Fasting has long been touted by many religions, but a growing number of people in the SF Bay Area (and the country) are skipping meals for more secular reasons.
What’s old is new again. One of Silicon Valley’s hottest trends is fasting as a means of biohacking — defined as hot-wiring or “engineering” your biology to fast-track success. Biohackers count among their numbers Twitter’s former CEO, Jack Dorsey, and yesteryear-famous YouTube hustle darling Gary Vaynerchuk, both of whom say that restricting calories is a way to attain superhuman levels of focus.
Men like Dorsey and Vaynerchuk use self-inflicted starvation as a tool for checking things off their to-do lists. But at what point does fasting cross over from helpful to harmful? And with that said, is it ever helpful?
I may not be a tech CEO, but fasting is something I know intimately. I, too, have subjected myself to days without food, seduced by the idea that these episodes of starvation will bring physical and mental health benefits. And I also know the self-shaming that comes with having an eating disorder. Like many thirtysomething queer-identifying folk, I’ve felt the pressures of ascribing to a particular physical look.
The fact that others in my family have experienced like-minded struggles only fueled that fire; genetics plays a surprising role in eating and body-image disorders. From wanting to tone certain parts of my body to never feeling perfect enough to find a hookup or a lifelong husband, I’ve been there.
Many researchers and healthy-lifestyle bloggers and vloggers believe that fasting can give you clearer skin, more stable blood-sugar levels, relief from certain digestive alignments, and a heightened sense of thinking more clearly. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the benefits I’ve experienced since fasting somewhat regularly: better sleep, a more relaxed GI tract, and an easier time entering a flow state, among others.
There are also negative effects to fasting — namely, it can lessen the effect of certain prescription drugs, make you “hangry” — which, yes, is a real thing — or leave you light-headed, especially during strenuous workouts.
The decision to fast should be discussed with a trusted medical expert in a no-holds-barred conversation. It’s not worth undergoing any fasting regimen without first seeking qualified, professional medical help, though that in and of itself can be difficult, given the complicated and often problematic ways doctors perceive weight and food intake in their patients.
The notion of fasting for religious reasons has been around for millennia. Plato and Aristotle ascribed a clearing of the body, mind, and spirit to small episodes of non-eating. It’s also a cornerstone of virtually all the world’s major religions, from Buddhism and Taoism to Islam and Hinduism. Even Catholics, as loose as they are with rules around sustenance, abstain from eating mammalian and avian meat on Friday during Lent.
But food restriction as a way of climbing the career ladder is new, made mainstream in the past decade or so. It’s skyrocketed into cultural conversations about food in ways that few other dietary choices — keto, paleo, vegan, and gluten-free — have.
To make things even less digestible, there are many different ways in which one can fast. There’s traditional intermittent fasting, which involves setting an eight-hour window in which to consume an entire day’s worth of calories; there’s the 5:2, whereby you can eat whatever the fuck you want for five days, then devour only 500 calories (less than the 1,000 calories are recommended for a two-year-old child) for two consecutive days; there’s Eat-Stop-Eat, which requires you to fast for one or two non-consecutive days a week; and then there’s full-blown fasting, whereby you can go days, weeks, and — in some extreme cases — up to a month without a single calorie.
For perspective, the U.S. Department of Health recommends 1,600–2,400 calories per day for adult women and 2,000–3,000 calories per day for adult men.
If all of this sounds confusing — or faddish and extreme — you’re not the only one. Even as fasting has exploded into the mainstream, questions remain. There is no long-term research available involving individuals who have subjected themselves to decades-long fasting patterns under medical supervision. People have reported numerous negative side effects from long-term fasting — or even died. Cardiac arrest is often the fatal blow; novices who go on extended fasts forget to replenish electrolytes and salts, causing an imbalance in the body and their hearts to atrophy.
“It’s definitely a slippery slope and triggering. Someone close to [a person struggling with an eating disorder] could unknowingly present a ‘trigger.’ And even these CEOs are touching on them,” Bahrami told me. She also pointed out that the website for the Mayo Clinic, one of the web’s most trafficked sites for medical information, contains virtually nothing about the dangerous overlap between fasting and eating disorders. “What are we doing with our bodies and minds [when we eat like this] in the long term? We really don’t know yet.”
Fasting is inherently doomed to failure, as you have to eventually eat something — anything. “It’s not sustainable for long periods of time,” Bahrami pointed out.
More than eight million Americans have been diagnosed with eating disorders. Still, that number is likely much higher when you consider people who suffer from anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorders may not be able to seek out—or choose to forego—professional treatment. And as part of a worrying trend, those figures appear to be rising annually.
The social pressure to be thin has become even more dangerous, now that it’s trendy for business executives to fast. “Is it really improving us, mentally speaking, if we end up beating ourselves up over eating a banana?” asked Bahrami. “It’s like if all these CEOs can do it, then why can’t I? You can see when and where things could get dicey and put someone’s mental well-being at risk.”
There’s no doubt that each person’s unique journey regarding nourishment and what they put in their body should be respected, especially when there are religious reasons behind that choice. But by no means should peer pressure or societal pressures cause you to sidestep your better judgment.
Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok aren’t the only places where a would-be biohacker could find inspiration for fasting. As an indication of how pervasive the trend is with the tech crowd, Slack communities such as WeFast have thousands of users (4723, as of this writing). Zero, a fasting schedule app that helps users track their fasts and engage with a community of like-minded meal abstainers, has recorded over 40 million fasts on the app.
“[The fasting trend] is running rampant, as far as I can see,” said Bridget Whitlow, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in clients struggling with issues such as eating disorders. “I have a lot of tech clients, and I see this playing out in companies. They have whole Slack channels designated for fitness where fasting can come up, and that idea can snowball through the entire company.”
Could we eventually see suggestions about why one should fast in employee handbooks and introductory reading material? Whitlow and I believe this could happen, especially with CEOs and founders who find fasting appealing. As someone who struggles with his own body image, I can only imagine the dystopian nightmare this would be.
Whitlow pointed out that food is also profoundly gendered — and policed because of gender. “Imagine if Jack Dorsey were a woman doing this,” she said. (Dorsey has admitted that while he was fasting, he “felt like [he] was hallucinating,” GQ reported back in 2019.)
How would extreme fasting be perceived? Spoiler alert: probably not well. At all. Ever. “The media would be alive with people calling ‘her’ guilty of perpetuating unhealthy ideas of body image, making anorexia ‘cool’ — you name it. It’s an incredibly gendered thing too.”
“At the end of the day, I just think [extreme fasting] is toxic,” she continued. “We really need to have a firmer idea on this before it becomes so mainstream.”
I wholeheartedly agree. Before I decided to embark on a new calorie-reduced journey, I spoke to my therapist; I chatted with my inner circle; I brought it up to an old sponsor of mine from my days in Alcoholics Anonymous. Ultimately, you have to set clear self-imposed boundaries and communicate honestly with yourself—and your medical professionals.
No matter what a YouTuber or tech CEO says, you are “crushing it” — fast or no fast.
If you or a loved one is currently experiencing an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association’s hotline at (800) 931–2237 for further help and guidance.