When Jack Dorsey announced on Twitter a while back that he sometimes doesn't eat for days, healthy eating advocates responded with a howl of outrage. But even though Dorsey's routine may be extreme, he's certainly not alone in his fascination with "intermittent fasting."
"Eating is so last season"
According to its many Silicon Valley backers, fasting isn't just a new trendy take on the good, old diet (or anorexia in disguise). It's a science-backed way to promote increased health and productivity.
"Eating is so last season; these days all the cool kids fast," joked Arwa Mahdawi in a UK Guardian article chronicling the newfound obsession with not eating in Silicon Valley "where a number of high-profile tech execs extol the transformative power of extreme fasting." The Atlantic has also covered the tech industry's obsession with the idea.
The claims of fasting fans aren't entirely baseless. Years of research have shown that calorie restriction increases longevity in animals, and as The Atlantic notes, "although scientific research on it is still preliminary, early studies suggest it might help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes."
But while intermittent fasting may be worth a try, just about no one has a good word to say about Dorsey's extreme approach. What is the right way to experiment with the idea if you think it might help give you an edge? A long interview with a leading researcher in the field, Satchin Panda of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, on the TED Ideas blog offered a refreshingly straight-forward answer.
Just shorten your eating window
The long article digs deep into the evolving science of when you eat and the surprising effects of meal timing on the body. "Food at the right time can nurture us, and healthy food at the wrong time can be junk food," Panda says. If you're interested in the details, the whole piece is well worth a read, but if you're just looking for the nuts and bolts of how to put the research to use, here's Pandas essential advice: Shorten your eating window.
What does that mean? Essentially, choose a 10-to-12-hour period in the day in which you'll do all your eating. Ideally, the rest of the time you'll have nothing but water (though, if you must cheat, black coffee is the way to go). The exact hours are up to you, but Panda suggests you don't start shoving food into your mouth the second you wake up.
"Panda recommends that you wait to eat breakfast until you've been awake for a couple of hours," the article explains. "About 45 minutes after you wake up, the hormone cortisol spikes and high cortisol levels can impede your glucose regulation. Plus, the hormone melatonin, which prepares our body for sleep, only wears off about two hours after waking. This means that, for those first two hours, your pancreas, which produces the insulin needed to use carbohydrates in food, is also just waking up." Avoid eating two to three hours before bed as well.
Panda is careful to note this isn't a miracle weight-loss regime. You might lose a few pounds, but the goal should be healthier functioning, not fitting into your old jeans. But while results may be modest and the science developing, unlike Dorsey's insane routine, Panda's approach will at least do no harm. It might even do you significant good.
And trying it out is easy. "Many people don't have the time or resources to count calories -- planning their meals, buying certain foods, tracking their calories," notes TED. "Time-restricted eating can be done by anyone."
So if you're interested in trying out Silicon Valley's latest biohacking trend, at least follow this simple medical advice to do it safely, easily, and with the highest chances of actually benefiting your health and focus.