You Call It Starvation. I Call It Biohacking. – The New York Times


Welcome to the bro-y world of extreme dieting. Or is it disordered eating?

Mr. Stackpole is a writer.

CreditCreditAngie Wang

The run happened — or didn’t — maybe five days into the raw-diet experiment.

I had formed a sort of fitness pact with a friend to forgo cooked food, and after days of nothing but salads, almonds, sashimi and black coffee, my body felt taut and ready for action.

And for about half a mile, it was, my strides floating above the pavement as a few fistfuls of raw kale percolated in my belly. Then suddenly I sputtered, feeling an unambiguous alarm go off: Tank is empty, sorry, this is the end of the line. After a pause, I tried running again but made it maybe a block before my legs revolted again and I slowed to a walk. My new healthy diet, it seemed, didn’t accommodate any actual exercise.

When I told all this to my co-workers the next morning, it was fodder for a good laugh. My obsessions were — and often still are — a kind of running joke. I’ve been conducting a series of shifting and poorly planned “wellness” experiments on myself for about a decade. I’ve eaten keto, low-carb and sometimes not at all. One time, I ate almost nothing but lean ground turkey and broccoli over greens for maybe two months as part of a YouTube bodybuilder’s plan. More than once, I’ve lost 10 pounds in a week. I’ve also obsessed over bulking up, gaining 25 pounds over about six months of lifting, before pivoting and deciding to train for a marathon to run it off. Then there were the gut biome vitamins, the metabolism-boosting mushrooms, the experiments with LSD microdosing and calorie trackers.

Despite years of cycling through boutique insanities, it didn’t occur to me that I might have a problem until earlier this year, when the Twitter founder turned Silicon Valley wellness influencer Jack Dorsey detailed his fasting regimen. The news that he eats one meal a day during the week and none on the weekend provoked scornful cries that he was advocating little more than anorexia with a bro-y tech-world veneer. I, on the other hand, saw a kindred spirit.

My relationship with the extreme margins of the wellness world didn’t start until my mid-20s. And as with many people, it started out about weight.

During my adolescence, I’d had a critical but mostly accepting relationship with my body. I’d been a high school runner who could clock a respectable 5:30 mile but just have always had the kind of body that hangs onto a probably fine amount of fat.

In my early 20s, I had worked service jobs or physical labor, spending the day on my feet and often exercising before or after. But once I found myself sitting behind an aging computer in a magazine office in Washington, I started to gain weight, slowly, but inescapably. The delicate balance of appreciation and loathing I felt for my body tipped — I felt it was betraying me and spiraling out of control.

And so I searched for a ways to wrestle it back into line. I ran more and did hot yoga. I heaved a filing cabinet onto a table and fashioned myself a sort of brutalist standing desk. But the problem, I eventually realized, was my relationship to food — always stressed, I chased down my salads with any carbohydrate not nailed down. Eating raw or straight-up fasting were ways to regain a modicum of control over my appetites, at least at first — and to do so in ways that felt like fun, slightly absurd challenges: There’s a machismo to this sort of explicit bodily abuse that simple healthy living doesn’t offer.

But if this started out about weight, at some point, for me, these obsessions stopped being about my body; the strain of a new fitness regimen, a new mania, be it lifting or raw food, became its own draw.

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It’s clear I’m not the only one — and not the only guy — who sees something appealing here. If fasting started as a life hack for the billionaire class, which in turn saw would-be billionaires follow suit — as if food was the thing that was holding their start-ups back — today, run-of-the-mill bros everywhere are studying how to eat only during six-hour windows in the pages of Men’s Health and Men’s Journal.

We live in a time of wellness not as health but as transcendence. It’s not a coincidence that all of the supposed cures of wellness-adjacent diet hacking hinge on extreme behavior — fasting, or that daily coffee you put special butter in. The appeal of this brand of wellness has very little to do with being healthy. After all, most of what maintaining good health requires feels pretty good: eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, practice everything in moderation (even moderation), etc. With “biohacking,” the effects are ephemeral and the health claims are dubious. But what these crude approaches do offer is a sense of control in the moment — a way to tell yourself that you’re willing some change into being.

It would perhaps be going too far to call this kind of behavior an “eating disorder”; those are conditions that send people to the hospital and sometimes kill them, not a series of passing, momentary manias. But nor do I have a healthy relationship with food or exercise, a fact about my life that up until recently has been more or less obscured by my gender. After all, if I asked you to picture someone grappling with disordered eating, would you imagine a skinny teenage girl or me — a 33-year-old man who weighs 200 pounds and is flirting with exercise bulimia? I bet you a cookie you picked the former.

So if there’s an upside to the male-driven starvation-as-biohacking era, it might be that it reveals what disordered eating and exercising, stripped of their typical gender norms, are actually about.

We typically tend to think of these behaviors as feminine ones. As a result, there’s often an impression that they’re primarily about appearance and, sometimes, vanity. They can be, but this, of course, was never the whole story. Today’s eating disorder is as likely to come in the guise of a diet that purports to optimize you to survive and thrive in late capitalism as it is one that claims to make you beach-body ready. What these iterations reveal is how much more disordered obsessive behavior around food and exercise can be about, how many kinds of feelings this sort of behavior can become a vessel for. In an era when so many of us feel the world spiraling out of control, maybe it’s just the promise of being able to control something — to will a change, any change, into being — that’s the draw.

A few days ago, as I was thinking about writing this, I sat down in front of my computer and took a questionnaire from the National Eating Disorder Association to see whether I was at risk. I clicked through the questions — yes, I had gone to extremes to exercise after eating; no, I don’t tend to hide when I eat out of shame. At the end of it, the website told me I was at risk and should probably talk to someone.

When I mentioned those results to two close female acquaintances, both of them laughed before catching themselves, horrified. Both, for the record, are thoughtful, sensitive women who don’t cop to gender stereotypes. They were both familiar with my history of fixation with wellness fads. Maybe it was just the moment of that absurd history suddenly being recast with a new, worrisome weight. I laughed, too, for what it’s worth. It had all been a joke for so long. What was it now?

Thomas Stackpole is a senior editor at Boston Magazine.

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