Silicon Valley execs: they do the darnedest things! They inject themselves with the blood of dewy-skinned twenty-somethings in an effort to regain their youthful vivacity. They buy dogs and inexplicably tell people that they’re wolves. And they get high during podcast interviews and start weirdly inflammatory feuds with Thai rescue divers.
One Silicon Valley idiosyncrasy that was recently been put on display is weird-ass diets. On Tuesday, a CNBC puff piece about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s “personal wellness habits” attracted some controversy when Dorsey shared his practice of taking daily ice baths and using an infrared desk, as well as his bizarre diet: instead of eating three full meals and a handful of snacks per day, as recommended by most nutritionists, Dorsey eats one meal between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m., which usually consists of “fish, chicken, or steak with a salad, spinach, asparagus or Brussels sprouts,” followed by some mixed berries for dessert (quelle indulgence!). Dorsey also told CNBC that only eating one meal per day allowed him to “feel so much more focused. … You have this very focused point of mind in terms of this drive.”
This practice of eating only one meal per day is not unheard of: It’s known as intermittent fasting, a type of diet in which people delay or abstain from a meal or a series of meals. Intermittent fasting encompasses a fairly wide range of diets, such as the 5:2 diet (a diet during which you consume only 500-600 calories two days of the week, eating normally the other five days) and the 16/8 diet (where you only eat during an 8-hour window during the day, skipping breakfast, and then fast for 16 hours). It’s probably most widely known as a weight loss method, due to celebrities like Terry Crews and Hugh Jackman publicly endorsing it and numerous first-person testimonials and before-and-after photos on health websites gushingly attesting to its efficacy.
Intermittent fasting is extremely popular among Silicon Valley CEO types and their acolytes, many of whom work grueling hours and are constantly on the hunt for the latest brain-enhancing supplement or diet or wellness trend aimed at upping their productivity. In addition to practicing restrictive diets and fasts, many of these tech bros will also meticulously track their glucose levels or ketones as a way to ensure optimum performance. This practice is often referred to as “biohacking,” a term that ostensibly lends a patina of scientific authority and credibility to obsessive self-restriction and self-monitoring — even though, as some critics have noted, such behavior is often symptomatic of disordered eating behaviors.
It sounds like Jack Dorsey might have a serious eating disorder. Walking 5 miles a day while only consuming one meal per weekday and no meals ion weekends is not a wellness hack…it’s a disease. https://t.co/KGQtDGgSnR
— Caroline Moss (@CarolineMoss) April 9, 2019
twitter CEO jack dorsey did an interview about his ~wellness routine~ and it's yet another grim example of a silicon valley guy who doesn't realize he has an eating disorder.
he eats one low-carb meal per day on weekdays, and fasts all weekend.
— Gavia Baker-Whitelaw (@Hello_Tailor) April 9, 2019
Although intermittent fasting is a broad term that applies to different eating plans that range in terms of restrictiveness, the way Dorsey practices it — by eating only one, relatively low-calorie meal per day — is highly risky. In addition to short-term health effects — like dizziness, lightheadness, headaches and fatigue — it could wreak havoc on your internal organs in the long run, including your liver and kidneys. It is also highly risky for people with eating disorders or those vulnerable to developing them, says Michele Kabas, LCSW, a certified eating disorder specialist. “Fasting is, I do believe, a form of disordered eating,” she says. “It’s a way that you believe that you are taking care of your body, even while you are ignoring your body’s hunger cues.”
Much like the keto or paleo diets, intermittent fasting is highly restrictive, and restrictive dieting can be triggering to those who struggle with disordered eating. Additionally, “a large aspect of disordered eating is exercising control over your diet, and if nothing else, intermittent fasting can provide this feeling of control,” Kabas says.
It’s this desire for control — over one’s food intake, one’s productivity, even one’s bowel movements — that has created the conditions for Silicon Valley “biohacking” to thrive, and for fad diets like intermittent fasting to take the forefront of cultural conversation, regardless of whether they are healthy or not. “In the United States we are so disordered in so many ways with food….if we say, ‘Look, you should restrict for this or restrict for that,’ what people hear is, ‘Don’t eat,'” Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, a Brooklyn-based nutritionist, says. “And they go into this pattern of ‘feed starve, feed starve’ and in most cases it is absolutely not beneficial.”
Ironically, if your goal is weight loss, intermittent fasting could also prove ineffective: as “many times when you are restricting, you are setting up the possibility of bingeing” when the fast cycle is over, says Kabas. Put another way, even if you’re not taking in any calories for most of the day, if you’re eating a ton of sugary or refined foods when the fast is over, then it could ultimately negate the effects of self-restricting earlier.
Ultimately, there actually isn’t a ton of hard evidence that intermittent fasting can help you lose weight, nor is it clear whether it’s particularly good for most people’s health to begin with. While there are a handful of animal studies suggesting it can help reduce the symptoms of autoimmune disorders like lupus, good clinical trials involving human subjects are few and far between. Even if intermittent fasting does work for some people trying to lose weight in the short-term, the meal plan is so restrictive that it’s “simply untenable” for the vast majority of people in the long run. “When people say, ‘I want to intermittent fast,’ I say, ‘Well, let’s take a look at the other things that are more sustainable for your lifestyle,'” says Feller.
Feller adds that unless you’re trying intermittent fasting under medical supervision, or have the resources available (a chef, nutritionist, etc.) to plan well-balanced meals, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to fulfill your daily nutritional needs. If you’re down to one meal per day, as Dorsey is, for example, that meal “has to be next to perfect in order to get the vitamins, minerals, fats, and carbohydrates you need, so for most people,” she says. “I’d be concerned about vitamin and mineral deficiencies.” Another potential side effect: constipation, due to the lack of fiber in your daily diet, she points out.
So if you’re interested in intermittent fasting, and you’re not the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation and you don’t have a private chef on staff to cook you nutritious and flawlessly composed meals, consult with a doctor before you try it — or, better yet, don’t take your lifestyle cues from eccentric Silicon Valley CEOs at all. Because when we start looking to people who work 22-hour days and take ice baths for fun for our health and wellness cues, then what the hell are we even doing?