By A. Gamble
I love falling down the wellness rabbit hole—suddenly hours have passed and I've read a dozen articles on some esoteric subject, downloaded three podcasts and placed an online order or two. Most recently, that ether-trip focused on the concept of fasting, and it blew my mind how many limited-food regimens there are out there. There is the über popular intermittent fasting, a catchall term for all the short fasts out there that vary slightly on the basic concept of eating all your limited daily food intake during a short time, forgoing food for the remainder. There is also the more hardcore water fasting, wherein the faster consumes water—and only water—for two to five days.
Fasting may certainly seem to be a fad, positioned as the solution du jour to all sorts of health woes, but it’s also increasingly well researched as potentially beneficial. Harvard Health Publishing featured research showing that intermittent fasting could be a “realistic, sustainable, and effective approach for weight loss, as well as for diabetes prevention,” particularly “when combined with a nutritious, plant-based diet.” At Johns Hopkins, researchers found that cutting caloric intake by fasting several days per week might even prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, even bettering both mood and memory.
I am always down for improved memory and mood, and though I’ve not been experiencing any major skin issues, at the time of my research, there was some congestion along my jawline. Through my own experience, I know that there is a link between what I eat and how my skin looks. So, why not give it a go?
I started by dabbling in what felt like beginner-level intermittent fasting—essentially just skipping breakfast. After several weeks I felt perfectly fine but experienced no apparent changes.
I toyed with the idea of a three-day water fast, but I’ve done enough one-day Yom Kippur fasts in my life to know the headache that that would entail. As I pondered this, I came across an interview with Dr. Walter Longo about his Fast Mimicking Diet, or FMD. The FMD claims to offer the benefits of fasting, but with some—read: not a lot of— very specific food. It was not the first time I’d heard of him—dear friends of my parents have done his fast regularly for several years, and swear by it for helping with chronic pain.
Dr. Longo is unofficially The Guy on longevity—he is officially the director of the USC Longevity Institute and a biochemist and professor of gerontology and biological sciences. In his book, The Longevity Diet, he explains how fasting gives cells a break, a chance to regenerate and let the body heal. His research has shown that specific diets can mimic fasting, enabling the body to experience the positive effects of a prolonged fast.
What did I have to lose besides $272.66?
Everything in the Prolon FMD comes individually packaged and labeled, and each of the five days starts with a bar made primarily of macadamia nuts and almonds. It is genuinely delicious. Lunch and dinner are soups—tomato, mushroom, minestrone or quinoa. Some days there are olives, and other days there are kale seed crackers. A couple of nights you get a little dessert in the form of a choco crisp bar. To drink there are teas—mint, lemon mint and hibiscus—and a glucose drink to be consumed on days two through five. Everything is vegan and gluten free. I found the food exciting in precisely the way I find airplane food exciting: it’s not that it tastes great, but you’re captive and it’s something to do.
The first day’s worth of food contains 1,200 calories—FMD eases you into fasting—and decrease to 800 for the second through fifth day.
By 3 p.m. on day one, I was experiencing a dull, though not a debilitating headache. I managed to work until 5 p.m., then made the inexplicable choice to watch several episodes of The Great British Bake Off. Watching people make beautiful pain au chocolat while eating a three-bite vegan dessert was surprisingly bearable.
Throughout the fast, I got mild headaches in the late afternoon, but I was still able to work and complete tasks as normal. It’s not recommended to exercise on the diet, so I cut out my usual workout classes but still walked my dog a couple of miles each day for both our sanity.
All the message boards I perused said I’d get over “the hump” of the fast by day three, and begin to feel great, but day four was the most challenging for me. Why? My husband was in town. Every other day of the year, I very much prefer that he’s home and not on the road, but I picked this particular week to do the fast because he was traveling four out of the five days. Through this experience I can highly recommend that if you live with someone, try to pick a block of time when you’ll be mostly solo. Otherwise, wrangle them onboard. After cobbling together a dinner from the remnants of our fridge, which hadn’t been opened in three days, my husband made himself the most aromatic food on earth: popcorn with truffle oil. (?!??!?!)
So day four was tough—the soup tasted worse, I missed the olives, and I wished I could have eaten dinner with my husband. The fast made me think a lot about how I may focus too much on food, and probably eat more than I need to on many days, but on this particular evening, it reminded me that the act of sharing a meal with people you love is really important, too.
Day five I felt fantastic. I weighed myself first thing and saw that I had lost five pounds. Weight loss wasn’t the goal of the fast, but it was a nice bonus since I’d gained a few stubborn pounds recently. I had a ton of energy, and for the first time all week I wanted to run with my dog instead of walking. I didn’t make any changes to my skincare routine during the fast, just continued to do my routines as usual, but my skin cleared up quite a bit. The congestion along my jawline was significantly improved—a lot fewer of those under-the-surface bumps—and I didn’t have any breakouts. I ate those last powdered soup mixes with gusto, and got a massage to reward myself for making it through the five days.
Day six is a transition day, where you’re encouraged to eat light. I was at my local acai spot five minutes after it opened on Saturday morning. Let me tell you, blended tropical fruit has never tasted so good. Eating light was easy, and I had no issues, gut or otherwise, transitioning back to a regular diet.
In the several weeks since finishing the diet, I have tried to adopt some of the guidelines that Dr. Longo outlines in his book: very little dairy, a significant reduction in meat, that kind of thing, though I have not gone vegan with some fish, as he recommends. But I feel great, my skin has been clear without any changes to my skincare routine, and that five pounds has stayed off.
So, would I do the FMD again? Yes. It strikes me as a great way to recover after over-indulging, maybe post-holiday. I still don’t think I’m ready for a water fast, but this experience has certainly made me think that an occasional week of conscious, light, vegan eating could be a great remedy for a multitude of issues, both body and skin, at least a couple of times a year. I’m glad to have ventured down this rabbit hole and glad that so many people are studying fasting and its effects. I am extremely into the idea of healing ourselves through food, even if it means less food than normal, or tiny packets of soup.