Intermittent Fasting: A Habit for Success
Humans dream. We are unique in this ability. We want to make our dreams come true. We love to test the limitations of our beliefs and expand the boundaries of our imagination. We root for the underdog, but we love to win. I have been fascinated with exploring the mindset of successful people. I have been curious to see if there are patterns to success, and, equally, patterns to failure. Much of success, I have observed, comes from our mindset — our thinking determines our success or failure more than we know. But one curious repeated pattern I have come across? Successful people tend to have certain well-developed habits.
On Quora, there’s a thread dedicated to the habits of successful people. A casual Google search for the same topic will throw up 19,90,00,000 results. I am not suggesting we should blindly ape what we perceive as the ‘habits’ of successful people. Instead, we need to understand that these habits work for them because they create consistency.
Having consistency allows you to focus on what matters in your life. I believe that you become more efficient and effective when you are consistent and disciplined in your life. Through my own research, I have found some common trends that I have tried to incorporate into my life. For example, one of the most oft-repeated ‘mantras for success is to develop a habit of waking up early.
Generally, successful people seem to wake up early. We have seen an explosion of content around waking up early — last year, actor Mark Wahlberg made headlines when he said he wakes up at 2:45 am. Apple CEO Tim Cook is known to rise at 3:45 am. Over time, I have trained myself to be an early riser. Typically, I wake up at 5:30 am, but I still baulk at waking up at 3:45 am! I don’t believe success comes from waking up early. Success, instead, springs from creating habits that allow you to stick to your goals.
Similarly, these days, we have all noticed an upsurge in interest in intermittent fasting. Almost every other day, you see a new book or App being released on intermittent fasting. It’s almost like fasting is the new waking up early! But the thing is, trendy as it is, fasting is not new. The concept has been around for centuries, across cultures, and different religions.
Fasting over the years
As early as the 5th century BC, Hippocrates considered the father of Western medicine, advocated fasting to help people recover faster from illnesses.
In Europe, from the 15th century, people fasted as a way to remember periods of famine or plague, observing fasting days as a day of penitence or asking for mercy from suffering.
Many religions advocate ritual fasting as part of the expression of their belief. We have Christianity with its 40-days of Lent, Islam with the month of Ramadan, Judaism with its several days of fasting, and Hinduism with examples of periodic fasting, especially during the month of Navratri and Karva Chauth. And Jainism, of course, which takes fasting to an altogether another level.
My journey to fasting
Like many families of my generation, I grew up seeing my parents fast on certain days, especially Ekadasi. My parents fasted from a ritualist perspective. I embraced the gospel of science and the Western prescription that it was wrong to miss breakfast. Fasting was debunked as dangerous. I did not develop the discipline to fast in my early life as a result. It’s only now in the last couple of years I have converted to fasting as a healthy lifestyle choice. Science, too now suggests the importance of fasting.
Japanese cell biologist, Yoshinori Ohsumi, has profoundly influenced the current discussion on the benefits of fasting.
Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016 for his work on “autophagy” — Greek for self-eating. The word sounds fancy and the English translation rather scary, but it really just describes the process when the body breaks down proteins and other cell components, using them for fuel. Fasting activates autophagy faster. What this means is that fasting may slow down the aging process. Ohsumi’s research has led to more understanding and hopes of a breakthrough in diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
As I read more about autophagy, I found myself questioning my beliefs about modern diet and nutrition. I thought fasting would make me lose energy. I thought I would be sluggish going without food. But I wanted to also see for myself the supposed benefits of fasting.
I tried fasting intermittently. It was not easy, early on, to be consistent. For example, suppose you want to do a 16hr fast, and you have dinner at 8 pm, your next meal will only be your lunch at noon. Remember, fasting means not eating anything in between. If you attempt an 18hr fast and have dinner at 8 pm, your next meal can only be at 2 pm.
While it was easy enough to do this once in a while, making this a consistent habit meant many small lifestyle changes. Consistency is what drives results. But developing this consistency requires changes in other root habits. Hence, although most of the time, these goals seem simple enough, we fail because we must make changes in other habits.
The payoff is that once we consistently reach a goal, it gives us a big boost in many aspects of our life.
As I said, I failed many times in this goal of trying to include intermittent fasting consistently and daily in my life.
But the last four months of lockdown and no travel has worked well for me in finally cracking this habit and making it central to my life. I use an app called “Zero” that helps me track my fasting. I first fasted for 16 hours daily. But now I rotate between 16 and 18hrs most days of the week, with one or two 20 hour fasts per week. I attempt a 36 hour fast for Ekadasi, but sometimes I don’t make it till the end. The results of fasting have really surprised me. It gave me:
Increased energy: I had thought all those hours without food would make me tired. Instead, I felt more energetic, lighter, and more motivated.
Better habits: Fasting helped me stay off grazing, popping food unconsciously, and mindless consumption of junk food.
Discipline: Going without food for long periods instilled in me a certain discipline — if I could stick to this, I can stick with other goals that seem hard at first! I also found that it was easier to say no and resist the pressure to conform.
Healthy eating: With fasting, I was more aware of what I ate. Eating healthy became more natural, and I was able to make conscious choices with regard to nutrition. Fasting, I realized, is not really about foregoing our love for food — it gave me a deeper appreciation and gratitude for food.
Better weight management: Many people use fasting as a tool for weight loss. That wasn’t my primary goal, but fasting helped me manage my weight better without counting calories or going through guilt pangs for eating foods I liked.
My experiments with fasting, more than anything, gave me confidence. The sort of confidence you get when you achieve something that you thought was going to be hard. Like our muscles, willpower increases the more you exercise it.
There are tons of resources to get you started on your fasting journey, if you are curious. As I mentioned earlier, I use Zero, but there are many apps available that provide anything from simple tracking to personalized coaching.
I thought about writing this post on fasting following two conversations that made me realize that there are many people who are curious about including fasting in their lifestyle. Like me, there are probably many ‘closet fasters’ who find that fasting has improved their lives in small, immeasurable ways.
I finally understood why religion had put so much emphasis on fasting. It somehow feels purifying and makes you better and more attuned.
This is one habit that I was skeptical, to begin with, but have now wholeheartedly embraced. It has transformed several areas of my life.
Please share with me any habits you are working on. I would love to know what you think.