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Silicon Valley Wants to Cash In on Fasting

Several startups are working to commercialize the tech world’s latest health craze.
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Illustration: Kurt Woerpel for Bloomberg Businessweek

Like most of the health fads that catch on in Silicon Valley, this one broke through thanks to word-of-mouth—and a Medium post. Entrepreneur Sumaya Kazi extolled its virtues to 650,000 readers, while venture capitalist Phil Libin and others preached about it to anyone who would listen. Their miraculous idea was in fact a very old one: eating nothing at all for long stretches of time. Monthly Google searches for “intermittent fasting,” which has become a catchall term for various forms of the practice, have risen tenfold over the past three years, to as many as 1 million. That’s about as many as “weight loss” gets, and more than “diet.” Now comes the next step, as businesses try to turn various forms of the craze into profit.

The idea may sound troubling depending on your relationship with food, but paid-for fasting regimens are finding a new audience in the Valley, partly because they’re framed in terms of productivity, not only weight loss. (Fasting falls under the techy-sounding buzzword “biohacking,” like taking so-called smart pills or giving your brain tiny shocks.) There’s a growing body of research and anecdotal evidence showing a link between periods of noneating and increased focus and output, and perhaps even longer life. “Periods of nutrient restriction do good things,” says Peter Attia, whose medical practice focuses on the science of longevity. “The subjective benefits are evident pretty quickly, and once people do it, they realize—if this is going to give me any benefit in my performance, then it’s worth it.”