When she heard I was contemplating a total fast, a nutritionist friend of mine said, although in words more gentle than these:
“At your age, why on earth would you want to do something that will cause your body to eat some of its own muscle? You’re already losing muscle mass just because you’re aging. What makes you think your body will hop to and immediately rebuild the muscle you’ve lost when you start eating again?”
I knew there was truth to what she said. Why, indeed, would I want to do such a thing?
I am already doing a type of fast—specifically a type of Daoist “bigu” fast where I don’t eat grains, dairy, sugar and alcohol. I’ve done it for three weeks now, and eating only meat and fish, nuts and seeds, and vegetables and fruit hasn’t been all that difficult; in fact, in some ways, it has been easier than eating the way I normally do.
I don’t know if grain-free, sugar-free eating has changed my appetite mechanisms or if it’s simply psychically easier to eat none rather than just one, but for the most part I have not craved candy, ice cream, bread or taco chips (and I dreamt of eggnog only once). I have two friends who have eaten this way for years as a means of weight control—and, indeed, this version of a bigu diet is a lot like the paleo “eat like a cave man” diet that’s currently a weight-loss craze.
If I decide to move on from this “easy bigu” fast to a five-day water-only fast, it will be partly in hopes that giving my GI tract a break could ease my digestive woes—but mostly because I’m curious: Am I capable of going without eating for five days (which is four days more than the prep for a colonoscopy)? How hungry would I be? How desperate? Might I discover something about my body or my spirit—or about life and the universe?
Fasting has a long history in just about every spiritual tradition; it’s scarcely unique to Daoists and qigong practitioners. There must be something about it that gives us at least intimations of answers to our spiritual questions.
But what? Where does one’s mind go when one’s body is not going to the refrigerator? And where does this leave one’s body?
It is said that some ancient Daoist masters went for years without eating because they were able to draw energy (qi) from non-food sources. I am already doing one qigong exercise that might facilitate this process, and there are others I might do, but—oh, me of little faith—I still want to know what medical science has to say about the effects of fasting on those of us who are mortals, not masters.
When I started searching the Internet for information on fasting, I found lots. There’s Wikipedia, of course, with a lengthy article that focuses on “fasting” within just about every faith tradition and another article on the “starvation response,” which details, with timelines, the complex metabolic changes that occur as the body goes into vital-organ preservation mode.
I found an excellent non-religious, non-commercial site that is entirely devoted to fasting, titled How to Fast, as well as some very good information on how to fast safely on the Campus Crusade for Christ web site. Even eHow offers tips for safe fasting (not that I intend to provide links to eHow).
I also read about “The Fast Diet,” which recently hit American bookstores after selling like hotcakes in Britain. The book details a weight-loss program that calls for intermittent fasting, where you allow yourself to eat whatever you want for five days and then eat very little for two. (Hmmm…. I wonder if our bodies resent being metabolically jerked around on a regular basis or if they like being kept in fighting trim to get through possible periods between bison kills.
As I read, I came to feel that five days of not eating would not be that big a deal. It would be sort of like having food poisoning or a bad case of the flu, only I’d just be hungry, not sick and wishing I could die. And how much worse could a fast be than the very low-carb weight-loss diets I went on in years past? My stomach almost turns when I think about all the fat I ate on those diets.
When I started writing this post, I had a five-day fast penciled in on my calendar, but I didn’t know whether I’d actually do it. Several days have passed, and tomorrow the decision will be upon me. Fasting for five days may be safe physically, or safe enough, but emotionally it feels a bit terrifying.
I guess I need to remind myself that I would be fasting for potential personal and spiritual growth, that the fast would be an opportunity and not just a challenge—and that it would be voluntary.
Millions, probably billions of people have not eaten for long periods of time because they’ve had no food, which puts quite a different edge on being hungry, the edge of possible death. I’m thinking in particular of the horrific famine that occurred in China between 1959 and 1961 during the Great Leap Forward, when tens of millions of people died for lack of food. I am very fortunate. For me, eating would at each and every moment of my fast be only a decision away.
Indeed, if I do decide to fast, perhaps I should say grace every time I choose not to eat.