Nine months ago, an American friend in Tokyo introduced me to intermittent fasting, which might’ve changed my life forever. And while that’s good and all, it had the unfortunate side-effect of killing brunch. I was like, Damn, that’s the third-best meal of the day.
And intermittent fasting in Japan is kind of strange anyway, because when you tell Japanese folks about it, they’re like, “Okaaay … so you don’t eat breakfast. I never eat breakfast.” And you’re like, “No, you don’t get it—-I don’t eat for eighteen whole hours.” And they just stare sadly then mumble, “Yesterday I worked eighteen hours and didn’t even get up to pee.” Which is to say that in Japan, lots of people don’t eat, and nobody cares if you don’t also. It’s like trying to win a staring contest with a cat.
Intermittent Fasting Made Simple
Apparently, intermittent fasting is now actually a thing in the U.S., but in case you’re not from the greatest country on earth where everybody’s a massive porker yet still wearing yoga pants in public, let me break it down for you. There are a myriad of methods known as “intermittent fasting,” some even marketed commercially, all of which is concerning and unnecessarily confusing. Even the term itself is entirely redundant, since fasting is by definition intermittent; otherwise it’d be called “starving to death.”
But in fact, fasting is the essence of simplicity. You just don’t eat all the freaking time and, amazingly, you might actually lose some weight, ya fatty. If Intermittent fasting were a 12-step program, steps 2 through 12 would be skipping breakfast, while Step 1 would be admitting to God you’re powerless over breakfast.
Intermittent Fasting in Japan
So all hype aside, intermittent fasting in Japan has actually worked out great for me. Like monkeys typing Hamlet, it seems I’m destined to eventually try everything in this damn country. The whole thing started last spring, when I was sitting on a bench under the sakura trees, drinking shochu with old men in the park, and this one dude with no teeth leaned over, patted my belly, and said, “getting fat, huh.” Real big on politeness and subtlety, the Japanese. And I was like, “Yeah, that’s what happens when you can still chew food.” Only I didn’t actually say that, because I’m from a culture that respects its elders. So I just chuckled and wished him dead.
But I knew he was right, old Gummy. Recently, the bathroom scale had hit a shocking 83 kilos (183 pounds), which for a 6-foot tall dude means you’re likely either resembling a rugby player or a keg of beer, and since I don’t understand rugby, all those malt liquors I’d pounded since college had apparently ended up somewhere.
Then around that time, my buddy in Tokyo described this intermittent fasting thing he’d been doing, and I responded with the typical Ken Seeroi open-mindedness and enthusiasm.
“No effing way, it’d never work for me, forget that,” followed by a litany of reasons referencing low blood sugar, exercise, caffeine, booze, my teaching schedule, and a love of rice balls.
This Japanese Life
Here was a typical day in the life of Seeroi Sensei: Alarm goes off at six-thirty. Hop out of bed to go running. Crawl back into bed and sleep till eight, skip the shower, rummage through laundry and don the least dirty articles, then sprint to the station. On the way, buy four rice balls and a large can of coffee at 7-Eleven. I’d have one rice ball before I got to work then another right before class. That gave me just enough power to teach English, then stumble back to the staff room and smash another rice ball. Lunch would be something like grilled fish, pickles, stir-fried vegetables, soup, and a bowl of rice. Then one more rice ball in the mid-afternoon, followed by a visit to the izakaya on the way home for a couple beers and a set menu suspiciously reminiscent of lunch.
The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster
I knew I was on a blood sugar roller coaster; I just didn’t know how to get off. Basically, every time I started getting hungry, I ate carbs so I’d have energy. Which worked, until I burned through them in an hour, at which point I was starving again and ate more. I was consuming about ten small meals a day, like a hamster. Not exactly an animal of enviable shape.
Of course, like everybody else in the world, I’d tried various combinations of What-to-Eat and How-much-to-eat. I’d just never given much thought to When-to-eat. Or more accurately, when not to. I finally realized there’s really only one question needing an answer:
When do you give your body a chance to burn fat?
Because if you’re constantly stuffing your face, the body’s going to use that for fuel, and never get around to the stored calories. Not eating gives your body a chance to use them. That’s the idea, anyway.
Trying Intermittent Fasting in Japan
Now, I’d read that intermittent fasting makes you feel less hungry, not more. So I reluctantly tried it. I quit eating at 8 p.m., and didn’t have lunch or breakfast or whatever you call it until noon the next day, and you know what? To my great surprise, I wasn’t hungry. Instead, I was hungry as fuck. After eight, I stared longingly into the fridge at tuna salad, leftover clam linguine, cups of yogurt, and pickled plums. There was a bag of frozen edamame screaming to be eaten like little green popsicles. At night I dreamt of potato chips and fried egg sandwiches. In the morning, my stomach rumbled at the smell of miso soup wafting from next door and 7-Eleven became akin to Odysseus sailing past the Sirens. I considered filling my ears with wax and lashing myself to a telephone pole, but it seemed a bit extreme.
And then after a week, all that kind of stopped. Suddenly, not eating was a piece of cake. A big, chocolatey piece of not-eating cake. I even found myself wishing I didn’t have to join the lunch table every day at 12. But lunch in Japan happens at noon and having it later is apparently unthinkable. I mean literally, no one’s ever thought of not chewing in unison.
Contrary to all reason, I just forgot about eating in the mornings, and my notoriously fickle blood sugar stayed rock solid. Then in the next three months, the pounds just melted away like butter. Delicious butter. I dropped 7 kilos (15 pounds), went from having a keg to more of a six-pack, and every single person I knew said, Wow, you’ve lost a lot of weight. If Japanese folks are good at anything, it’s commenting upon others’ personal appearance. Whatever, at least I could wear slim-fit trousers and tuck my shirts back in.
Does Intermittent Fasting Work?
I gotta say, aside from mitigating the rice balls, I didn’t much change what I ate. I might’ve even been powering down more, not less. There were still evenings filled with steaming bowls of ramen, pan-fried gyoza, massive plates of curry, gallons of beer, and terrifying quantities of Calbee’s potato chips. Damn their savoriness. After a while, I didn’t even sweat finishing meals by 8 p.m., because it doesn’t work all so well in a culture that values 3-hour long dinners. Some nights I stopped eating by 8, while others I carried on until 9 or 10. In the end, all I really did was cut out breakfast.
But even 10 p.m. till noon is still 14 hours of not eating, and that’s no small potatoes. Those would be amazing with the aforementioned butter, by the way. But it begs the question of whether the weight loss is due to some miracle of fasting or simply to omitting the calories associated with cramming down three morning rice balls and maybe snacking less in the evenings. So does intermittent fasting work? I can say definitively and with great confidence: I have no idea.
The Year of no Breakfast
Whatever the mechanism, simply knocking out breakfast seems to keep the weight in check. Maybe it’s reduced calories, maybe it’s meal timing, whatever, it apparently works. Moreover, fasting for a bit actually feels great. There’s something refreshing about giving your body a break from all that eating. In the mornings, I just have black coffee, and on the weekends, often don’t have anything until 2 or 3. It’s weird, but once your system gets used to the rhythm, it actually feels good not to eat. It’s easy as pie. Like a chunky piece of flaky cherry pie just bursting with flavor-kind of easy.
Now you should probably talk to a doctor or actual smart person before trying any of this. Don’t go starving yourself to death just because some dude in Japan decided to hate on breakfast. Do your own research. But I gotta testify that, for me, it’s been pretty fantastic. Which is ironic, since I came to Japan for the food, and now not eating it may be the best thing I take away from this weird nation. But as I always say, Japan’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. A great big box of delicious jelly-filled chocolates. Just like that.