’Tis the season: U.S. News & World Report just released its list of Top 40 Diets, just in time for all of those new year’s dieters looking for the quickest antidote possible to their holiday overindulgence. It’s a swarm that comes out every year, like clockwork (See also: the annual People cover headline touting people who have lost “half their size,” and US Weekly’s “Diets That Work!”) But it’s somewhat surprising that one of the diet trends you may have heard the most about this year hovers toward the bottom of the USN&WR list: Fasting.
Fasting doesn’t really qualify as a fad—it’s been around since biblical times, and many religions have used it as a devotional practice for centuries. In the past few years, though, fasting has received a few boosts as a prospective dieting method. Some doctors have touted its advantages, like Dr. Jason Fung, author of The Complete Guide To Fasting, and Dr. Michael Mosley, co-author of The FastDiet. Then “biohacker” Dave Asprey started a veritable sensation with his “bulletproof coffee” method a few years ago, where you start the day drinking coffee whipped with butter and coconut oil to help stave off any morning hunger pangs while you’re fasting.
As no one wants you to go on an actual hunger strike, there are a few options for today’s fasters: The 5:2 method, in which you only fast a few days a week, versus “intermittent fasting,” in which you only eat for a certain number of hours every day. Grappling with my usual new year’s diet, I was intrigued by this method: I have never been much of a morning eater, so I decided to try to limit my eating to 6 to 8 hours a day: Only from noon (or out to 2 p.m. if I can manage it) until 8 p.m. In the morning, I would have a huge coffee with a healthy slosh of cream, and then (attempt to) hold out until lunch. (Those of you who regularly read The Takeout may notice that I’m also doing Dryuary. Not eating, not drinking; I’m a ton of fun at parties right now.) There’s nothing to count, or keep track of, except the time. And when I told my internist about my plan, he seemed fairly unconcerned, just glad that I would be attempting to eat less.
But even after a few weeks of my grande coffee with cream breakfast, I still was having trouble with the fasting part. If I wasn’t eating for at least 16 hours a day, shouldn’t my stomach be shrinking, making this process easier? Why did it seem like I was getting actually hungrier, especially around 11 a.m.? Was I just going to have to get permanently used to hunger pangs? In desperation, I thought that maybe the more complex fat structure in the butter part of the butter coffee could help me last until lunch without hallucinating that my laptop was in fact an ice cream sandwich. So one morning, I decided to step into the butter coffee fad.
I went ahead with this despite that fact that a few experts I asked weren’t big fans of fasting, and really didn’t like fasting with butter coffee. Erica Battin, registered dietitian nutritionist at the Center For Lifestyle Medicine at Northwestern Medical Group, stated firmly: “Bulletproof coffee: just a fad. One cup requires 4 tablespoons of high saturated fats (not to mention 440 calories!). Saturated fat comes from animal and tropical oils. Many studies indicate too much saturated fat in your diet increases one’s risk for heart disease (the leading cause of death in this country).” Dietitian Ian Cohen took umbrage with the concept of fasting in general: “What is the person trying to achieve that can’t be done through a balanced method of eating? We could go into the junk and cherry-picked science behind it, but in layman’s terms, fasting can screw up your metabolism and its allowance of caffeine of all things is an overt acknowledgment that the human body is not capable of functioning properly without energy intake. Not to mention how it can exacerbate latent disordered eating behavior and encourage food obsession. In all likelihood, whatever short term gain you expect from intermittent fasting might require longer periods of recovery from fasting itself.”
Naomi Seifter, however, CEO and founder of Austin restaurant Picnik, states, “Butter coffee is a core piece of what we do, and I feel like the trends are just now getting started, if I’m being honest.” Granted, she has a huge horse in this race, as her Picnik line of bottled butter coffee just got picked up by Whole Foods. She describes, “I grew up with a bunch of different health problems and learned in my late teens that it was pretty much directly associated with what I was eating. So in my early 20s, I kind of adopted all these different diets and ended up on something what you’d probably consider paleo. I ate all these different meats and produce and nuts and cheese and my diet was pretty simple, and I was starving all the time.” I can relate. Luckily for Seifter, “My mom is a physician, and she was a big advocate for healthy fats and she had stumbled upon some resources early on—this is like in 2012—and she said, ‘I think if you incorporate some high-quality fats, it will really make a different in your appetite.’ I found a resource for just plain butter coffee, just grass-fed butter and MCT oil [a high-quality source of fat derived from coconut oil] and coffee and I tried it for a week, and I loved the way it made me feel.”
My daily hunger pangs were intense enough to make me want to give it a try. So on Tuesday I put two tablespoons of grass-fed butter in my to-go coffee cup (we buy the Kerry brand anyway), had it filled at my neighborhood Beans & Bagels, and shook it up as much as possible without alarming anyone on the train. (Bringing my hand-mixer in to work seemed a bit extreme.) While I really didn’t like the taste of it as much as my beloved half-and-half-dosed brew (I always drink what the English refer to as a “white coffee”), or the unsightly oil slick at the top of my cup, my hunger did in fact hold off for a little while longer. I was able to cruise past the 11 a.m. hour, and when my Potbelly order arrived around noon, I didn’t pounce on the delivery person. I was even able to put my beautiful sandwich aside for a few minutes before tearing through the paper.
I was pretty sure I was missing the magic of butter coffee, though, so the next day I worked from home and threw the coffee, grassfed butter, and coconut oil combo in the blender. Unlike my sad experiment the day before, this butter latte came out nice and frothy. I hate words like “mouthfeel,” but the creaminess made this concoction much more palatable. And the coconut flavor helped it seem exotic. It was enough to make me start considering buying a cheap blender at Target and keeping it at the office, let’s put it that way.
Even with all this stirred-up fat, though, my fast still only lasted until about noon. So 16 hours appeared to be my absolute limit before my stomach started telling my brain that I need to start gnawing on my own arm.
I still had one more option to try: Seifter’s Picnik beverages, which contain not only coffee, butter, and MCT oil, but extra vitamins, proteins, and spices. She says that although she liked butter coffee, “it felt like the drink itself was relatively boring. So as someone who was used to like Starbucks culture or craft coffee, I was like I want a little but more of an exciting experience with my morning coffee, so I started playing around. And I fell in love with these drinks I was making.”
She sent a box to The A.V. Club office, where I passed around the three varieties: “Cappuccino,” “Dirty Chai,” and “Mocha Latte.” They definitely had the creamy mouthfeel (sorry! I wish there was another word for that), but I missed the immediate frothiness of my blender concoction. In a pinch, I would still chug one of Picnik’s hefty 10 oz. portions to try to stave off my hunger pangs. (My coworkers were somewhat less than enthused about drinking a label that said “butter coffee,” but some said they thought they could get used to it eventually, especially the spicy Dirty Chai flavor.)
And yet: Same thing. Even after drinking a whole bottle of Cappuccino butter coffee and tasting the other flavors, by noonish I was still chomping at the lunch bit. So it seems like no matter what, I’m going to be hungry after 16 hours of no food. This shocking discovery should undoubtedly inspire the following reaction: “No shit, genius.”
In conclusion: Portugal is a land of contrasts. (Sorry, I love that bit.) In conclusion, I think I might buy that blender. I understand that fasting might not be for everyone, but in my current overfed state left over from 2017 (and beyond), it’s somewhat working for me. (And sure, the no-drinking likely helps this effort as well.) I can fit into my skinny(ish) jeans, which is something I couldn’t have done last week. Someday, I may be able to sit down in them again. Or even wear them out of the house. After all, it’s a brand new year, when hopes are high, resolve is ironclad, and the coffee is frothy.