I Fast, Therefore I Am

Why intermittent fasting may be the perfect philosopher's diet.

Posted Sep 01, 2019

Courtesy of Liz Swan. Used with permission.
Source: Courtesy of Liz Swan. Used with permission.

Most readers will have heard something about intermittent fasting (IF) by now. The fad came across my radar a few months ago when a friend mentioned she was trying the 16-8 diet with some co-workers. But when I learned the “16” part referred to 16 hours without eating, I lost interest.

I’ve never been a big eater (most restaurant entrées are daunting to me), but I’m a frequent eater, a lifelong grazer of snacks and drinks throughout the day and into the night to keep up with my active lifestyle and peppy metabolism.

I got curious about IF, though, and started to read. Most of us think of diets as methods for losing weight. Many diets go beyond weight loss to the bigger picture of living healthier. While IF is helpful for both losing weight and being healthier overall, the biggest insight for me was that it’s fundamentally about giving your organs a break and giving your body a chance to burn the fat it’s stored but not used, because it always had calories at the ready from almost-around-the-clock calorie intake.

I had always believed it was healthy to eat frequent, small meals to keep your metabolism going. But it turns out it’s healthy to give all the systems involved in metabolism a break because when they have a chance to rest, they can repair themselves and even ward off possible maladies. A lightbulb went on.

So I gave it a try. I realized I can go 12 hours without food easily: no snacking after 9 p.m. and no breakfast until 9 a.m. the next morning. So I got curious. Could I go for 14 hours?

I found that, too, was fairly do-able. It’s a matter of shifting your routine and your focus. I’ve gotten used to coffee and water and getting to work instead of breakfast right away... And man does breakfast taste good after 14 hours of fasting!

I found, too, that I wasn’t dragging as expected. I was energized, almost like I was on a caffeine high, all morning long without food. Then it hit me: Is IF the perfect philosopher’s diet? Perhaps!

1. Philosophers love self-discipline and routines. It is said that the townspeople where the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant lived could set their watches by his daily afternoon walk. And while all diets take discipline, a daily routine is extremely important in IF; you need to stick to a 16-8 (or 14-10; or even 12-12 daily routine).

2. You can have a cup of coffee with half-and-half in the morning. This one was a game-changer for me. Coffee got me through many a philosophy class in college and helped me finish my dissertation in graduate school. I am completely in love with my coffee and half-and-half routine in the morning and really didn’t know what to do about this one.

But not only are you encouraged to drink tons of water, seltzer, and herbal tea to stay hydrated during your fasting period, it’s also fine to have a cup of coffee with (twoish tablespoons of) half-and-half, because, according to IF experts, as long as you stay under 50 calories, your body stays in fasting mode.

3. You can still drink wine! And what good is a philosophy session without red wine?!

Alcohol is okay with IF as long as you limit it to during your eating window, which discourages late-night drinking—college students beware! The ancient Greeks probably weren’t hip to sequestering their wine drinking to any specified schedule, let alone IF, but their average lifespan was also 35 years (yikes!).

4. You can eat what you want (for the most part). Experts stress that it is not about what you eat, but when you eat.

Fast food, processed foods, and excessive alcohol are never a good idea when you’re aiming for a healthy lifestyle, but if you eat pretty healthy already, you’re golden; you don’t need to count calories or avoid croissants or deny yourself sugar. Like a good philosopher, you can think for yourself and not try to follow someone else’s fat/sugar/carbs whim diet.

5. Intermittent fasting is reported to increase mental acuity, which is great for philosophizing and thinking "Big Thoughts."

I’ve been playing around with intermittent fasting for a few weeks now and am enjoying the results. First, the physical: While I’m exactly the same weight (and have been since high school), my body feels leaner in clothes, because IF helps you burn fat while not losing muscle. My "healthy weight" BMI of 21 can look very different depending on my current fat/muscle ratio.

And the mental: I love it! I do feel more energized and alert during the day, and I sleep more deeply at night. Plus, on a philosophical level, I love the idea of giving my organs a break to rest and repair instead of keeping them constantly chugging along.

In addition to lots of coffee, naps got me through graduate school. Aristotle loved napping too, so I feel I’m in good company. It’s been interesting to awaken to the wisdom of letting the body "nap" too.