:1 ratio of recovery to exercise. This basically means I pedal as fast as I can for fifteen seconds and then pedal at a much more leisurely pace for seventy-five seconds to recover. With a warm-up of ninety seconds to start, this means that three repetitions only takes six minutes total, so it was never really a matter of finding the time to do it. It was more a matter of having the willpower to get back into the habit. I figured that since I was changing my behavior in the morning anyway and getting back into regular exercising, it was a good opportunity to get back into HIIT as well.

I did not immediately introduce HIIT to my exercise routine when I started the experiment because I wasn’t sure how it would affect me when I wasn’t eating breakfast. I waited a full month, and on the first Monday of November I introduced two HIIT reps at the end of my exercise routine. With the exception of a little burning in my thighs (due to getting on an exercise bike for the first time in years), I felt fine, and I didn’t feel any hungrier in the morning. I continued doing two reps for that first week of November, and on the following Monday I started doing three reps and have been doing so ever since. HIIT is also supposed to be good for regulating blood sugar levels, and with HIIT in my routine I have indeed felt better in that regard. I haven’t gotten tested or anything like that since I started the experiment, but as I mentioned above crashes are a thing of the past, and I rarely feel anything beyond moderate hunger. Gone are the days when I was so hungry that I transformed into a grouchy, irritable monster. Even though I don’t have any hard medical data, just feeling better is enough for me to call this experiment a success. I can’t imagine ever wanting to go back to the way things used to be.

Now, there is one caveat that I need to add here. I’ve mostly been talking about how the experiment has changed my routine in the morning. This is, of course, because that’s where most of the change has occurred. But intermittent fasting isn’t just about not eating breakfast—it’s also about finishing dinner by a certain time and not eating anything after that. I glossed over this above by saying that we do not generally eat after dinner, and that is true. We are not the type of people who snack at night. That being said, every now and then we might go out for dinner and drinks, or have friends over for the same. In those situations, it is very easy to continue consuming calories late into the night. We haven’t had to worry about that recently because we haven’t been going out and we haven’t been having people over; in other words, the pandemic has made it easier for us to regulate our eating schedule. But what happens when this thing does eventually end and we go back to having a social life? I suppose it’s not the end of the world if we stray from the schedule every now and then, but once I have a regimen going, I like to stick to it. Maybe when it’s just the two of us going out, we can make sure that we go out earlier so that we finish eating earlier. And then on the relatively rare occasion when we have friends over or go to visit friends, we can let things slide a little. What I’m most worried about is department functions. I’ve gotten used to not having to attend drinking sessions, and I can see things getting annoying if a return to some semblance of normality means a return to unwanted drinking sessions.

But I will cross that bridge when I come to it, I suppose. For the time being, I can say that the experiment has been even more successful than I thought it was going to be, and I feel healthier than I’ve felt in a long while. I am not getting any younger, after all, so the sooner I get on top of things the better. That’s one good thing, at least, that has come out of this “pandemic living.”

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