People in San Francisco eat lunch in the Soma neighborhood. Like meditation and mindfulness before it, fasting has become the latest tendency in self-improvement. Photo: Ramin Talaie for the Observer
There is a mounting body of scientific research exploring the effects of fasting on the body. Each year dozens of newspapers are published showing how fasting can help boost the immune system, battle prediabetes and even, at least in mice, slow aging.
However there is also evidence that fasting can be dangerous if not carefully supervised, risking heart failure if supplements of essential minerals like sodium, magnesium and potassium aren’t ingested. Extended fasting can also increase people’s susceptibility to infection and worsens already damaged kidneys.
San Francisco-based eating disorder specialist Shrein Bahrami was concerned that extended fasting was another fad that could be used as a cover for not eating.
” The hyper focus on tracking vital signs and food has become normalized, so it’s difficult to know when it’s become obsessive ,” she said, but people with eating disorder typically feel a lot of dishonor and other negative feelings around food and body image, which doesn’t tally with the experience of people like Libin and Woo.
” If “youre willing to” do an extended fast, which I recommend against, then consult a doctor ,” she added.
Eight months in and Libin find fasting easy and frequently attends” nice dinners” with friends where he will only drink water.
” People think it’s torture but it’s actually really pleasant. I get the social interaction, I can see the food and stench it. All of those the situation is pleasant ,” he said.” I usually leave a dinner where I feed nothing impression various kinds of full .”
Does he still have to split the bill?” I have done that, yes .”
Woo’s WeFast community currently has more than 6,000 members across a Facebook page and Slack channel. Participants discuss the latest research on fasting and share tips and outcomes. WeFast also convenes offline: there’s a monthly meet-up in San Francisco where members” break fast” at a restaurant.
The membership skeweds, said Woo, towards Silicon Valley engineering types in their twenties and thirties.
” In Silicon Valley and other competitive world markets more people are looking at any technique to gain productivity ,” he added.
We all know that feeing a big unhealthy lunch can lead to an afternoon productivity slump, but when people with an engineering mindset start excavating into the science of why such” carb comas” happen they can start to control it.
” Instead of hacking computer chips, they can hack their own bodies ,” he said.
For Libin, fasting is another Silicon Valley trend in the same vein as meditation, which gained popularity a few years ago with the creation of apps such as Headspace.
” There’s a general culture here where people believe all problems are solvable ,” said Libin.” You want less stress and nervousnes? There’s meditation. You want to live 40 years longer? You can probably do that with fasting .”
” Around 80% of what people do here turns out to be nonsense but there’s a lot of willingness to try .”
Now the self-described “foodie” saves himself for gourmet dining rather than swiftly snaffled sandwiches.” I don’t have any bearing meals any more. Every period I set food in my mouth it’s unique and special .”
So he’ll eat processed carbohydrates like bagels, but only in New York (” the bagels in San Francisco suck “) and ramen when he’s in Tokyo.
Since coming out as a faster earlier this year, Libin has been inundated with requests from people trying his advice on how to get started, but he doesn’t think it will ever be mainstream in the way meditation has become.
” It seems style too extreme ,” he said.” No-one grew up being told that meditation was super bad for you. Everyone grew up hearing fasting was dangerous and super-difficult .”
Furthermore , no one builds money when people don’t feed.
” In this society usually things that work against every entrenched economic interest is very difficult to take off .” said Libin.
” You need to be a weirdo like me to get into this .”