Don't Be Fooled by Extreme Fasting

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey
Image: Getty

On Thursday morning, the Guardian published a reported piece which interrogates an eating trend growing in popularity within tech-bro circles in Silicon Valley: extreme fasting. Arwa Mahdawi writes that “a number of high-profile tech execs extol the transformative power of extreme fasting,” while normalizing behaviors associated with eating disorders like “obsessively tracking your calorie intake and exercise,” all in service to the “Silicon Valley ethos that constant self-examination leads to self-improvement.” She argues that “starving yourself and constructing rigid rules and rituals around when and how you eat is generally seen as a problem when it’s teenage girls doing it; when tech-bros do it, it’s treated very differently.”

Mahdawi’s comparison to the worry over the disordered eating of girls and the “extreme fasting” of Silicon Valley is striking, and indicative of another recent trend: tech companies rebranding dieting behavior, the kind women have done for decades. A good example of this is Soylent, a protein shake meant to replace traditional meals. Soylent is perceived as innovative, and therefore more valuable than something like SlimFast, though they nearly identical products.

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Both products look similar to one another, come in similar packaging and even contain similar ingredients (maltodextrin, soy lecithin, and sucralose), though Soylent is slightly more nutritious. The main difference is, of course, that SlimFast has been historically marketed to women who want to lose weight. Soylent is ostensibly for men who want to optimize their health. As Amanda Mull wrote for the Atlantic last October, “not unlike increasing a year-old iPhone’s battery life or building a car that runs without gas... Dieting is no longer a necessary problem of vanity, as it has been historically termed, but a problem of knowledge and efficiency—a rhetorical shift with broad implications for how people think of themselves.”

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Language has a lot to do with the shift in the consumer base. Dieting has clearly gendered implications. “People still have a difficult time recognizing similar behavior in men as problematic,” Dr. Tiffany Brown, a postdoctoral fellow at UC San Diego Eating Disorders Center told the Guardian—and diet culture is often perceived as women’s business. By filing restrictive dieting under fasting, and by extension, “bio-hacking,” an umbrella term used to describe the belief that, through technology, bodies can be modified to perfection, in extreme cases, immortality, the tech world distances itself from issues relegated to the realm of women: disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

Of course, fasting, unlike dieting, has a much more attractive history. People fast before going into surgery, or doing diagnostic tests, for their health. Nonviolent political activists fast on hunger strikes to draw attention to injustice. In most major religions—Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism included—fasting is part of the practice. Those actions are never referred to as dieting, because the intent isn’t for something as frivolous as weight loss. Fasting is viewed as a far more meaningful action entirely devoid of the vanity implied by dieting.

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One of extreme fasting’s most recognized supporters is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, whose recent foray into meditation and various pseudo-spiritual practices could explain his interest. Last month, he tweeted that he does a “22 hour fast daily” which in turn feels like “time slows down,” causing “days [to] feel so much longer.” Those observations can only be considered spiritual revelations through the eyes of the wealthy and tech-savvy.

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If Dorsey’s rationale for extreme fasting is similar to biohacking population, perhaps he should examine the reality: he’s thinking a lot about food. The proof is in the tweet. Any science behind the benefit of extreme fasting, conveniently, is not. Fasting, extreme fasting as biohacking, whatever they want to call it, is disordered eating by its clearest definition. The last thing anyone needs is the belief that they could become more successful through extreme dieting. That messaging already exists in countless forms, especially for women.

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