Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Fast Life

The cellist and I have started our own experiment in intermittent fasting.

The television presentation by Michael Mosley explored the benefits of various calorie restriction methods. Straight-up calorie restriction, in which a subject eats about half as much as the rest of us consider normal, has supposedly been linked to serious increases in life span. Is it really longer, or does it just seem longer?

The rationale behind calorie restriction is basically that nutrient utilization is an oxidative process that stresses the body if you respond to every hunger pang. Oxidation bad! If you eat less you burn less and your system lasts longer.

As creatures that evolved with a fairly constant hunger that stimulated a constant search for something to eat, humans are hard-wired to seek food. In a developed nation most of us can satisfy every craving the instant we feel it. Our brains feel reassured but our bodies have to deal with the embarrassment of riches. We have invented enticing, calorie-rich foods that move quickly from the stomach to make room for more enticing, calorie-rich foods. Our blood sugar bunjie-jumps while the calories we can't possibly burn go into the body's savings account. You carry that balance with you all the time, even if the deposits aren't obvious.

Mosley's television series explored the difference between visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. Mosley himself did not look particularly blobby, but had accumulated a great deal of fat around his organs. Research seem to indicate that this fat has the more dire effect on your body.

Because I spend the winter turning into a pudgy hypochondriac instead of getting out for healthy exercise several days a week, and the cellist lives a quintessentially American lifestyle involving lot so of driving and no built-in, regularly scheduled need for exertion we were particularly susceptible to Mosley's presentation.

According to Mosley, the intermittent fasting regime offers many -- perhaps even most -- of the metabolic benefits of calorie restriction while still allowing the participant to eat freely on five out of seven days.

On fast days a male is supposed to eat a maximum of 600 calories. A woman is allowed 500. So it isn't complete abstinence from food. It's roughly a quarter of the basal metabolic rate for an average person of each gender. Mosley's website and book provide hints and recommendations for what to eat and when, but the system offers a lot of flexibility for individuals to discover what works for them.

As Snickers advertisements will tell you, hunger can effect your personality. No one said it was trouble-free.

When you eat more or less free-range on five days, the fast days become events. They are distinct objectives with a limited time span. They are not supposed to be consecutive days, so beyond each of them lies your comfortable normality.

You still need to exercise. In bike commuting season my lifestyle still works. It's only the loss of skiing that makes the winter such a time of deterioration. I have not yet developed really effective substitute activities for winter. As the bike season gets off to a slow, irregular start I'm pretty sure I have not lost much weight, if any. But I'm establishing the eating pattern.

Fasting makes you spend time in your hunger. After 150-200 calories of oatmeal for breakfast burns off around lunchtime the afternoon stretches a long way in front of you. But hunger is not constant. And you can distract yourself with interesting projects. You can become a connoisseur of your appetite. "How hungry am I?" It's good to know hunger when you don't have to, to remind you of the people who have no choice.

You have to have a sense of humor so you don't give way to irritability. But this makes you more mindful in your execution of daily routines.

It helps that the cellist and I are doing it together. We can talk about it, joke about it and know that we're both in this together.

Eating a carefully-selected 300 calories in the morning leaves an equal amount available for an early-evening micro-meal of equally carefully-selected foods to complete the day's allowance. Black coffee and unsweetened tea don't count against your calorie allowance. Hydrate a lot. The cellist makes a savory broth that tastes like food, but contains less than ten calories eight-ounce serving. That makes a nice nightcap before going to bed to look forward to breakfast the next day.

I thought I would wake up before dawn like a kid on Christmas and head out to the kitchen to chow down on everything I could find, but this has not been the case on our three fast days so far. I am almost reluctant to eat that first uncalculated meal, though I still shove my nose in a beaker of coffee with the usual zeal. The fast days are so much work that I am loath to negate their value by sucking down crap when it's fair game. In this way the discipline of fasting, sustainable only by someone who likes a physical challenge, reinforces what would ordinarily be a somewhat weak will when it comes to snacking and sweets. Sure, I would ramp back up if I went too long before the next fast, but the longest interval is three days. That significantly reduces the sugary grazing.

It's not for everyone. We'll see if it continues to appeal to me. So far it's interesting.