tl;dr: Over the past three months, I’ve shed 4 stones. This is a personal account of my journey to a fitter body and better health, achieved in a surprisingly short time. This information is not intended to proselytize, please consult a doctor and read the disclaimer at the end of this post. If you decide to skip a meal, consider donating the value of that meal to feed the hungry, at Let’s Not Do Lunch or at the World Food Programme.
The end of the line
I could hardly believe what I was looking at. There it was, staring right at me. I could no longer ignore, deny, or post-rationalize what I already knew as the digital evidence stared me down and waved its merciless accusatory finger at me. This marked the end of the line for me, three months ago to the day.
Let me rewind a little.
My friends and I had just returned from an overwhelmingly fun and unexpectedly gluttonous weekend in the Florida Keys. It wasn’t necessarily our intention to gorge on food, but we managed to turn a great idea — “Let’s hold our annual SxSE (South by Southeast) shindig in Key West” — into a convenient excuse to participate in a three-day orgy of food and drink. We kicked off the weekend on Friday with a creative and deliciously rich, chocolaty concoction at Better Than Sex dessert lounge, which, by the way, almost lives up to its name, and finished with a big order of spareribs at Porky’s Bayside BBQ on our way back home on Sunday. Sure, we had a lot of fun besides eating and I did make a valiant effort to burn off the excess calories with a good bike ride around the island, but in hindsight, our various delicious but rich meals stood out most for me. For a fuller retelling of our weekend, here is a good account and collection of photos.
So as I sat on my couch at home staring at my friends’ new albums on Facebook, I was taken aback, shocked, and horrified by what I saw. Those of you who know me will recognize me in these photos. Was that really me? Is that what I look like? How did my mirror lie so much to me for so long? Did I not notice the weight creeping on? What about all that daily biking I had done over the past four months, for nearly an hour a day — what did I have to show for that?
The high water mark for my weight was also an emotional low point for my spirit.
After meticulously untagging myself from the offending pictures, I shut down the laptop and turned on Netflix, hoping to distract myself.
Rebooting the system
“One telling statistic is that the average weight of an adult in the United States has increased by about twenty-six pounds between 1960 and the present. Clearly, this is not due to genetic changes in the population. Rather, it’s mostly a result of the concerted effort of these corporations to produce food and drink, served in large portions, that maximally activate the pleasure circuit and thereby contribute to overeating.” ~David J. Linden, “The Compass of Pleasure”
By some ingenious if slightly creepy and synchronous design, Netflix divined my state of mind and suggested a documentary: “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.” Wow, that’s exactly how I felt .. well, the Fat and Sick part, not the rest. Of course I watched it. This is the story of an Aussie who spends two months driving around the US “juicing” his way back to health with fruits, salads, and vegetables. Along the way, he meets a trucker who looks to be twice as heavy as he is, who then proceeds to juice his own way back to health. The documentary is very compelling.
I watched the movie twice and started juicing the very next morning. I had bought a juicer years ago which I hadn’t really put it to use. Luckily I had some leafy greens, peppers, and carrots in the fridge, which made for a bizarre tasting breakfast. I was so eager to get started that I didn’t bother to look up a recipe.
I remember those first days well. I looked for juice bars in Miami, which are few and far between, and would drive miles during lunch to buy two juices. They were tasty, but gone in a few sips. I did this for three days, then switched to water. Yes, water.
While on my juice fast — or feast, rather, as the juices are really refreshing — I was reading all I could about fasting. Some of the resources I came across suggested to alternate juicing with water days. That is, once you’ve “cleansed” your system through juicing, you can easily and safely spend some days on a water fast. That’s exactly what I did, with an initial goal of 5 days.
Let’s be clear
I am not a doctor or a nutritionist and I am not posting this to proselytize. I am sharing a personal account of my own profoundly positive experience following a regimen of fasting and eating a plant-based diet. The information in this post is not intended to be medical advice or instructions for medical diagnosis or treatment. Always consult your physician before making any dramatic changes to your diet and lifestyle. For some people, this kind of regimen may be dangerous to their health. Not getting enough nutrients during prolonged fasting diets may lead to dangerous symptoms. People with diabetes or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or those with chronic diseases should not fast.
Exercising mind over matter
“Let yourself be open and life will be easier. A spoon of salt in a glass of water makes the water undrinkable. A spoon of salt in a lake is almost unnoticed.” ~Buddha
When I tell people about my experience, they like to conclude that I followed a “cold turkey” approach: one moment I was eating and the next I had stopped eating, forever. But that’s not quite how it happened. I had noticed I had gained a lot of weight over time, because my scale told me so, because my parents dropped not-so-subtle hints, and because my closest friends would needle me. I knew I had to do something about it one day, but kept putting it off as I prioritized other areas of my life, mostly work and professional activities.
When I did start the water fast, I did so gradually by juicing first for a number of days. Had I gone straight from eating a dozen spareribs at Porky’s to fasting for 21 days … well … I would not have made it through the first day. My body would have rebelled by driving me to the nearest source of food and my mind would have done nothing about it. Juicing for three days was key to completing a prolonged fast.
So I ended up fasting exclusively on water for 21 days. I initially set out to fast for 5 days, then 10, then 21. As I reached each stage, I felt better and better. By day 3 I no longer felt hungry, by day 5 I no longer felt the occasional but infrequent nausea, and from day 10 to 21 it was smooth and pleasurable sailing.
I discovered that fasting is a voyage of discovery larger than just the weight loss alone. Because eating is such an important part of our lives, the nihilism of our modern way of eating is an affirmation of self. So much of our daily lives is dedicated to food, between grocery shopping, cooking, driving to restaurants, and eating. So much of our body’s energy is spent on digesting the food we eat. For some people, so much mental effort is spent obsessing about their body image. When you remove these things, your choices in life are laid bare: how you spend your time, who you keep company with, what you do … When you figure out the direct link between the food you eat and your body, so much else in life becomes crystal clear.
What helped me most was to settle into a daily routine. I found myself waking up well before dawn, at which point I would put on some light clothes and go for a long walk. It’s refreshing to be up when everyone is still sleeping, when few cars are on the road, when cats and owls peer at you through the darkness, and when you can hear the wind rustling the leaves. Of greatest value was taking the time to meditate for about 20 minutes after the morning walk. This morning routine nourished my senses, cleared my mind, and reinforced my will.
At times, it felt like the passage of time itself slowed down, especially during my early morning walks. Even as time slowed down, issues unraveled, my motivations became clear, and I gained new insights about myself and about others.
Challengers and skeptics abound
Fasting is rightfully intended to be a personal journey not to be shared with the world at large. However, people will invariably find out. Along the way I met a lot of skepticism and just enough encouragement to keep me going. Nine out of ten people were flat out against my decision to fast, sometimes adamantly so. The handful that supported me made it easier.
Eating is social. So many business and social interactions occur over meals and it makes people uncomfortable to be around someone who’s fasting. The only solutions are to come up with a great excuse, to be upfront about fasting, or to cut down on lunch and dinner dates. This is just a minor challenge to fasting.
Most people, including closest friends and family, try to discourage their loved ones from fasting. It turns out that sometimes the people who are closest to you are not always the most welcoming of dramatic change. They love you as you are and drastic change can be threatening. More importantly, eating is one of the most significant and time consuming physical activities in our lives, along with sleeping and breathing. Most people have been eating three times daily since they were born. How can you possibly convince them that it’s good to take a break once in a while? It goes against everything they’ve always known.
The food industry certainly doesn’t want you to fast. Turn on the TV and you’ll be encouraged to eat all sorts of food at all sorts of places. One thing that stood out for me during the fast was the prevalence of restaurants in our cities and along our highways. They are literally everywhere. They are so omnipresent that we take them for granted. Another thing: except for the very high-end establishments, have you ever noticed how the waiter comes around every 5 seconds to ask “Is everything alright?” You might be engaged in the deepest and most profound conversation of your life, and yet there’s the waiter requesting confirmation that you do indeed know how to eat. It almost seems like they are ready to spoon-feed you should you require assistance. Food is everywhere and the food industry will make sure we eat it.
The medical industry and pharmaceutical firms are also not to keen on promoting fasts, for obvious reasons. To his credit, my family doctor was not too fazed when I told him about it and he took it in stride. During the fast, my cholesterol level shot up, but within a month of returning to food, the levels were better than they had ever been before and I was handed a clean bill of health. Despite your doctor’s potential skepticism, do not attempt a fast without consulting one first, as there are many things that could go wrong.
“Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant, the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it.” ~Lao Tzu
I lost a ton of weight, about a quarter of my body weight and what seems like half my body mass. Beyond that, I felt many additional benefits, including more energy, healthier skin, clearer eyes, better sleep, and improved digestion. My gums improved, much to my dentist’s delight. My sinuses cleared up. I feel less tense. These are permanent and unexpected improvements.
I tuned into a certain synchronicity around me. Was it always there? Without a doubt. I hardly noticed it before.
How can drinking nothing but distilled water for 21 days accomplish this? I took no vitamins, no medication, or anything else.
Our bodies hold deep mysteries and the curative power of fasting is certainly a powerful mystery. Yet, the subject of fasting is taboo. Go figure.
Breaking the fast
My fast was going so well that I delayed the break by another day; I fasted for 22 days and approached my first meal with some apprehension. As important as fasting is breaking the fast. There is an abundance of advice on how to do this, but the main principle is to ease yourself back into eating. Ideally, a fast is followed by many days of juicing, followed by fruits, then vegetables, then other foods.
It should be fairly obvious that eating a burger after a fast ranks among the worst things you can do to your body. It’s very unlikely to happen, because after an extended fast you crave healthier foods. Water has a neutral pH balance of 7.0. After spending many weeks on water, the body reaches a less acidic homeostatic balance and the digestive enzymes change. Meat and poultry are acidic foods which the body is less prepared to deal with after a fast.
In my case I juiced first and then ate a light meal of brown rice and vegetables. That proved too much and I paid for it with strong intestinal pain some hours later. Lesson learned. Subsequent meals were thankfully uneventful. I took the opportunity to switch to a vegan diet and have immensely enjoyed new tastes I was unaccustomed to before. I cannot imagine returning to the way I used to eat.
Rinse and repeat
After this first fast, I ate for three weeks and then went through a 10-day fast. This time, the fast was a breeze, without any unease or hunger. Three more weeks of eating and I’ve just now broken my third fast, of 7 days. This one was relatively easy as well, although I did crave a return to my vegan diet.
It’s funny how on the first few days of my first fast I craved a pepperoni pizza or a burger, and on my last fast I craved vegetables and fruit. What’s going on? As it turns out, the stomach contains neurons which communicate back to the brain (see Scientific American):
Technically known as the enteric nervous system, the second brain consists of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut, or alimentary canal … The second brain contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system.
This multitude of neurons in the enteric nervous system enables us to “feel” the inner world of our gut and its contents.
Scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around.
It’s no surprise my stomach is asking me to make food choices which are very different, even diametrically opposed, from how I used to eat. I lost all appetite for hambugers, late-night pepperoni pizzas, and spareribs.
A new day, a new way
“By persisting in your path, though you forfeit the little, you gain the great.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Just three months ago, I was paralyzed by dejection as I faced that fellow looking back at me in the photos my friends uploaded.
I revisited those pictures for the first time today. I now commiserate with that fellow.
There is hope.
There is a way.
And it is so worth following that path.
If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or your emergency number, (911 in the United States) immediately:
If you would like to know more about fasting, here is a useful starting point.