(Mashable) Silicon Valley is obsessed with fasting. Experts call it ‘highly irresponsible.’
But when it comes to what we eat everyday, some high-profile tech executives are taking that obsession with finely-tuned performance to a controversial extreme. Over the past year, several Silicon Valley figures have promoted intermittent fasting as the key to sharpening their focus and optimizing their health.
Phil Libin, the former CEO of Evernote; Daniel Gross, a Y Combinator partner; Kevin Rose, cofounder of Digg; and Geoffrey Woo, CEO of human enhancement startup HVMN, have all spoken about it publicly. Rose even developed a fasting app called Zero.
The elevator pitch is that intermittent fasting boosts brain power and wards off illnesses like cancer and diabetes. (Many studies demonstrating such benefits have been conducted on mice, not humans.)
Some also view fasting as a way to counter the indulgence of Silicon Valley workplaces — where daily pizza deliveries and happy hours are normal — as well as the broader epidemic of conditions like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
But amid the euphoria of striving for optimization and longevity, there’s a serious, unaddressed question about the dangers of promoting fasting in a culture in which eating disorders are common and deadly.
“The connection between achievements and food and eating is very alarming,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. “Not everybody who gets into this is necessarily going to spiral into a eating disorder, but if you are at risk, this is a really triggering framing.”
And when fasting becomes a central aspect of workplace culture, it introduces social and professional pressure to skip meals, and undermines those who’ve recovered from an eating disorder or are at risk for one. It also threatens to alienate employees from diverse backgrounds who may view short-term starvation as accessible only to people who don’t have to put dinner on the table for children every night, never missed meals because they couldn’t afford to eat, or don’t mind regularly sacrificing their cultural ties to food and communal meals.
The connection between Silicon Valley-style fasting and disordered eating might not seem obvious, but that’s because our go-to stereotype of the latter involves a rail-thin young white woman. The men who champion fasting, on the other hand, cast it as an ambitious science experiment in which you meticulously track biomarkers of optimum health like insulin and blood glucose. The gendered contrast is striking to some, particularly since women looking to lose weight have long known about and tried fasting diets.
“If this were women sharing the same tools, we would say [intermittent fasting] is disordered eating — if not flat-out eating disorder behavior,” says Andrew Walen, a psychotherapist and president of the National Association of Males with Eating Disorders.
Some people who fast for nonreligious reasons stick to daily “feeding windows” that permit eating for just eight or six hours each day. Others follow weekly patterns like eating for four days and fasting for three non-consecutive days, consuming nothing but water and supplements like magnesium and potassium during that time.
They’re typically hoping to achieve a metabolic state known as ketosis and to use fasting to trigger autophagy, a process in which the body, under considerable physiological stress, begins consuming its own damaged cellular material as a means of survival.
But even as fasting practitioners see their efforts as noble, extreme calorie restriction, labor-intensive tracking, and competitiveness are also hallmarks of disordered eating, which worries experts.
Walen says “gender ambivalence” keeps people from recognizing that men frequently experience eating disorders — they just often manifest differently compared to women. Instead of focusing on thinness, men tend fixate on power, performance, and muscularity.
While he doesn’t think fasting for performance amounts to an eating disorder, Walen does see dangerous parallels, particularly for men whose “type A” and “high-achiever” personalities may thrive on the short-term high — even temporary mental clarity — that can come with extreme calorie restriction. The danger is that someone can become dependent on that biological response with negative consequences for their “mind, body, and spirit,” which Walen says is no different than an eating disorder.
Mysko says there is a “strong connection” between eating disorders and perfectionism, which is why she finds the popularity of performance-driven fasting worrisome. People who have an eating disorder or are at risk for developing one might join the movement and, taking comfort in its scientific approach, unwittingly exacerbate or trigger a dangerous and potentially deadly health condition. (Soylent, the Silicon Valley shake product that bills itself as an alternative to eating meals, received similar criticism.)
Walen, who is also the executive director of the eating disorders treatment facility The Body Image Therapy Center, believes fasting sites and online communities, which describe fasting regimens in great detail, are “highly irresponsible.”
“These are tips on how to optimize your starvation,” he says. “This is as dangerous and equivalent to [pro-anorexia] sites.”
Geoffrey Woo, who created a private HVMN Facebook group devoted to answering questions about fasting, is sympathetic to such criticism but calls it a “stretch.”
He argues you could make a similar criticism of public health officials who promote hand-washing because some people, presumably who experience obsessive-compulsive disorder, might find such campaigns triggering. Woo knows it’s not an equivalent analogy, but it speaks to his view of fasting as a public health intervention.
“The inspiration of fasting does come from realizing two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese,” he says.
Obviously, public health officials haven’t recommended that overweight people stop eating, even intermittently. Still, Woo envisions a future in which people fast to improve their health and, if necessary, lose weight. He also hopes to see innovative technologies and products that make it easier to fast or even help people achieve some effects of fasting without actually ceasing to eat.
Many people who promote fasting online urge readers to see a health professional before trying it. But the idea that it could trigger an eating disorder seems new to the community. After he spoke to Mashable, Woo even added a disclaimer to both a HVMN site called WeFast and the Facebook group advising people not to attempt fasting if they have an eating disorder.