Fast Times: Reflections on Food Experiments

no-sugar-wooden-brooch2_originalSince January, I’ve been participating in an on-line nutrition coaching program focused more on acquiring solid nutritional habits than following strict rules.  No dieting. No fads. Or so they keep claiming.

Enter the introduction a couple of months ago of “food experiments.” Every Thursday, they challenged us to experiment with different ways of eating.

The first week of food experimenting was no experiment for me at all: plant-based eating.  My team’s forum and Facebook group lit up with panicked posts about “what will I eat?”  As a vegan, I jumped in with reassurances about how easy it is to eat a plant-based diet.

The day *after* the experiment with plant-based eating, just about everyone said they didn’t love it.

The second week: Paleo.


I don’t know about you, but I’m totally skeptical about the whole idea behind paleo. I get that some people swear by this way of eating. But the principle behind it–that this is the way our cave-dwelling ancestors ate and therefore we should eat this way too–just makes me want to laugh.

It has FAD written all over it.  There’s a whole list of what you can and what you can’t eat.  You can eat meat and fish because that’s what the hunters of the paleolithic period ate. You can go for seeds and nuts, but not peanuts because they’re legumes, and you’re not allowed to eat legumes (because the cave people didn’t eat them so they must be bad for us). You can eat fruit and veggies, even watercress, arugula and romaine. And healthy oils like avocado and olive oil. Right. Because no doubt our paleo ancestors enjoyed cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil drizzled on mixed greens all the time.

Take out legumes and dairy, neither of which are on the paleo plan, and you’ve pretty much dispensed with all vegan lean proteins.

Confession: I skipped paleo day because I just thought, “Why?”  Why do I need to know what it feels like to folow a way of eating that I do not believe in and will never adopt?

After that, we had a low-carb day, a sugar-free day, and all of this built up to the 24 hour fasting experiment.  Sugar-free and fasting were my two favourites.

I’m always slightly tempted to go sugar-free anyway because for me it’s the easiest fix.  Cut out refined sugar (not fresh fruit) and that takes care of lots of the poor nutritional choices that I make by habit.  So I enjoyed the sugar-free day quite a bit.  It made me realize how much I’ve been reaching for dried fruit here, adding a touch of sugar to my decaf soy latte there, and grabbing high sugar convenience bars, like Clif Bars, outside of endurance workouts (which are really the only time I need them).

The main purpose of the experiments is to reflect on how you feel when you’re eating that way.  For me, lowering my sugar intake always has a positive impact on my energy levels. They stay more constant and I sleep better at night. I once did this for a whole year, and I absolutely did feel better. Doing it for the one-day experiment piqued my interest in making a longer commitment to this approach. I’m considering doing it for the last two months of 2014.

Sam has written about intermittent fasting and on the idea that hunger is not an emergency.  She has also gathered up some of the latest research on fasting for health and concluded that it’s not a great strategy. See her post, “Not So Fast.”


Fasting has never been high on my list of things I want to do.  I understand that it’s a terrible weight loss strategy, just prompting a famine response.  So I would never do it for that.  But I was curious to try it as an experiment with hunger.  I like to eat at regular intervals and tend not to let myself get real hungry all that often. So for me, the idea of fasting for 24 hours helped me relate to the panic my team members felt when they couldn’t eat meat for 24 hours on plant-based day.

I planned my fast from 7 p.m. on Wednesday to 7 p.m. on Thursday.  That way, I could eat a good dinner on Wednesday night as long as I was done by 7, and then I could plan a good dinner for Thursday. I only had to skip breakfast, lunch and snacks all of Thursday.  How hard can that be?

It wasn’t all that hard. I had to fend off a couple of headaches by taking some tylenol. And I didn’t have the energy I usually do.  Some people say that fasting helps with mental focus, but by halfway through my 3-hour seminar on Thursday afternoon, I felt as if I was cognitively slower than usual and I had to work extra hard to stay present and focused.

Good thing for me I had a full schedule that day with no intense workouts. A challenging workout on a fasting day is not my idea of a fun time.  I did learn that hunger is, indeed, not an emergency. It actually comes in waves. And if I get hungry but know that I can’t eat just yet, my mind actually will let go of it if I keep myself occupied.

The thing I liked most about fasting was that I didn’t have to think about food at all and I could focus on other tasks.  I thought I would obsess about food, but in the end, not so much.  As dinner time approached, that changed. I had planned to break the fast at Zen Gardens, one of my favourite restaurants.  After not eating for 24 hours, food tastes extra good.

Fasting is the only food experiment I’ve undertaken twice.  About a week after my birthday I did it again because I’d been eating so much that I was sick of food and wanted a break.  I enjoyed it just as much the second time, and food tasted good again at the end of it.

Upshot:  experimenting with different approaches to food and eating is an interesting way to gain insight into how different things make you feel, the impact on your energy levels and mood, maybe how they digest.  As I discovered with fasting, it’s also a way of opening up to things that may not have been on the table before.  Of course, I didn’t have a totally open mind, as my rejection-without-trying-it of Paleo shows. But to me that’s more fad than anything else, and though experiments are worth exploring, fads don’t have the same allure for me.

4 thoughts on “Fast Times: Reflections on Food Experiments

  1. I liked it too. The lesson I got out of it was that I don’t need to panic when there isn’t food I can eat available. It’s okay to be hungry. I use it as a tool when travelling. Timed right it helps with jet lag and sleep.

    But what it doesn’t help with, for women, is fat/weight loss. Used regularly it seems to mess with hormones, metabolism etc. That’s why intermittent fasting isn’t recommended for women despite how wonderfully it works for men trying to shed pounds.

    I don’t think I’d want to do December sugar free. Think of the holidays! It’s hard enough being a vegetarian without cutting out whole other categories of things. There’s only so many mandarin oranges you can eat.

  2. I’m not sure what the deal is with my body but when I go for too long without eating – like, several hours – I notice that I get lethargic and irritable, and that I have trouble focusing. I know some people swear by IF but I don’t know if it’s for me, just as I don’t know if Paleo or veganism is for me. I do like the idea of experimenting with different styles of eating though, just to see.

    I’m actually in the process of implementing some dietary changes after reading “Racing Weight.” Mostly what I’m doing are the following: getting back into tracking my food/macros, making a concerted effort to be consistent with nutrient timing, and trying to cut back on refined sugar and fried potato products. Something I like about the RW program, is how adamant the author is about making sure that you eat enough and not trying to lose body fat by starving yourself or by cutting out carbs. It all seems pretty sensible and realistic to me, so I’m optimistic that it will help me achieve my fitness/athletic goals. We’ll see.

  3. I’m currently trying something new myself and keeping a food journal. This is not about calories or macros or anything, but trying to identify feelings around food. My goal is to get a little closer to intuitive eating, but right now I feel too disassociated from it – my intuition doesn’t know where to start! 🙂 I’ve been figuring out a few things along the way – like that my sugar cravings seem to related to hydration. If I am drinking enough water (or I just have a glass when I crave refined sugar) I don’t want it, but if I’ve been drinking less than usual, I crave candy and sweets. I have no idea why, but it is good to know.

    Like Caitlin, I get lethargic and irritable if I don’t eat regularly, however, I find I tend to sleep better if I don’t eat too late. I think experimenting with eating methods is a great way to learn more about yourself, as long as it’s done with moderation and self compassion.

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