Neurotic's guide to fasting

Long afraid of everything, I needed to find out what I was made of -- and what life without Diet Coke was like

By Jennifer Wright

Published March 20, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

     (<a href=''>kokouu</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(kokouu via iStock)

There are many reasons people try a water fast: to cleanse their system. To test their spiritual limits.

My reason was different, and possibly absurd. I wanted to try water fasting because I have a lifelong fear of being stranded on a desert island – or in an apocalyptic wasteland -- and starving. Admittedly, I’m afraid of practically everything, but this thought seemed to have at least a shred of rationality. If starving is not something you currently fear, read “Survivor Type,” the Stephen King story about what happens if you are stranded on a desert island without food, and get back to me.

Accordingly, if you pose that “What three things would you take to a desert island with you” question, my mind immediately goes to objects that would help me make a fire, and purify water and spear fish. By all means, you should take your beloved copy of Proust with you. I hope it’s delicious. I will be taking skinning knives.

I imagine I wouldn’t last long on my desert island. But how long? Would I die in the first day or could I possibly survive a week? Up until the end of the 19thcentury it was believed that people died after 10 days without food. They don’t. Today it’s believed to be somewhere between 28 and 73 days, depending on the level of hydration. Surely I could make it a few days.

I understand that most people go on fasts to lose weight. I’ve read about trendy fasts that are supposed to help you drop pounds, like intermittent fasting, which requires two days of fasting followed by five days of eating whatever you want. I suspect that diet is not for people who are afraid of everything. I suspect that diet is the kind of thing that could disrupt your metabolism, which makes me realize that I have only the vaguest, foggiest concept of how a metabolism works. Honestly, I have no idea how diets work either. I’ve certainly never had one work for me in the long run.

That said, everyone assumed I was on a diet when I fasted. So it bears mention that throughout the fast, I lost no weight. I also looked a bit bloated from consuming massive amounts of water. If I had done the fast for the purpose of weight loss, I would have been terribly disappointed.

Fortunately, I was trying to determine whether I was a survivor type, or whether I was a person who should stay away from large bodies of water at all costs.

However, in the course of my very limited research, I did learn there might be actual benefits to fasting. The studies on the actual health benefits of fasting are mixed, though people claim that it can lead to:

Better regulated sleep

Decrease of headaches and joint pain

More energy

Less anxiety

Some people (I won’t call them experts) say that three days is the time required to “aid in eliminating toxins.” Whether or not that’s true, it seemed long enough to be challenging, but not so long as to be terrifying or require medical supervision as is advised for longer fasts.

Armed with my information, I decided I would fast over a weekend. I would begin on a Thursday night and end on a Monday morning. With this calendar, by the third day, when I expected to be too feeble to move, I could just stay in bed, asleep. In my fantasy of this scenario I would be wearing a white nightgown and clutching a camellia. This showed a certain level of optimism about my ability to visit a lingerie store and a florist’s before expiring.

In reality, I assumed that if I did feel very faint, I would consider my fast a failed experiment and eat something.

Many fasters suggest that you ease into a fast by consuming only fruit juices the day before, something I ignored. If I was going to fast, I wanted an elaborate multi-course dinner the night before. This was idiotic. Don’t do that.

It is also a good idea to wean yourself off caffeine, something I never even considered. I suspect you see this advice less often, because the people suggesting fasts assume that they are speaking to an audience that does not regularly consume Zero Calorie Monster.

I showed them.

I spent much of the first day of my fast asking a friend whether I could have coffee because it was 1) from the earth and 2) without calories and 3) something I wanted desperately. She helpfully explained, over and over, what was water (water) and what was not (frustratingly, everything else). For the rest of the fast I had a faint, dull headache, which I think had less to do with not eating and more to do with the fact that I generally live on coffee and Diet Coke.

The first day was by far the worst. I think it would have been somewhat easier had I not decided to indulge in steak and chocolate cake beforehand. I was hungry. I was ferociously hungry. I would say the sensation peaked around 4:00 in the afternoon, and then slowly subsided, as if my body had reconciled to the fact that there would not be food that day.

By the second day, around 36 hours into the fast, the hunger was less acute, like a dull throb. I then noticed that my skin – and I have rosacea, so it tends to be splotchy – looked perfect. I think this had more to do with drinking a tremendous amount of water than forsaking food.

I also itched. Everywhere. All over my body. Why that happened still strikes me as a mystery. The best explanation I was able to find was that my body was trying to expel toxins, and I guess does so by making you itch. Maybe the toxins were in my skin? Toxins, much like metabolisms, seem to work in mysterious and much disputed ways.

So I had a headache, but a glowing complexion, and I scratched myself a great deal. I was not at my most attractive during the fast, which may be why Jesus chose to do his in the desert.

But beyond those conditions, the physical reactions were hardly terrible. I was hungry, but being hungry did not stop me from going about my business. I didn’t feel the increase in energy or mental clarity that some people say they do, but neither did I find it impossible to complete weekend tasks. My laundry got washed. I went out to see friends and sat in a bar drinking water. I finished work assignments. My dishes were not washed, because there were no dishes, so I guess slightly more television got watched. There was very little that I felt I should do that I could not do.

By the third day, I discovered that the foods I thought about were different than those I generally crave. There is a line in “Robinson Crusoe” where Friday says, “Many is the day I dreamt of cheese, toasted mostly.” Which, while at this moment sounds delicious, by the third day of the fast did not. What I dreamt of were fruit juices, or fruit and vegetables, in general. None of them as evocative as toasted cheese.

In reality, I suspect Friday was dreaming of some delicious bananas or maybe a handful of broccoli. That doesn’t read nearly as well, though.

Again, these cravings may simply have been the fact that I was not consuming artificial sweeteners. In any event, for about a week after the fast I did eat much more unprocessed food than I normally do, largely because I remembered how much I wanted any kind of foliage-food. The memory faded, and now I eat toasted cheese again.

The greatest surprise about fasting was that my life didn’t stop. I wasn’t so exhausted that I could only sit in my bed, as I had expected. Accordingly, I had to find entertainment that didn’t involve eating.

I realized for the first time how much we look forward to events based around food. Nora Ephron once said, “I don't think any day is worth living without thinking about what you're going to eat next at all times." And she’s not entirely wrong.

I thought back on the happiest moments of my life, and what made days worth living. Many of those memories involved books. Then I thought back on the happiest moments of my life that had been spent with other real human beings, and many of them involved food.

More than I expected, really. My birthday dinner with my family, every year until I turned 18, at an Italian restaurant where the owner would play "Nessun Dorma" in lieu of "Happy Birthday," which has forever changed its meaning into something strange and personal for me.  A Valentine’s dinner one year in college that my boyfriend and I drove through a blizzard in a convertible to get to. My father making chocolate truffles at Christmas, and my mother making candy cane reindeer.

That doesn’t just have to do with taste, or nutrition. That is, however, the kind of thing that makes you want to survive.

Unless you are the rare person who goes around announcing, “I just don’t care about food” (a disposition that only makes those of us who do care about food feel sorry for you given that that your body is defective), you doubtless spend a great deal of time thinking about and anticipating future meals. When you do not have that prospect, you have to find other thoughts to fill the void. And it is a void.

So, I had a massage. I don’t love massages but it was relaxing, even though I was itchy. I normally enjoy going to Pilates, but I was worried that it might prove overwhelming on my current diet of water and air. I bought books rather decadently from a real store, rather than ordering them online, which was pleasurable, until I realized I could not sit down in a coffee shop and read them as I normally would. Not being able to have dinner or drinks or coffee with friends was disconcerting. Maybe I should have fasted on weekdays, but then I would have had to go without a lunch break, which would have made the workday unbearable.

The worst part of a fast was not the physical symptoms. These issues may not have been fun but did not impede my day to a notable extent. The worst part was realizing that there would be, if not fewer joyful moments in the day, at least fewer joyful moments I could rely on.

The purpose of food may not simply be that it sustains us physically, but that it gives us certain predictable moments of pleasure throughout our day. The body can do very well without a morning cup of coffee, but it is very hard to give up the anticipation of that first cup. Similarly, watching friends share a dessert while you down your fourth glass of water is tough. On any other diet you have some type of food to look forward to. If going on Atkins means you will not get to devour a cheese Danish, you can still look forward to some delicious bacon.

Those feelings built, and they built very quickly. If the fast went on much longer, there would soon seem to be much less reason to get up in the morning.

At the end, on the Monday when I could eat again, I sat up like a child on Christmas morning. That’s a lot of excitement for a few pieces of fruit. “How wonderful,” I found myself thinking, “that food is.” This is not a thought I have had reason to consider before. I had always wondered why people fasted for religious reasons – I assumed it had to do with suffering as martyrs suffered – but I suspect it must be to remind us to be grateful for blessings that we have come to take utterly for granted.

This, not any change in my diet, is the sense that has stayed with me. I find I wake up now – and it is many months since I fasted -- and I think about how wonderful it is to know that I can have a handful of granola or a banana, or an omelet, or anything at all, really.

Nothing about the fast, alas, gives me any certainty that I would survive on a desert island. I almost certainly would not. But, God, it certainly makes having a cup of coffee on the island of Manhattan that much better.

Jennifer Wright

Jennifer Wright is the author of "It Ended Badly: Thirteen of The Worst Break-Ups In History" and the upcoming "Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues And The Heroes That Fought Them" (MacMillan). You can follow her on Twitter @JenAshleyWright.

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