This article was first published in 2014 and updated in January 2021
In the modern world we live caged like battery hens or lab rats.
As part of this, we are protected from predators, from the weather and we are overfed with (often artificial) food.
On balance, this beats starving in a cave during the Ice Age but it has the unfortunate side effect of making us soft.
So maybe its time to toughen up a bit?
One way to achieve this is to lead a more natural life and that means a little more challenge.
The best challenge does not come from working ever longer hours in the office or playing Call of Duty with the difficulty setting turned up. The best challenges come from overcoming natural challenges that our ancestors would have dealt with.
We evolved in challenging natural environments. Imagine living as a hunter gatherer on the African Savannah or as a caveman in France during the Ice Age. Our ancestors needed to solve problems….getting food, building a shelter, finding friends, conceiving and raising children, escaping predators. Evolution rewards the activities and experiences that solve these problems.
So maybe we need to find ways to make life a little bit harder and experiment with making life a little bit more natural. As part of this I realised recently that I had never gone a full day without eating any food (except when ill which doesn’t really count).
This called for the 1 Day Fasting Experiment. So I decided to try eating nothing between going to bed on Friday, skipping all food on Saturday, going to bed and then breaking my fast on Sunday morning.
I got up on Saturday as the sun started to rise (since busting out of the Prison Camp earlier this year, I haven’t needed an alarm clock). I then went out mountain biking with a group of local guys. I think of this a bit like replicating the environment of paleolithic hunting – an early morning start, a group experience, a mix of guys co-operating surrounded by beautiful countryside.
I get a lot from this. I get to hang out with guys who do not all work in Finance or Law, who have normal lives. I get to discover new trails and new aspects to the countryside around where I live, all part of the benefit of living a more local life.
On my return from this, my normal policy would be to reward myself for the exercise with a slap up late breakfast or brunch. But, as this was the day of the Fasting Experiment, I replicated the experience of an unsuccessful hunt and did not eat.
Living as a hunter gatherer would have been an irregular gig with a lot of volatility in the outcomes. Sometimes you would have got lucky and caught an antelope. Othertimes you would have struck out and gone hungry or been forced to eat like Bear Grylls when he’s scraping the bottom of the food chain.
In the brilliant book The New Evolution Diet, Arthur De Vany points out that almost every living creature through history would have gone hungry now and again. So our bodies are highly likely to be well evolved not only to cope with periods of intermittent fasting but maybe to thrive on it?
What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. To use Taleb’s phrase, living creatures are anti-fragile. Antifragility is the opposite of fragility: it means that a certain amount of disorder or variability actually strengthens you.
Volatility in your food intake is just one example of this. It’s more natural (hence probably better for you) to experience some feast and famine rather than always have 3 regular meals a day and a daily intake of 3,000 calories.
People sometimes say that your body is like an engine…you first have to put fuel in for it to work. But if you think about our ancestral environment, we hunted to be able to eat….we did not eat to be able to hunt. Our bodies are infinitely more complex than an engine. They are complex systems with feedback mechanisms honed over millions of years of evolution.
It seems entirely plausible to me that fasting has non-obvious health benefits. De Vany argues that when we experience an environment of food abundance our bodies focus on cell growth. When we experience an environment of food scarcity, signals triggered by hunger tell our cells to focus on repair rather than new growth. So periodic fasting prompts cells to fix themselves and so is a way to slow ageing and maybe avoid some cancers?
According to De Vany, during times of plentiful nutrition, the most effective way for DNA to propagate itself is through reproduction, since there is enough energy out there to support offspring. When there is no excess, DNA is best served by not reproducing….low levels of food (especially carbohydrate) signal that it is in the DNA’s interest to preserve itself through gene repair and cell maintenance.
There’s no need to email telling me that I’m not an expert in nutritional science. I already know that. Here’s the thing: I don’t need to know the scientific detail to understand its possible that fasting could have physical benefits. I just need to understand that evolution is a powerful process and that we are well adapted to the environmental conditions that applied throughout most of our history.
Even though it makes sense that fasting could have physiological benefits, it may be that the mental and emotional benefits of fasting are even more powerful. In a world full of convenience and excess consumption, fasting can be thought of as a spiritual practice. Fasting encourages gratitude when the fast is broken and food is appreciated so much more.
Fasting replicates a more natural world, before shopping malls, convenience food and carbohydrate based profit maximisation. If you can get used to the idea of skipping the odd meal, you will not go to pieces when deprived of food for a few hours. You are then less likely to be a forced buyer of unhealthy convenience foods.
Fasting reminds us that our evolutionary automatic programming can be manually over-ridden. We can use our pre-frontal cortex to override the ancient reptilian parts of our brain that govern greed and the acquisition of food and other “stuff”.
There is a link to personal finance here. It’s not a big leap from being able to go a few hours without the instant gratification of food to being able to resist spending your money on consumer nonsense. If you can rewire your basic factory settings in this way, you will get rich over time.
The fasting experience itself was surprisingly easy. I continued to function just fine – throughout most of Saturday I felt sharp and alert. I drank liquids (tea, coffee, water) which distracted from the feeling of hunger. I went to bed slightly early on the Saturday night (and I slept well) so that the fasting would go on whilst asleep – no willpower required.
Waking up on Sunday morning, I felt good and no hungrier than any other day. Like many things in life, the anticipation of fasting for a full day was much scarier than the actual experience. This is why we should spend more time experimenting.
After my day of “deprivation”, normal service was resumed this morning when I ate like a King, feasting on food delivered direct to my doorstep by the modern economy. If you think about it, this is the height of luxury.
In future, I plan to continue to skip the odd meal once or twice a week and maybe a full day a few times a year. Nothing too drastic or difficult.