SEP 14, 2017 3:19 PM PDT

Going Without Food For Days: 'Biohacking' or Eating Disorder?

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Image credit: Pixabay.com

The latest dieting trend sweeping the Silicon Valley is so extreme that some may liken it to self-inflicted torture. People aren’t counting their calories or scrutinizing what they eat; rather, they just forgo eating all together for days.

The practice is a variation of intermittent fasting, in which people cycle between periods of fasting and non-fasting. One variation is known as the alternate day fasting (ADF), and where food is off-limits every other 24-hours. Another popular variation is the 5:2 diet, which involves fasting for two non-consecutive days in a week and no caloric restriction on the remaining five days. This is the diet Jimmy Kimmel credits for his weight loss success in 2015  

But less is more, right? Taking this practice to an even bigger extreme, many Silicon Valley execs and employees are going without food for a more extended period, which can last anywhere from 14 hours to several days. In that time, water and other liquids are all that keeps these people going.

Rather than calling it dieting, these people insist it’s “biohacking.” That is, they believe fasting is the ultimate way to optimize body performance. And if you’re imagining offices filled with hangry workers, you’d be told wrong. Biohackers swear the fasting actually gives them more energy and makes them more productive workers.

Employees at Nootrobox, a company specializing in subscription service for cognition-enhancing supplements (otherwise known as “smart drugs”), are just one of the many adopters of the “biohacking” trend. They’re part of WeFast, a club of enthusiasts keen on fasting. On Wednesdays, the group break their fast together after having gone without food for around 36 hours.

“There’s a mild euphoria. I’m in a much better mood, my focus is better, and there’s a constant supply of energy. I just feel a lot healthier. It’s helping me be a better CEO,” said Phil Libin, the former CEO of Evernote and the current CEO of AI studio All Turtles. Libin has adopted the biohacking trend for the past eight months, during which time he’s lost almost 90 pounds. He says the lifestyle change is “one of the top two or three most important things I’ve done in my life.”

When the body isn’t fed with calories on a regular basis, it starts raiding its own fat supply for energy. The burning of fat for energy is a metabolic process known as ketosis. Some ardent biohackers like to check their ketone levels to make sure that their body is actively burning fat for fuel. They may be literally running on fumes.

But beyond weight loss and body image, adopters of this trend say the value of fasting is really in the increased performance. It’s hard to believe that forcibly starving the body can produce such positive effects, but some studies show intermittent fasting may extend lifespan in mice. Further evidence suggest that periodic fasting could be linked to lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and aging. Still other studies found fasting can reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or the “bad” cholesterol), and inflammation.

Despite the good evidence, we still don’t have a clear idea of the long-term effects of intermittent fasting, let alone “biohacking.” And just because fasting seems to work for some people doesn’t mean it’ll work or be safe for everyone. Health experts say people who are considering any serious dietary changes such as fasting should consult their doctors first to ensure it’ll be safe for them.

Additional sources: Business Insider, The Guardian

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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