The fasting and the furious

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When did you eat your last meal? Did you have breakfast this morning, or did you give it the skip? Are you a strict three-meal-a-day kind of person, or someone who grazes? Or do you, like many others, live by the intermittent fast?

According to the International Food Information Council, 10 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18-80 are said to be on some sort of restrictive food regime. Many proponents have adopted the 5:2 method, whereby they restrict their calories for two days a week. Others eschew food for long stretches, say from 8pm until lunchtime the next day. 

This week, it was revealed that Rishi Sunak is a faster: the UK prime minister adopts one of the more extreme versions of the diet. According to an unnamed colleague speaking to a Sunday newspaper, the 43-year-old stops eating at 5pm on a Sunday and ingests nothing but black coffee and water until 5am on the Tuesday. Sunak then confirmed the story, describing the 36-hour fast as being a facet of his religion, as well as a way in which to maintain a “healthy and balanced” life. “I’m not sure people are that interested in my diet,” he told the BBC, “but that’s part of what I do . . . I also have a weakness for sugary things, which I indulge in the rest of the week.”

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Most have greeted the news with admiration: the unnamed colleague in particular was fawning about Sunak’s mind-over-stomach strength. “It’s remarkable really, given that he is often on visits or doing PMQ [prime minister’s questions] prep on a Monday. It’s a testament to the discipline, focus and determination he shows in all aspects of his life and work.”

Consider, however, our old friend Gwyneth Paltrow, saying much the same about her diet. Speaking on The Art of Being Well podcast last year, she described intermittent fasting as one of the practices that “support her detox”, adding that she usually drank coffee and bone broth throughout the day, before eating an evening meal. Far from exemplifying her mental strength and focus, her diet was decried on social media and in the tabloids. Hello magazine described it as “alarmingly restrictive”, and it was lampooned as further evidence of her existence in a world of unfettered privilege. 

Many advocates speak of the benefits of fasting. Early research into the subject suggests that fasting might induce autophagy — or “self-devouring” — whereby the body starts to remove damaged cells and recycle parts of them towards cellular repair. It’s become extremely fashionable among the sorts of people who believe the right dietary habits will harness immortality: Jack Dorsey became the poster boy for fasting when he claimed, in 2020, to eat only seven meals a week.  

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However, the benefits of fasting are not altogether clear. A year-long study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2022, followed a random assignation of 139 patients with obesity who were asked to participate in a time-restricted programme (eating only between 8:00am and 4:00pm) with calorie restriction, or simply to follow a course of calorie restriction alone. The report concluded that “among patients with obesity, a regimen of time-restricted eating was not more beneficial with regard to reduction in body weight, body fat, or metabolic risk factors than daily calorie restriction”.

The fashion for fasting, I would argue, is more concurrent with the vogue for “lifestyle choice”. Part of expressing our “unique selves”, and “curating” every facet of our lives. After all, cutting meals from one’s schedule is way more straightforward than calorie-counting in a Deliveroo-society in which a smorgasbord of options are only 20 minutes from your mouth. 

I am also an intermittent faster. I typically don’t eat between the hours of 9pm and 2pm. I find it makes me more productive, and I’ve never been the biggest breakfast fan. Nevertheless, I am reluctant to share this thinking with you because I can’t help but feel it opens up a different narrative. I can hear the criticisms — she works in fashion, she’s overly obsessed with her appearance, what kind of example is that to set young women? — that are inevitably levelled at women who discuss their food intake. 

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Men are esteemed for having willpower. There is a suggestion that food abstinence makes Sunak stronger — he can defy those girly confections he so craves. Conversely, women who maintain strict regimens, such as Beyoncé or Paltrow, are typically characterised as being weird. There is an insinuation that they are weaker, disordered in their behaviour, or in the grip of an unnatural vanity.

Perhaps the gendering of cooking reflects still more ancient attitudes towards food. In a study conducted in the UK in 2020, approximately 59 per cent of female participants said they do all or most of the food preparation in their households. Among male participants, the figure was 26 per cent.

Sunak might be able to power through PMQ prep on a Monday on an empty stomach, but fasting might be more difficult if he had to prep the evening meal. And while this is no criticism of Sunak’s talents as a caterer — he says he serves a mean cooked breakfast at the weekend — fasting is so much more straightforward when your stomach is the only one requiring care. 

Email Jo at [email protected]

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Source: https://www.ft.com/content/a7c2d5bc-c0a4-4079-affe-dfebdee93fbe