Fasting like Gandhi

01 May 2019 | 12:17

    One man’s experiment in not eating for three weeks

    By Orion Russell Blake

    170 pounds. I reached this weight a few years while on an involuntary liquid diet due to a bilateral mandible fracture and resulting wired shut jaw. It had startled me; fully grown in high school at 6’6” I had been 180. The fact that ten pounds lighter was possible, and that I had maintained it for months while quite active, became a seed in the back of my mind.

    Now at age 30, I was hovering around 200, after gaining a wheat belly the previous winter. I had gone up a waist size and though I was well within a normal BMI range, I felt enough was enough.

    I had no interest in dieting, never did. But I had become acquainted with intermittent fasters, a subset of paleo diet followers. I bet the reader has skipped a meal before. Maybe even gone a day without eating unintentionally. You have fasted for 24 hours. Make a practice of that, you can call yourself an intermittent faster.

    Intermittent fasting, also known as time-restricted eating, mimics the feast and famine conditions of our caveman ancestors. As I looked into it, though, greater benefits of a fast come not from a day or two without food, but from duration. Beyond 48 hours and into the time frames of storied fasts of biblical prophets or Gandhi are called in today’s literature prolonged or extended fasts. That was the way for me.

    The medical community at large is very wary of extended fasts, probably due to this being the age of liability. And forget the doctors, I’m afraid. As I research, winter begins. Was I really going to deprive myself of nutrients and brave the cold and snow? Didn’t pioneers use to die snowed in in remote cabins when food ran out? What about flu season?

    In the absence of sustenance, the body transitions into a state of ketosis, burning fat for energy. There is also micronutrient storage in your bones. When the body runs out of these batteries, true hunger tells you to break your fast. More on this later. What the body does not do is consume muscle as it does during starvation. That is a last resort.

    Gandhi is a good example of the whole spectrum. When not fasting, he lived on a fruitarian diet. The name says it all. He harmed no plant or animal, just taking what nature provided and fell to the ground. Gandhi entered fasts very lean. In one of his longest fasts, 21 days, from the description of his condition I read it seems he exhausted his body’s reserves in the middle of the second week, and entered a period of starvation from that point forward.

    However, every weight loss program includes lean mass loss. The body’s entire energy needs are not met by fat; some protein is needed. In fasting, the body naturally detoxes. Searching for protein, the body breaks down damaged cells in the body in a process called autophagy. It recycles. Fasting has even been shown to help the body fight cancer.

    And the true answer to not losing muscle? Use it. It is even possible to build and repair muscle while fasting.

    Beats cancer? Ought to survive the flu then. The use of fasting to beat disease has a long history in America, espoused by the likes of Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle. Makes sense, doesn’t it? The man exposing the unhealthy food systems of our nation goes on to tell you to eat less and detox by fasting. This sounds better and better. Let’s go.

    Hold on now. Even within the fasting advocate subset, doctors are still wary. The first book I read by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Fasting and Eating for Health, prescribes a daily check-up by a specialized physician. I’m not made of money. The Complete Guide to Fasting by Dr. Jason Fung says to get checked up after two weeks. That I can do, especially since I don’t even know if I can make it that far.

    It was February. Having my first fast at the height of winter now appealed to me. Test my limits. Possible side effects include irritability, brain fog, light-headedness, and nausea, not to mention hunger pangs. I work dealing cards at a casino and the thought of doing arithmetic in a brain fog while paying out chips under the scrutiny of cameras gave me pause, but everything started out swimmingly. I submerged into the deep end, starting on liquids and moving onto water-only after three days. This was risky, as I was scheduled for my interview with the state police for my permanent gaming license in another two days. If those side effects were coming now that I was cold turkey, oh boy.

    This is how I motivate myself through the fast. I keep challenging myself. Can I fast and maintain body temperature and health in winter? I sign myself up for a polar plunge and my first marathon. I train running through brisk winds and atop snow, my bare feet getting wet and frost-nipped. I take cold showers. Can I remain alert and composed under cameras for eight-hour shifts and important interviews for career development days and weeks in? Yes I can.

    Temptation abounds. Delicious bacon and creamy raw milk to break your nightly fast every morning. Maybe a bear claw or a pastrami sandwich and coffee for lunch. Chicken wings, pizza, steak and mashed potatoes for dinner. Dessert. Every day I wake up and miss all these pleasures. There’s a $3 all-day buffet in the employee dining room at the casino. My housemates are not sold on this experiment of mine, and they leave out all sorts of tasty leftovers, even a lobster roll I still lament the waste of. The smells of cooking waft up to my room.

    The urge to eat is hardest on the stressful day I realize my flight itinerary is all wrong, and I have to rework it last minute. I’ve booked a vacation to Mexico, giving me three weeks to lose pounds; then the pot at the end of my rainbow is full of tacos. Almost nightly, I fall asleep watching endless Mexican street food tours. I can eat tongue, tripe, stomach, blood sausage, ever grasshoppers for cents down there. My fast turns into an emptying of the tank before gluttony.

    Overall, the fast is more trying mentally than physically, but let’s talk about the latter. I do get light-headed, and turning to Google, clear this up with teaspoons of Himalayan salt crystals in some of my glasses of water. Shockingly, this causes me to gain a few pounds a week into the fast. Sodium retains water in the body, and I suppose I had been partially dehydrated for days. Himalayan pink salt includes magnesium naturally, and has been minimally processed, having no bleaches and so on.

    Deficiencies in minerals like sodium, magnesium or calcium can lead to leg cramps, and I start to get those—no wonder with the running I’ve been doing. So along with the pink salt, I take a potassium pill. I switch this up for NoSalt, a salt alternative later on, as it’s strictly potassium chloride with no additives. I never do notice the warning signs for phosphorus deficiency like irritability and fatigue, but I’m thinking better safe than sorry now. So two weeks in, I cook up two batches of homemade bone broth. The easiest or purest way to get phosphorus for your bone’s stores is to cook it out of other animals’ bones.

    Otherwise? I never notice hunger pangs. There’s a lot of stomach growling, but not painful. This is actually a constant condition of the body, produced by the squeezing of one area, then another, of the tract moving contents along. Food in the digestive tract has a dampening effect on it usually, causing it to go unnoticed.

    Speaking of the gut, let’s talk constipation. The longest verifiable fast in modern history of a very obese man lasted 382 days. He had a bowel movement every 37-38 days. During my fast, I didn’t have one naturally. According to Sinclair, I should take an enema daily. This I did not follow but I experimented the once. Let’s just say I was surprised to find my digestive tract not empty.

    It’s going well—why? I realize I might have had a head start, which eased me into fasting. Ketosis is hardest the first time around, as your body adapts to use systems in place, but never used before. I bet my body supplemented with ketosis that entire summer of the broken jaw. It was just too painful to eat, or slurp. Second, I had watched Sugar Coated years ago and weaned myself off refined sugar. More recently, recognizing that I had gained visceral fat from gorging on bread, I read Wheat Belly and curtailed my grain intake substantially. Both sugar and grain induce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, which wreak such havoc at the beginning of fasts.

    Toxic hunger. That what Dr. Fuhrman, author of Fasting and Eating for Health, calls these withdrawal symptoms. “Morbid appetites,” said the late Herbert Shelton, father of the natural hygiene movement, are the symptoms of “the food drunkard.” But persevere. The physical pains of fasting disappear with time.

    Typically, the body stops signaling for you to eat food in two or three days. This is the time it takes for your body to finish digesting your last meal and deplete glycogen reserves. Then the body is fully committed to ketosis. For how long? To the point of true hunger, which in Sinclair’s day was called a complete fast. Sinclair never felt the need to go so far. From what I gather, true hunger is the body’s signal that starvation is looming. It will now consume protein, you will become emaciated, lose energy, and decline towards death.

    This sensation of hunger differs from what you might expect. Per Shelton, hunger is felt in the mind and throat. It does not come from the stomach, but is akin to thirst. The way accounts describe it make me think of men lost for days in the desert dragging themselves through the sand. The thirst they feel is akin to true hunger. When you are truly thirsty, not just a little dehydrated, you can think of nothing else, your survival instinct won’t let you. It’s not like during the fast where I can distract or motivate myself with challenges. The desert wanderer will hallucinate oases in mirages, drink his own own urine or from filthy puddles. Unlike a craving for a specific food, true hunger reaches for any sustenance.

    Another way to know when to finish your fast is the color of your tongue. Ever wake up and have a bit of a whitish coating towards the back of your tongue? That phenomenon increases during fasts as the tongue acts as an exit point for toxins in the body. This was another thing I wasn’t expecting, as I woke up every day, and tasted that coating. I thought my body was manifesting a taste for something it wanted to eat. Peanut butter maybe, chocolate? Thank God for Google. When the tongue clears and becomes bright red, your body has finished purifying itself.

    Following Fung’s advice in The Complete Guide to Fasting, I got a check-up around two weeks. I just got my annual physical, from my primary care, as I couldn’t find a fasting specialist locally. I was frank with him, he drew my blood, and the tests and his exam pronounced me essentially fit. That was all the reassurance I was going to get, and I kept going the last week.

    At three weeks I’ve reached my finish line. Presumably I’m still days or weeks away from true hunger or total purification, but I’m on the way to Mexico. I break my fast at 10,000 feet. The stewardess hands me a single-serving size bag of potato chips. Perfect. If you go gung-ho and stuff yourself, the change in your metabolism and the start of insulin production can lead to problems ranging from cramps to cardiac arrest and seizures. I’ve even heard of intestinal hernias.

    Hours later, I have one taco de lengua on a hand-sized corn tortilla in Mexico City. It’s another day and my connecting flight before I have a full-sized meal of ceviche. The feast has begun.

    All in all: four days on a liquid diet, followed by a 17 days of water only. Before: 204 pounds. After: 174. Some of that 30 pounds is water weight. Upon return from Mexico I weigh 185, regaining 10 pounds out of 30. Twenty pounds in 20 days. I feel good, and proud of jumping into it, figuring out the problems as they came up. And man, I saved so much grocery money.