The Value of Fasting
by David Todd McCarty | Friday, July 15, 2016
I’ve been a lot of thinking lately about a certain corned beef sandwich, preferably grilled with butter, on a nice sturdy rye, with mustard and melted swiss. There’s a perfect pickle there as well. It’s a fantasy that is currently knocking about in my head.
I’m on day six of what is a planned two week fast. I say planned because with these kind of things, it’s like the people in the rooms say, “You have to take it one day at a time.” I recognize the truth in this statement. I can’t think about tomorrow or next week. I just have to get through today.
No food. No alcohol. No caffeine. I gave up cigarettes almost five years ago and never picked them up again, so that’s one less thing. I currently subsist on a concoction of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. It’s a recipe developed by some nut who named it the Master Cleanse. It’s a thing. It’s not new. I’m not a disciple, just using it at the moment.
The first time I fasted was almost five years ago. I was on a shoot in Miami and at the end of the shoot the producer met me in the bar of this beautiful steakhouse we’d been shooting in. I was having a vodka, my third or fourth, and was getting ready to switch over to wine before ordering my steak dinner right there at the bar. He had a beer. He began telling me that he used to be fat. Had health problems from it. Then he discovered this juice fasting concept and lost fifty pounds. Got off his medications. Felt great. I was listening with half an ear, like you do when someone is telling you about their dreams, or trying to recap the plot of a book they just finished.
“That’s nice,” you think. “Why are you bothering me with this?”
He told me about this documentary he had seen, which is what set him off on this journey. It was called, “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.” I told him I would look into it. I had to interrupt his story at one point to go outside and have a smoke.
I had the New York Strip and a loaded baked potato along with a hearty Cabernet Sauvignon. There might have been a vegetable, but I don’t remember.
The next day I flew home and that night I found the documentary on Netflix and thought, “What the hell. I’ll give it a try.” I sat and watched it while sipping rum.
Halfway through I’d ordered a juicer from Amazon and had decided I would start as soon as it came in a few days later. I quit drinking the following day. Ate raw fruits and veggies until the juicer arrived. Starting juicing on the third day and quit smoking on the fourth day.
I fasted for 30 days and lost 30 pounds that year. I had decided to give up meat when I was done fasting and began eating a vegetarian diet. I had played with the idea of going vegan but the prospect of no cheese seemed like a deal breaker to me. I had bought into the idea that we had been sold a bill of goods in regards to how much protein we took in, and that what we really needed was a plant-based diet. So vegetarian I would be.
I did really well for awhile, and I kept the weight off for about six months then I started going out to lunch during the week and having a few glasses of wine with my sushi or salad or salmon. Rather than continue to lose weight as I’d hoped, I began to gain the weight back, albeit slowly.
I was no longer smoking, so I had that going against me. By the time a year had rolled around, I had begun eating meat again and I was back to my old weight. There were other factors but that was the end result.
So I did it again. Started again almost a year to the day. The good news was, I knew what to expect. The bad news was I new what to expect. But I powered through and again I fasted for 30 days and lost 30 pounds.
Vegetarianism hadn’t worked out for me. It was certainly no magical cure. My father encouraged me to go grain free. No wheat. No corn. No beer. No grains of any kind. He ate that way and had to eat enormous quantities of food just to keep the weight on. He was 70 at the time and was on zero medications and had perfect blood pressure and cholesterol. I thought, well genetics have to play a part. Maybe that’s the ticket for me.
I also determined I had to find a way to exercise so I could keep the weight off. I started looking into gyms. Several people had recommended CrossFit and swore by it themselves.
Two days after I’d ended my fast, I joined a CrossFit gym and hit my first class after a breakfast that was too much for coming off a fast let alone way too much before hitting a CrossFit class. I finished the class but threw up in the parking lot. I learned my lesson. Don’t eat before class.
I found a gym near my office that offered noon classes. I would have a banana or yogurt in the morning. Leave at 11:45am for class and be back in the office by 12:30pm. I would eat a lunch of a couple of hard boiled eggs and an orange. At night my wife and I would have salads.
I did CrossFit for about nine months, and while I definitely got in better shape, I didn’t actually lose any more weight. I remember the owner of the gym, a short, slim guy in his 20’s that couldn’t have weighted 140 pounds soaking wet, but who could probably lift twice my best effort any day of the week, chatted me up one day at the end of a class as I was stretching. I’d been attending classes three days a week for about six months. We knew each other.
“So, are you finding that you’re losing weight?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Really?” he said. He seemed quite surprised.
“Well,” I said. “I drink.”
“At least you admit it,” he said. “A lot of people don’t. They just complain it’s not working.”
He thought about it a little more than said, “You could not drink, you know.”
“That’s why I pay you all this money,” I said. “So I can continue to drink.”
He laughed. “Okay,” he said and walked away.
In all fairness, I’m sure I had converted quite a bit of my weight to muscle instead of fat and I was in pretty damn good shape for a 45 year old. The majority of the people in these classes, including all the instructors, are in their 20’s. Not everyone, but most of them. Of course, that’s the majority of who you see in any gym I’d guess.
I’ve had back problems since I was in high school. I have a disc in my lower back that likes to slide out of place and give me trouble. I was pretty faithful about going to the chiropractor along with the gym so I could continue to do ridiculous Olympic lifts without injuring myself.
One particular class we were doing heavy squats. It was a series whereby we were trying to get to a place where we could do ten squats of what had previously been our one squat maximum. I was nearing 70%. After about the fourth squat I started getting an intense headache. After the sixth squat, I feared I was having an aneurism or something and quit. I think physically I could have done the ten.
That headache didn’t go away that day. Or the next. I went to a different chiropractor that the owner of the gym had recommended that was a CrossFit proponent and worked with athletes. He did a lot of Kinesiology-type of diagnosis. It seemed a little voodoo until one visit. He was trying to get me to “activate” certain muscles in my legs, that he was convinced were causing my other problems. He was trying to find a muscle in my back that he was convinced should be sore and couldn’t find it.
“What about here?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“What about here?” he said.
“No,” I said.
He seemed puzzled and was sure where he was poking around should be the problem. Then had me twist my body in a certain way, nothing drastic, and he poked a muscle in my back and I felt a sharp pain.
“Ow!” I cried.
“There it is,” he said confidently.
He got me to where my headache went away and my neck stopped hurting, but I was a little gun shy about going back to the gym. Next week, I told myself.
In the meantime, I went out to lunch instead. This had become a custom for me on non-class days. Treat myself to lunch out. No bread. No grains. Salads, veggies and meat. My favorite was a naked burger salad at Iron Hill Brewing Co., and a few glasses of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay.
After not showing up for awhile, I got a call from the owner of the gym asking me if I was okay. I hadn’t been there in a month and he was wondering if I he just tear up my latest check. I had the gym on autopay with my bank. I thanked him and told him about my injury. Yes, please. Thanks. I’ll be back soon. I really believed that.
But the longer I didn’t go, the easier it was not to go. And lunch sure was nicer than sweating my ass off in a dirty gym. Not that the gym was particularly dirty but you’re laying and sweating on the same floor that people are walking and sweating on. It’s dusty. It’s dirty. It is what it is. It’s a gym.
Before long, I’d begun to gain weight again and after awhile I guess I just thought “Fuck it” and started eating bread again.
This time, I didn’t fast again that February. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. A month-long fast is a big commitment. So there I was, not exercising, not smoking (no small thing when it comes to weight loss), drinking and eating whatever I wanted.
So, now instead of just going back to my original “fat” weight of 230lbs, which I had achieved while smoking, I lurched past that and gained another thirty pounds. That was over two years, but still. It’s possible that’s what would have happened had I just quit smoking and done nothing else to combat the change. Who knows.
Don’t ever underestimate the ability of cigarettes to curb your desire to eat or drink. When you’re smoking, it’s all the distraction you need. I’m not advocating them, by any means, and I don’t miss them at all anymore, but they did the trick for awhile.
Sometimes I wonder, which is worse, being overweight or smoking? Both will kill you eventually. I guess it all comes down to genetics and you won’t know which way you’re gonna go until you have a massive heart attack or develop lung cancer. Some people develop neither and we should really be studying them.
Which leads me to today. Four and a half years after that first fast, I’m doing it again. Sort of. I’ve changed the recipe, but it’s the same concept as far as I’m concerned. You starve the body so that it’s forced to use your stored fat for energy. Simple concept. Can’t be that far from what early man did. Get fat when food was plentiful. Tighten your belt when it wasn’t.
I question the value of juicing (vegetable and fruit juice), at least the way it was sold to me. I’m not quite sure about the health benefits, other than the weight loss. What I do know is that if you weigh 260 lbs you aren’t going to starve to death anytime soon and not eating will eventually cause you to lose weight. Every time I tell people I’m doing this, I invariably get a few people, usually nurses, who tell me how bad it is for me. Really? Well doctor, how bad do you think it is for me to be 60lbs overweight? Do you think that’s good for my heart? Which do really think is worse?
I’ve learned a few things during my fasts.
One, it’s not as hard as everyone makes it out to be. You just have to have a little willpower and be willing to be uncomfortable for a few days. That’s really all it is. Three to four days of feeling slightly hungover. Dull headache. After that you feel really good. The worst thing you have to deal with is the boredom of no distractions, but that’s where social media comes in. At least for me. Maybe for someone else it would be Pokemon Go. Plus you’d get a little exercise.
When I’m fasting I have more energy and more clarity of thought. I get the best sleep of my life. Since you’re not spending any time eating and drinking, you find you have more time to do other things. I’m not up drinking and watching nonsense on television or Netflix, so I go to bed early. I wake up early and read the news. It’s quite enjoyable.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about today. I wanted to talk about the value of depriving yourself.
This not a new concept. Millions all over the world celebrate Lent each year by giving something up for a short period of time. Six weeks to be exact. I’ve heard from friends, family and co-workers that they have a greater appreciation for things, especially for things they otherwise really enjoy. There’s a gratitude for all other things, when you deprive yourself of something precious.
Many people criticize these fasts as extreme and harmful. Why not just eat clean and exercise, they ask. I can almost guarantee you that none of these people are overweight. If those of us who are overweight could just “eat clean and exercise“ we wouldn’t be overweight in the first place, now would we?
Finding time to exercise is difficult for me. During the week, I wake up at 6am and leave for work by 7:15am. My daily commute is an hour and a half with normal traffic. It can be worse. I work till 5pm and get home at 6:30pm. I go to bed by 10pm. That leaves me only about three hours a day to unwind and recover for the following day. I’m one of those people who really need eight hours of sleep. I can’t get up earlier and I don’t have the energy to go to the gym at 7pm.
I’m not saying it’s impossible, it’s not easy. Most people don’t spend sixteen hours in the car a week.
I am reluctant to go back to CrossFit, for fear I’ll hurt myself again. I’m not sure it’s a great program for someone my age. Especially one that is not in great shape to begin with. I go back and forth. I’ve looked for other programs, but none I could find offered a noon class with that kind of intense workout for an hour. There were definitely real advantages to it.
I did find this kickboxing concept near my office and I would have tried it, but they wanted you to basically commit to a year up front. Fuck that. I hate those scams.
Which leaves me with how I eat and what I drink. As much willpower as I have, it’s not been easy for me to completely change my diet in a meaningful way. I haven’t been able to effectively replace the foods I like to eat with healthier options. I like steak. I like cheese. I like bacon. I like bread. I like potatoes. I like cheesesteaks, pizza, sandwiches, toast, butter. I like some vegetables such as corn, peas, green beans and carrots. But the list of vegetables I really dislike far outweighs that ridiculous list. I can choke down a vegetarian meal, but it will never be anything more than depriving myself of what I really want to eat. I’m never going to get excited about quinoa. I don’t care what the fuck you put in there.
I am perfectly capable of eating whole foods, but butter and cheese are not necessarily healthy options. You might argue they’re better in the long run than chemicals, but you’ll still be fat.
When I’m fasting I crave really specific foods. One time I dreamt of soft-boiled eggs for like a week. I became obsessed with them to the point that I bought a set of little cups each with little spoons. Also a little gizmo that would take the tops off cleanly. My wife just rolled her eyes when they arrived. I think I made soft-boiled eggs twice after my fast was over.
With the exception of the aforementioned corned beef sandwich, what I usually crave are very simple, healthy foods. Brown rice with steamed broccoli. Vegetarian bean chili. Grilled fish or chicken. Sushi. Simple salads. All pretty simple foods.
My problem comes when I don’t have the energy to make decent food. When I just want to slam something. Then I eat crackers and cheese spread. I make a sandwich. I eat half a box of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Or I don’t bring lunch so I go out and order a pizza and two glasses of wine.
I’ve always said that the greatest result of my fasts, beyond the obvious weight loss, is that I reset my body and mind. I get out of drinking for habit. I stop eating shitty prepared foods. I reset my expectations. It’s not a small thing.
When you don’t eat or drink for an extended period of time you become very attuned to the good stuff. If the choice is between not eating anything and eating something worthwhile, the healthy food starts to look really good.
Of course I’d prefer a cheeseburger over a salad. I don’t even trust people who prefer the salad. It’s how I feel about people who don’t want the drink. Not the people who can’t have the drink. They people who never wanted one. I don’t get that unless there was some crime against you in your youth. I get that.
But if you can keep yourself from getting too tired and falling into old habits, presumably you can begin to change your habits.
If you can’t tell, I’m sort of an all or nothing kind of guy. This bugs the shit out of my wife. She’s one who might argue for simple moderation as opposed to my extremes. But I’m not good with half measures. It’s easier for me to be in an airport and decide I’m can’t eat meat, or I’m eating meat but I’m not eating carbs. What this does is it forces me to search out a healthy option, which are available, as opposed to plop into a booth in one of the shitty airport restaurants and order a cheeseburger with fries and a wine. Like I said, it’s harder when you’re tired, even worse if you’re hungover from the client dinner the night before.
Well, if you’re still with me here, I’m not sure I really made the point I set out to make. I really do think there is value in depriving yourself of certain things from time to time. Maybe I haven’t quite reached that clarity of thought I mentioned earlier. There is something a little scattershot about my brain during fasting as well. Like it’s moving too quickly. Like right now.
I’ll leave you with this.
Next time you hear someone is fasting, don’t tell them all the reasons you think they shouldn’t be doing it, especially if you’ve never done it yourself. Everyone is different. There is no one single solution for personal health.
And while weight loss might have been the instigation for the fast, it is almost never the only benefit.