Most of the doughnuts I’ve had in my life were eaten on a boardwalk at sunrise. This would make sense if there were an especially delightful doughnut shop on the beach near my house, but there isn’t. I also don’t live by the beach, and I don’t especially like doughnuts. Yet I often find myself walking the stretch of Coney Island Boardwalk, just as dawn hesitates to peak over the North Atlantic, eating a doughnut and drinking a medium coffee with skim milk and one Equal from the Dunkin’ Donuts below the last subway stop in Brooklyn at Coney Island. Despite my general ambivalence toward doughnuts, I have found these sugar-soaked, calorie-dense snacks that masquerade as a legitimate morning meal to be among the most satisfying breakfasts of my life. It is not the particular quality of the doughnuts that have sated me, but the circumstances under which I eat them: moderately starved and fresh off of four-and-a-half-mile runs to Coney Island in the dark.
To understand how I came to this peculiar breakfast ritual, I should start by saying that I believe selectively in junk science and firmly in the placebo effect. I practice lifestyle habits that appear reasonable even if they have been repeatedly debunked by evidence-based research. I spend an embarrassing amount of time browsing fitness websites full of unhealthy or suspicious advice for achieving extreme leanness. Articles on these sites use terms like “the fed state” and “blunted lipolysis” without explaining what they are and take as a given that their readers are juicing and supplementing and own a full rack of weights. I have nearly cracked my supraorbital arch raising my eyebrows so hard at some of the claims on these sites but every once in a while I think, “Eh, makes sense. I’ll try that one.” This is how I became a practitioner of an exercise method called fasting cardio.
The idea behind fasting cardio is that over the course of a night’s sleep, the body stops using recently consumed food for fuel and starts breaking down and burning the body’s fat stores. By performing cardio exercise on an empty stomach, the body should ostensibly continue converting fat during the workout until something is eaten, maximizing fat burned during a routine and delivering a leaner body in less time. Despite the dubious evidence about the true efficacy and safety of fasting cardio, I was a true believer from the get-go.
The term “stubborn fat” appears often in fitness articles. It conjures an image of sentient slabs of vermin fat living under your skin, invoking squatters’ rights to your body and requiring drastic measures to evict. The idea of starving them and then burning them for fuel was perversely thrilling. And so one day, when I rose for the four-mile run I take five times a week, I eschewed my usual breakfast of bananas or almond butter on toast. I was determined to feast on my own endurance for the duration of the run.
I should note that when it comes to popular bits of wisdom relating to mind and body, I either adore them and deploy them often or deplore them and go to great lengths to disprove them. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” is vacant of any moral values by being devoid of any qualitative element. “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels!” is a category error. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is the misguided single-issue voter of clichés. And “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is only true if you submit to society’s conception of time and its suggestions of when one ought to rise, eat, and sleep. I have pushed back the hardest on this last one, neglecting breakfast often and trying to game the system so that I might avoid the meal without diminishing my overall health. It is a mostly symbolic rebellion against the strictures of linear time but it is the best I can do.
I run before sunrise, when the tree-lined boulevard that leads to the beach is mostly desolate and the air is as cool as it will be all day. My initial hunger generally wears off within the first mile, when an influx of endorphins soothes my exhausted body into the elusive state of “runner’s high.” There are six Dunkin’ Donuts locations within a mile radius of my apartment in South Brooklyn, but I am tempted by none of them during this stage of my run. I listen to upbeat music and keep pace with it. For the first few weeks of attempting fasting cardio, bass lines and endorphins made it possible to arrive at the very edge of Coney Island and return triumphantly to my home on the subway to eat bananas and almond-butter toast without ever feeling hungry. But deprivation has a way of accumulating in secret and coming to collect its debts unexpectedly.
The first hunger pang on one of these fasting cardio runs came like a punch to the right side of my abdomen that caused me momentary terror that my appendix was rupturing. It subsided into mild nausea in a few minutes only to return again as I approached the last stretch of Ocean Parkway before landing on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. There was an urgency to the pain, more like the need to use the bathroom than the discomfort of hunger. Though I had been running to Coney Island for years, the only establishment I knew to be open 24 hours a day was the Dunkin’ Donuts on Surf Avenue. I stumbled in as if I was wounded and ordered a coffee and a glazed doughnut from the cashier with the drama one might explain their symptoms in an emergency room.
You would think realizing that fasting cardio is not a good fit for my disposition would stop me from trying it again. But I am not a reasonable person. I am a person who is defiant of harmless clichés and who trusts junk-science websites when the mood strikes. And so I often find myself breaking down at the end of a two-week fasting cardio regimen, famished and panicked. And though it hits most often near the beach at dawn, when the sky and ocean prepare to meet in brilliant colors, I find more solace in a wholly different glow: the bright pink-and-orange sign of the sugar and caffeine merchant situated at the last subway stop in Brooklyn and the first step on my way back home.
Alana Massey is a writer covering culture, identity, and labor. She is the author of All the Lives I Want and Worth Less, both from Grand Central Publishing. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.