When do you Eat?
Humans have such an interesting relationship with food. Compared to other creatures, we’ve gone way beyond our fundamental needs for intake, and moved into developing foods that actually can’t even be considered food. In addition to that, and because of the ease and accessibility with which we’ve come to obtain and store our foods, we have drastically changed ‘when’ we choose to eat.
We might start consuming a minute after waking. We may even take food into our bed at night. This has created a unique, and some would say unhealthy relationship between food and humans. It takes us away from our fundamental and biological need for sustenance, and moves into other areas in which we eat out of boredom, to fix a negative feeling, or because we ‘think’ we’re hungry. It’s also simply led us to lead less healthy lives.
A really effective way to gain perspective on our relationship with food, is to compare oneself with a human of the past that would practice a hunter/gatherer type of lifestyle. It’s the original and pure archetype that we’ve evolved from. We have of course, become much more efficient, much more secure, and we’ve improved in so many ways. That can’t be overstated. And there are technological developments around food that have created immense growth and improved health for humans. In fact, there are many shortcuts (hacks), supplements, and other methods that people can employ to maintain a healthy diet. But the practices of the past have a lot to offer too…and shouldn’t be forgotten.
Let’s consider how a hunter-gatherer might have lived thousands of years ago. They would wake up with the sun in the morning… without a full pantry and refrigerator. And before they discovered effective methods for storing food (salts, cooling), it was very difficult to save food day to day. That meant going out each day and foraging for edible plants. It meant fishing, or hunting down an animal. And hopefully, by the afternoon, it meant returning to the village with a meal for the family or community. This means that for the most part, these people weren’t eating a morning meal of breakfast, and that they sometimes wouldn’t eat a thing until the afternoon or evening.
Growing up in today’s society…you might hear the phrase, ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’…and of course, that argument can be made. However, learning from our primal roots and ancestors, we can gain a very healthy, alternative lifestyle with an approach that I’d agree with, and instead suggests that ‘breakfast is the meal that should be skipped…most days.’
By skipping breakfast (and you’ve probably noticed how the word is made up of ‘break’ and ‘fast’) we can prolong our ‘fasting’ (or not eating) period, and therefore restrict the time during which we are eating and consequently digesting. This is referred to as Time Restricted Eating. Instead of eating at say 8am, you can wait until noon. Another way to shorten this eating window is to stop eating earlier in the evening. Instead of packing in a bunch of food right before bed, maybe around 10pm, you can stop eating for the day…say at 8pm. Therefore, you’d be utilizing an 8 hour eating window (12 noon until 8pm), and a 16 hour fasting period (8pm until noon the next day). This is in contrast to a typical eating window of 8am until 10pm, which is a 14 hour eating window paired with a 10 hour fasting period.
…’breakfast is the meal that should be skipped…most days.’
That’s a difference of 6 hours of intermittent fasting every day. Well…why does that matter? And why would anyone want to shorten their eating window, and practice Time Restricted Eating?
Research has proved that eating within a shorter period of time each day simply leads to living longer. That’s lifespan. The literature reveals that chronic diseases and metabolic degradation (the waning ability of our cells to process energy efficiently as we age) can be prolonged by this intriguing adjustment of when we eat. It should be noted that most of the research has been done on mice and worms. Take that as you will.
Lifespan is and should be important to most of us, as we typically want to be here as long as possible. However, I believe a more attractive goal, and one that we probably all want more than lifespan…is Healthspan. This is the length of time that we’ll live a ‘healthy’ lifestyle, and one without chronic disease. It’s safe to say that we wouldn’t want to live a long long time if that time is filled with disease, ailments, bed ridden days, and other challenges. Maybe it beats the alternatives? It’s hard to say.
It’s safe to say though, that we all want to be healthy…for as long as possible. Time Restricted Eating (TRE) also helps there. It’s been proven to assist in weight loss, in discouraging the risk of diabetes, and in a general reduction in one’s glycemic response to meals. This response is an effective measure of metabolic health…and is a reflection of overall health. TRE has also been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce insulin levels, and reduce oxidative stress in those who practice. Oxidative stress takes place when too many free radical molecules are roaming the body. It leads to a host of negative health issues for individuals. We can help rid ourselves of them with antioxidants, but when the levels are too high, we suffer.
Shortening the eating window has also proven to increase aerobic abilities, as well as increase lean muscle mass while burning fat. Our bodies mostly use carbohydrates or glucose to burn for energy. When those stores are depleted, we begin to use fat for energy. If we lengthen our fasting period, we lengthen the time that we burn fat. Interesting.
Just like light and dark, eating or fasting are unavoidably intertwined with the circadian rhythms in the body. Disrupting our bodies internal clocks through untimely light exposure and/or eating at unregulated times can contribute to all kinds of health issues, from obesity to cancer to you guessed it…trouble with sleep.
By shortening the eating window, and practicing consistency within when we eat, we can closely align our lifestyle with our own circadian system, actually supporting our biological need to sleep, rest, recover, repair.
When we awake, we can usually kick-start our bodies effectively with light, or a little water. A healthy salt or electrolytes (calcium, magnesium, potassium) in your water can help here if necessary. The body has gone without water for about 8 hours while sleeping. If we did that to ourselves during the waking hours, we’d certain start feeling signs of dehydration. Surprisingly, most of us consume coffee upon waking. Coffee is a diuretic though, and can lead to more dehydration. It’s actually pretty counterproductive to a healthy start to the day. Coffee does however come with some health benefits, but if you’re drinking coffee for health, consuming it directly upon waking is not the most effective method. And sure…caffeine will definitely assist you in the waking process. However, after we’ve hydrated in the morning , the sunlight does very well sending sufficient signals to our bodies…that it’s go time! Living in a place without much sun, or during seasons with less sun exposure will of course call for more substantial support from other methods.
Where most of us could use more help though, is at night when most of us eat very late into the evening…almost right up to bedtime. This practice is certainly deleterious to our health, and doesn’t align at all with our internal clocks, which naturally want to shut down and not begin the long process of digesting newly introduced foods. On top of that, our body processes the same food differently, at different times throughout the day. It’s worth noting here that in general, we have a more sensitive glycemic index as the day goes on, causing more fluctuations in blood sugar levels later in the day.
My Fasting Experience
My first time trying this was this year (2019), from April 1 to July 13. I was going on vacation on July 14, so I figured it was a good deadline to give myself. I then gave it another go from July 22 to October 12. I also practiced 2 ‘prolonged fasts’ this year…both for about 36 hours. I’ll touch more on those in another piece. I do want to incorporate 3 or 4 of those prolonged fasts each year moving forward. During my intermittent fasting though, I practiced the 12 noon to 8pm eating window, and the 8pm to noon fasting window. For the most part, I did this 7 days a week. However, sometimes I would skip it during one of the weekend days. In my research, I found that even doing this 3 or 4 days a week…or even practicing every other day…still delivers health benefits. Interestingly enough though, fasting somewhat follows the ‘if some is good, more is better’ adage. Obviously, safety and contacting a medical professional is important prior to practicing but…the shorter the eating windows, and the longer the intermittent or prolonged fasts…the more compounded the positive results become.
Anecdotally, TRE creates more sustained and consistent levels of energy for me throughout the day. This could have something to do with using fat as energy as opposed to carbohydrates, and I’ll be researching that more in the future. But it’s also a byproduct of a healthier glycemic index as noted above. I don’t feel as much of a spike in energy soon after eating, and I certainly don’t feel that drowsy crash that I used to feel after eating lunch. I still do consume caffeine in the form of a cup or two of coffee a day, and can notice a manipulation of energy with that. But generally, I feel a more stable sense of readiness and vitality throughout a given day.
I’d also say that I’ve experienced more mental clarity, alertness, and focus during fasted states (prolonged or intermittent). Upon waking in the morning after my prolonged fasts, I’ve felt a ‘lightness’ or refreshed feeling. Many writers and creators have found success ‘creating’ things while in that state. This may be related to the research literature that shows that fasting encourages the neuroplasticity within your brain, maintaining effective and efficient neural networks… resulting in better memory retention, better ability to learn new things, and better recovery from trauma or injury. Having ‘elastic brain’ also helps to prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Wow!
I should comment on the unexpected benefit that I’ve found with fasting. My relationship with food, and my mindset surrounding food has drastically changed. I’ve noticed that with many good practices (food or other), there are these side-dish benefits if you will, that maybe weren’t the goal or focus…but are helpful nonetheless. As people started using the phrase ‘hangry’, I totally identified with it. This was before trying any fasting at all. I felt that I needed to be full to feel right, and that if I didn’t have food often, I’d quickly start to feel poorly, physically and mentally. That was just mental weakness though. I can comfortably say that after the smaller, consistent practice of shortening my daily eating window, as well as practicing two prolonged fasts (one for 36 hours and the next for 38), I’ve been forced to reset and reevaluate my definition of hungry, and reconfigure what it means for me to ‘need’ food. Listen, I still LOVE food. I still have a sweet tooth. I still crave scallops and risotto, good bread and red wine. In fact, this fasting process has helped me appreciate foods and flavors more, recognizing their true value and benefit…maybe as fuel, maybe as escape…maybe even as entertainment. It’s all worth our consideration, and I believe that at least a healthy awareness is very beneficial to all of us, especially as we move into shaping when and what the next generation is eating.
So What Should I Do Now?
I often try things before knowing how they’ll affect me. I enjoy the process of doing before thinking. One area in which I’d like to improve though, is after experimenting, experiencing, and researching…coming up with some short, practical and functional ideas that ‘sum up’ what I’ve learned. Here is some advice I’d give to myself. I hope it helps you in some way:
- Shorten the window in which I eat each day…as often as possible. Start with maybe a 10 hour eating window, and move to an 8 or 6 hour window. Remember…health benefits compound with shorter and shorter windows
- 3 or 4 prolonged fasts a year. At least 24 hours. Try for a 72 hour fast after experienced
- Consider not having coffee until later. In actuality, even black coffee does break a fast, as the body needs to metabolize the caffeine. And, it’s a diuretic. If needed while fasting though, black only!
- Experiment and document more. Share and learn with others who are doing the same. Seek out leaders on this topic, and engage in conversations to learn
- Move on to the next…learning more about Ketosis, using fat for energy, and also…my own genetic pre-disposition for metabolism with things like genetic history and blood testing
Thank you for reading, and please let me know your experiences with fasting, or your relationship with food!