The Unbearable Heaviness of Snacking
Breaking the bad habit loop with fasting + ketogenic breakfast
“Let us therefore now at length rise up as the Scripture incites us when it says: “Now is the hour for us to arise from sleep… [W]e must hasten to do such things only as may profit us for eternity, now, while there is time for this and we are in this body and there is time to fulfil all these precepts by means of this light.”
– Introduction to the Rule of St. Benedict
When Adalbert de Vogue, OSB, set out to recover the lost Benedictine tradition of fasting, he took his time. For two years, he gradually reduced his breakfast until it was nothing, and then did the same for lunch.
In our dopamine-addicted modern world, it’s tempting to rush into “goals” that provide us with a fleeting sense of satisfaction. It’s prudent to take the time upfront to design intelligent systems for achieving reach a state of lasting satisfaction. We are developing a keepable habit of fasting, not following a fad diet.
With that said, there is an urgency to recover vital spiritual and bodily disciplines as the hour grows ever later, as the opening of St. Benedict’s rule suggests. The Benedict Challenge aims to quicken and ease the transition to habitual, joyful fasting. Two years, I think, is too long. If we play our cards right and seek out supernatural graces during Lent, we can experience the joy of fasting in under 50 days.
Last week I introduced a system of gradually intensifying fasts during Lent, in which the eating window gets shorter until it reaches just “One Meal a Day” in the final week leading up to Easter. While last week’s rule called for 13-hour fasts, this week we increase that to 14 hours. We will also continue the more rigorous fasts on Wednesday and Friday, when we go “Full Benedict” – eating just one meatless meal at dinner.
Before advancing to 14-hour fasts, take a minute to review how closely you followed the previous week’s rule. If you are experiencing this as a ‘challenge’ so far, you’re not alone. If you’re just starting, you can download the weekly worksheets here.
I’ve found it harder to not snack between meals on non-fasting days, than to simply not eat on fasting days. This speaks to a problem I call the Pringles Effect—once you pop, you can’t stop.
Pringles are the perfect Frankenfood—lab-engineered to be maximally addictive, and with no nutrients. They make you think you’re still hungry even after you’ve eaten.
But even “healthy” snacks like protein bars, smoothies, and trail mixes, have warped our relationship with food over the past 40 years.
In this post, I’ll describe what happens in the body when we snack and suggest a better way to overcome hunger, which will ease the transition to One Meal a Day fasting.
Get weekly resources throughout Lent on recovering the ancient discipline of One Meal a Day fasting:
Snack Attack! The Anatomy of Insulin Resistance
Snacking, like breakfast, is a relatively recent phenomenon—part of the broader trend towards pursuing instant gratification, which leads to the cycle that James Clear warns us about in Atomic Habits:
“Satisfying consequences tend to be repeated until they become automatic.” – James Clear
There is a cue—say a catchy Pringles ad—which prompts a craving. The response—eating a snack—leads to a reward. Each repetition reinforces the habit:
While constant grazing works for cows, in humans it is a recipe for both physical and spiritual illness. When we’re healthy, the body’s endocrine system (i.e., hormones) naturally balances energy expenditure with calories consumed. Insulin, ghrelin, and leptin are all signaling chemicals that are produced to tell various organs when to eat, and when to burn energy versus store it, based on the amounts of energy that are already stored in places like the bloodstream, the liver, muscles, and fat.
Snacking is one of the modern bad habits that dumbs down our body’s natural intelligence when it comes to regulating how much we eat. First, the dopamine reward of an enticing snack hooks us, to the point that we override the “I’m full!” signal and keep eating past the point when we’d normally feel full.
Once a snacking addiction habit is acquired, the vicious cycle of insulin resistance begins. Insulin’s main job is to signal when energy is available, and shuttle nutrients into the cells—either to be burned or for storage. When cells are already full of energy, the body must secrete more insulin, demanding that cells “open up!” to absorb excess glucose out of the bloodstream. Cells eventually become resistant to the signal from the insulin, and in the extreme case of diabetes, you need external injections of insulin just to keep blood sugar from reaching toxic levels.
Half of adult Americans are diabetic or pre-diabetic, as measured by unhealthy fasting glucose levels. We prescribe drugs to manage blood sugar, and for many years, diabetics were encouraged to eat 2-3 snacks between meals. However, most kinds of snacks make the problem worse. Just a teaspoon of sugar will spike insulin, and with each spike comes a crash, and a new craving for another snack.
Why am I spending so much time on the anatomy of diabetes? Given that pretty much all of us are on the road to diabetes or prediabetes if we continue on our current trajectory, the discipline of fasting between meals takes on new particular urgency.
Making the Switch & Breaking the Chain
We used to think that there was no cure for Type II diabetes—only management of symptoms. However, a growing number of patients are reversing the root cause of diabetes—insulin resistance—most commonly through the powerful combination of intermittent fasting plus very low-carb ketogenic diets.
The same cascading chain reaction that leads to insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity can also work in reverse. It starts by putting the body into a fasted state for long enough that our fat cells begin to release energy stores to be burned.
Our bodies use a different metabolic pathway to burn our own fat stores than the one it uses when in grazing mode.
de Vogue summarizes the physiological phenomena with reference to the spiritual transformation that takes place alongside it:
“About ten hours after a meal, the [digestive] contractions stop and the feeling of hunger disappears; five or six hours later the glucose stops coming directly from the intestines and begins to produce itself from the reserve of glycogen contained in the liver. From then on, the body works on itself in a closed circuit, becoming itself the source of the energy it uses. Instead of destroying and appropriating to himself nourishment taken from outside, man enters a state of nonviolence and detachment relative to the outside world.
Fasting, when thus perceived as an expansive and liberating practice, has nothing in common with the severe penance it seems to be for some of my brothers.”
Instead of a pointless penance, fasting is a true bodily repentance – in the original Greek sense of a metanoia: a 180-degree turn away from old ways as a result of spiritual conversion.
The trouble is that not everyone immediately experiences this reversal as a state of nonviolence. To a body accustomed to the ‘state of violence,’ self-digestion can feel uncomfortable.
de Vogue continues:
“Several times people have confided to me that an attempt at fasting (whatever was meant by that) was paid for by nightmares. These violent dreams suggest that the experiment was badly carried out: the unconscious resented it as a violence. Instead of being an aggression, fasting should be felt as the suppression of useless and burdensome excess. If a person experiences its benefits, as I have, the psyche is not disturbed but strengthened and pacified.”
Perhaps this discrepancy and the variety of fasting experiences stems from the transitional period that must be crossed over in faith before the lightness of fasting is felt. I liken the transition to the Jordan River. It’s chilly and wide, but we all have a home on the other side if we’re willing to cross it.
The reason why fasting (and not snacking) is such a hard habit to break has to do with how the body supplies its energy needs when glucose is easily available, versus when it’s not. NOTE: If you’re bored by the technical details, skip ahead to the next header.
When you first run out of the most accessible stores of glucose and glycogen, you begin to pass through a stage known as gluconeogenesis (new glucose creation). This process is not as energy efficient as the usual process of making glucose from outside carbohydrates. Gluconeogenesis also consumes more water, making it more physically taxing. However, if you stick it out for long enough to get through this transient phase, you are rewarded by another, more efficient pathway called ketogenesis. Ketones bodies – produced from fat in the liver – are supplied as fuel in lieu of diminished glucose supplies. Unlike gluconeogenesis, ketosis spares protein and is less physically taxing. The brain operating in a state of ketosis does a better job balancing the neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate, which may also contribute to the feeling of strength, lightness, and peace de Vogue reports while fasting.
Ketosis was likely an evolutionary adaptation that enabled humans to survive on their own supply of body fat. A human being has anywhere from 20,000 to 90,000 calories of fat stored on their body. You can imagine food might not have been available for several days, or even weeks at a time, during long expeditions by nomadic hunter gatherers. Our fat stores literally helped us we took over the world, as we walked across the planet.
The average person can survive weeks burning nothing but their own body fat; for an obese individual, it might be months.
There are reports of morbidly obese patients who fast nonstop for over a year – taking only supplemental minerals – reversing their metabolic syndrome in the process. Going into week 3, that should put the 14-hour fast and 3-5 hours of no snacking between meals into perspective.
Of course, we still experience discomfort initially as we are making this physiological switchover. It’s not enough to simply say we want to stop snacking, we need to have a clear intention for how we are going to deal with cravings when they arise.
Introducing the Fat Brunch
Most people feel hungry upon waking up because they're used to having breakfast at that time. This is usually right after the body has stopped digesting your last meal, and is finally beginning to break down body fat for energy rather than the food in your belly. From a fat-burning perspective, eating a sugary breakfast (think juice, toast, cereal, and pastries) or snack is the worst thing you can do first thing in the morning.
The intermittent fasting community has discovered that ketogenic diets can ease the transition, by allowing you to satiate your hunger without relapsing into sugar-burning mode. Eating plenty of healthy fats with minimal carbohydrates has a similar effect as fasting on the metabolism, and it tends to make us feel full. This is because we are not spiking blood sugar, and thus insulin levels remain low. When insulin remains low, the “hunger hormone” ghrelin also remains low.
Thus, the best weapon in our arsenal against snacking is to eat a filling, high-fat/moderate protein meal for breakfast and lunch.
To put this in terms of the Atomic Habits framework, we have an initial cue – waking up – which paves the way for a craving: we are hungry.
Our response to that craving might be to eat a sugary breakfast, which gives us the reward of sweet deliciousness, and a temporary feeling of being full. However, the sudden spike and subsequent dip in insulin sets us up to be hungry again soon after – ready for a “healthy” snack like a protein bar that is mostly sugar.
I recommend instead responding to that craving by drinking a cup of unsweetened tea or coffee with several tablespoons of heavy cream. This doesn’t have to count as breaking the fast, since the cream is low enough in sugar and protein to keep your body in a fasted state, but it still provides a substitute reward that doesn’t feed the vicious snacking cycle.
A 10-hour fasting window allows for a late breakfast, say 9:30 or 10 am. Bacon and eggs, or eggs fried in a generous amount of butter, should be enough to stave off true biological hunger until lunchtime. This won’t break you free from the violent state of digestion altogether, but it will break the vicious cycle of snacking that makes longer fasting impossible.