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Intermittent Fasting. For the planet.


Important learnings for a world under lockdown


If you know me, you know how much I love IF.

It’s the greatest self-healing trick our body has up its sleeve. And it’s free! (which might be a big reason why it hasn’t been sold to us as vigorously as Keto and Vegan have . You can’t monetise it.)

But perhaps the biggest reason I love IF, is because of the life lesson it so profoundly teaches. In this action-oriented, productivity-hacking world we’ve created, it reminds us that sometimes, the answer to ‘what should I do next’, is ‘nothing’.

You can’t repair a moving car

I’m sure you’ve heard enough people refer to the current situation as ‘ earth healing itself’ or ‘mother nature fighting back’.

Now, while I’m very wary of attributing all this to ‘god’s hand’ or some similar cosmic intervention, one can’t really deny the positive outcomes.

Lakhs of Olive Ridley turtles are back on Orissa’s coast, air quality over the world (even in Delhi!) has improved, through my window, I hear birds chirping all day, and friends living on high-floors confirm that they’ve never had a clearer view of the city.

The earth is definitely healing. And it doesn’t really matter how it happened.

What matters, is what we learn from it. How we take this forced change, and make the good things last forever!

The IF Analogy

Outside of personal experience (which often can be very expensive, or deadly, like in this case), humans learn through comparison. To make sense of a novel situation, it helps to draw a parallel with something else we’ve experienced, and dealt with, before.

Analogies work. Because they convert ‘oh we’ve never seen anything like thistowait. this is behaving like that. and we know how that pans out.

Which brings me to why I’m writing this. I intend to do two-things with this article.

  1. I believe that Intermittent Fasting is a great parallel for what the world is being forced to go through right now. My first intention, is to convince you that this is an apt analogy.
  2. If I succeed, I intend to extend this analogy, and help us see how we should act, once this ‘forced fasting’ period is over.

To be clear, I don’t think it’ll ever be over over. I strongly believe that the world will, intermittently, be hit by similar epidemics. Which further strengthens my belief in the IF analogy. And in the learnings that come with it.

But first, let’s prove the premise of my argument.

Lockdown = Fasting

Fasting, at it’s very basic, is deprivation.

We deprive the body of calories → the digestive system shuts down (after some protests ofcourse) → the body starts realising it’s been hoarding many other resources that are sufficient for survival → after the ‘survival’ fog clears, immense mental clarity descends → and finally, non-operational body-systems… go into repair.

Boom. That’s Fasting in a nutshell. Now let’s draw out the analogy.

Stage 1: Deprivation. When nothing from outside, comes in. 

IF is tough in the beginning. You suddenly, forcibly, shut out everything the body was consuming from the outside. And the body panics.

The stomach growls and the mind refuses to work. They’ve been led to believe that all fuel only exists outside the body, and that connection now stands forcibly severed.

Sound familiar? Like the first few days of the lockdown? When we were forced to stay in. Cut-off from everything we used to do outside.

Did you experience withdrawal symptoms? An immense need to ‘go out’. Serious concerns that without your mom or cook or restaurants delivering, it’ll be tough to survive?

Stay with me. It gets better.

Stage 2: Acceptance. Followed by discovery.

It takes a few days to get over the stomach’s growls. Black coffee or green tea, anything that keeps you full, helps. So do distractions. Like a busy work day, or playing a video game.

But once the body accepts that this is happening, it starts looking for alternate sources of energy. That’s when Ketosis begins (yes, IF leads to Keto), and the body discovers stored fat as its new fuel. And that there’s plenty to feast upon 😉

Is that how you spent your first few WFH days? Living in denial, devouring Netflix, surviving on Maggi and Nachos and cheese sandwiches. Until you started discovering all the veggies and pastas and meats stocked up in your fridge.

Then a friend posted a video of this simple, delicious, one-pot meal she cooked using basic veggies and leftovers. Then another. And you realised that hey, cooking doesn’t seem that tough. Infact, it might just be fun!

Cut to today, day 8 of the lockdown, and everyone on my feed is now a budding Nigela Lawson!

It’s a feast! And the ingredients were always there in front of us. But we never stopped to notice.

Stage 3: Mindful Consumption

A big reason why IF is the most sustainable ‘diet’, is because it changes your mind, more than it changes your body.

After having fasted for 16 hours, when you finally eat, you can taste every morsel of your food. You can literally ‘see’ the food go from your mouth to your food-pipe and into your stomach.

Do IF long enough, and you become a lot more conscious of what you eat. And why you eat it.

Cravings start disappearing. A mind that’s learnt how to control a body that felt it was starving to death, knows how to control one that’s salivating for the dessert it doesn’t really need. One no longer consumes for the sake of it. The loop is broken.

Btw, the world-wide fashion industry has crashed. So have restaurants and pubs and malls. They’ve literally gone to zero. But if these were so instrumental to our happiness, why aren’t we all depressed already?

I”m not asking these questions. I’m asking if you’ve started asking these questions?

If you’re beginning to introspect on what you truly need, to be happy. And what happiness means in the first place. And if ‘endless consumption’ is the only way to get there?

If the answer is yes, you’ve become mindful. The connection with the outside is severed, so you’ve started turning inside.

Stage 4: Less Flab. Great Gut. 

Because of ketosis, you start losing fat on IF. More importantly, you gut starts functioning a lot better.

In the absence of constant pounding by external agents, the gut micro-flora starts to resuscitate and grow. Bowel movements become better, energy levels are higher and more sustained, and distractions start fading away.

The ‘mental fog’, starts clearing.

We haven’t entered this stage with our lockdowns yet, but here are a few bets I’ll make.

  • Unlike what we believe, most of us won’t come out of this having gained weight. Some, infact, will lose a few kilos.
  • We’ll come back to a re-balanced ecosystem. With the constant pounding having stopped, flora and fauna will resuscitate. Like we see already.
  • For a while, our collective mental fog will lift. A few weeks into the stoppage, we’ll clearly see how mindlessly we were running around. How long this continues though, depends on how we continue to act after this.
  • We’ll start using more, and wasting less. All of us, collectively, will become more resourceful.

Are you still with me?

If the analogy has begun to take hold by now, then we’ve crossed an important bridge. Now that we have a parallel we agree on, we can transfer learnings from the known, to the unknown.

Thankfully, I’ve crossed the Fasting bridge many a times. Allow me to share what I’ve seen on the other side.

Learning 1: Don’t break the fast too soon

Anyone new to fasting will tell you, it’s the last few hours that hurt the most. I hear many people say they broke the fast at 13 hours instead of going to 16.

Unless you’re doing it to train yourself, to slowly build up to 16, and then 18 and so on…breaking a fast early is a bad idea.

It takes 12–14 hours for the body to start running out of glycogen stores. Hence, it’s actually only in the last few hours that ketosis starts. And the mental fog lifts.

Breaking the fast in the 13th hour means you took all the pain, for no gain.

The same will apply to this lockdown. Not only to flatten the curve, if you can afford to (if you’re not in essential services, or running a fledgling startup like me), for your own internal-benefit, go through with the lockdown. Don’t try and end it soon.

Remember that only those who go through Stages 1–3, will experience the benefits of Stage 4. Else it’ll all be in vain.

Learning 2: Don’t break your fast with a heavy meal

This is the biggest mistake most amateur fasters make. I did it too.

After having fasted for 16 hours (which feel more like 48), all we’re dreaming of is stuffing ourselves with the best food we’ve been deprived of.

But doing so wipes out all the benefits of IF.

While fasting, your insulin response system is resting, and repairing. If you suddenly throw in a calorie-dense, starchy meal — the system is forced into sudden, extreme action. Imagine going from vacation straight into a presentation with the CEO.

This breaks the system. People who do this experience a severe dip in energy from which they can’t recover for the rest of the day. And this bad experience, kills their faith in IF.

All the partying, and eating-out and debauchery you’re planning right after the lockdown, go slow on it.

The best way to break a prolonged fast, is with a salad. The fibre fills you up, tones down your hunger, all with a minimal insulin spike. It effectively kills the instinct to debauch.

Break the lockdown with a salad. Don’t go out and party all night. Don’t over-eat at your favorite restaurant the next day. Don’t go shopping.

Start consuming. But do it slowly. Mindfully.

This simple step will ensure that you look back at this entire experience with a smile. Not a frown. And that’s critical to do the next learning.

Learning 3: Regular IF will reduce your appetite. 

Do IF for a while, and you’ll see a significant reduction in your ability to consume. IF resets your body’s thermostat. And it literally shrinks your stomach. After a point, you just can’t over-eat.

But the key word here is ‘regular’. To get to this stage, where we as a species start ‘consuming less’, we’ll need to make fasting a way of life. And for that we need to enjoy it.

To be clear, I specifically mean fasting ‘intermittently’. Periods of consumption are necessary. But so are periods of deprivation.

All doctors are telling us that this virus, or its mutations, are here to stay. It’s a fact we need to adjust to. And the only answer I see, is collective, periodic, intermittent fasting from the external world.

Imagine a world where every 3 months, we take a 10-day break. And stay in. We don’t pound the earth’s resources, but use what we already have.

We shut out the outside, and feast on the inside. 

Oh how I’d love to live in that world.

Learning 4: IF makes you more productive. Not less. 

Once the mental fog lifts, the focus and flow one experiences, is unreal. (Note: I’m in my 18th hour as I type this.)

A continuous habit of switching inwards, of making do with what we have (rather than constantly topping-up), makes us more resourceful. It, infact, redefines how we look at resources and their possible utility.

Anyone who’s used the stairs to do cardio, or a chair for box jumps, or a ‘useless’ rod to do pull-ups, will know what I mean.

If we make a habit of it, I can guarantee we’ll become more productive as a species.

Only this time, productivity won’t mean ‘mindlessly doing more and more’. It’ll mean ‘mindfully doing more with less’.

Learning 5: IF leads to Autophagy

Autophagy, or ‘to eat one-self’, is the body’s ability to repair itself! Yup, our body has a brilliant mechanism of eating up it’s own dead cells, and repairing the broken ones. And only IF can trigger this.

The guy who discovered this body-mechanism won the Nobel Prize for it in 2016. If you want to understand how it works, read this.

Periodic IF, literally heals the body. And something tells me that the planet has a similar mechanism too.

A word of caution

There’s only one problem with IF. It is binary.

It only works if there’s a complete shutdown. 

Many people just starting IF ask me — can I just have a banana. Or an orange. Or my milky tea.

The answer is no, no and no. If you consume anything that switches the digestive system on, it can’t rest and repair. You’ve lost the benefits. You went to the garage and switched on the car.

That’s the only demand of IF, and that’s the only demand of this lockdown. It’s all or nothing. If one person breaks it, it breaks. And the benefits are gone.

We, truly, are all in this together.

PS: I might be experienced with IF, but this lockdown has hit me harder than most. I love being out and about. It’s after 7 days that this analogy hit me, and helped me make peace with the situation. 

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