Eating to Love: The Pause That Refreshes

*The information and opinions contained herein are for educational and entertainment purposes only. They are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical and health advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation.

This is part 2 of a series about changing your relationship with food. Part 1 was Eating to Love: The Challenge to Eat Responsibly.

Admittedly, fasting might seem a strange topic of conversation for Simple, Good and Tasty. Provocative, even. In a country where 8 to 10 million people suffer with eating disorders and an estimated 150,000 women die each year from Anorexia Nervosa, extolling the virtues of fasting might seem antithetical both to the Simple, Good and Tasty mission and a healthy attitude toward food. With this preliminary caveat in mind—perhaps especially with this caveat in mind—there is good reason to broach the subject and risk being misunderstood. But to be perfectly clear: fasting is not starving. Fasting presumes sufficient caloric reserves to provide for all bodily functions. Starvation implies caloric deficiency. Furthermore, fasting is not a pathological and uncontrolled refusal to eat. Fasting is voluntary, purposeful and mindful. And in my case, fasting was a great first-step, practically and symbolically, on my journey toward more conscious eating.

Rests are as essential to eating as they are to every aspect of life and human experience. Use of the well-placed rest is vital to composing and making music. The worker who doesn't take breaks will labor with diminishing productivity as the workday wears on. The siesta is one of the most envied cultural traditions of the Western world. It should come as no surprise, then, that occasional, responsible fasting can be extraordinarily valuable to the gourmet, gourmand and epicure—from enhancing the flavor of food and pleasure we get from it, to heightening our sense of control over eating and improving the ability of our bodies to assimilate nutrients. Plus, as economists know, it is relative scarcity that drives up the value of a good or service. What is too abundant quickly loses its ability to move us. An extended fast can serve as a powerful reminder of the value of food. 


Fasting—willingly abstaining from some or all food and drink for a period of time—has had a place in many cultures for spiritual reasons since the dawning of civilization. Holy figures including Jesus Christ, Mohammed, the Buddha, Martin Luther and Gandhi all practiced fasting for various purposes including self-purification, self-abasement or political aims. Fasting during Ramadan and Lent are common cultural experiences for Muslims and Roman Catholics. Now, contemporary scientific research has started to demystify the reasons why regular, intermittent and extended fasting (of up to 40 and even 60 days) can provide significant health and psychological benefits, and there is a growing body of research that supports the still controversial hypothesis that significant caloric restriction can extend life as well as reduce the incidence of serious and chronic illness.

In his essay, “Starving your way to vigor: The benefits of an empty stomach,” published in the March 2012 issue of Harper's Magazine, writer Steve Hendricks describes his own experience during a 21-day fast. As backdrop to his personal experience, Hendricks provides a compelling analysis of the potential health benefits of fasting—from treating epilepsy and cancer to curing the common cold—along with an examination of why fasting has remained confined to the outer limits of discussion within medical and nutritional science communities. It would be impractical and redundant to go into the specifics of Hendricks' essay. Rather, I recommend that readers of this site seek out the article and read it themselves by clicking here. It's enough to say that the piece was so well-reasoned and compelling that it inspired me, along with several friends, to attempt brief to extended fasts of anywhere from three to fourteen days, during which only water (and occasionally salt) were consumed. For those who have no interest in Hendrick's essay, suffice it to say that research suggests that, on a physical level at least, fasting can free the body from the overwhelming and nearly continual responsibility of digestion, leaving it free for healing and regeneration.


My own experience was significantly shorter than Hendricks'—a mere ten days to his three weeks. But it was long enough to provide me with some life-changing insights into my relationship with food, disabusing me of numerous fallacies I had labored under, and providing me with some useful tools and strategies for changing my dietary habits for the better.


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

For me, the experience of an extended fast was a great deal like long-distance running. I took up distance running for awhile when I was in my thirties, and I found that if I could "stick with" the experience for as long as two miles, I would ultimately reach that nirvana known as the "runner's high" in which the labor and discomfort of running would somehow fall away and I would be left with a lightness of being and exhilaration as I completed a run of anywhere from 3 to 10 miles. So it was with my single experience of an extended fast. Hunger pangs never left me entirely. However, after a period of three to four days, I found that my body and mind adjusted to the experience, leaving me no longer distracted by hunger's constant companionship. Instead, I was left with a heightened mental clarity and focus that reminded me of the (relatively) rare experience of "natural great peace" that can overtake the irritations of "monkey mind" during meditation.


In fact, the challenges, revelations and benefits that came to me from my extended fast were far more psychological, mental and spiritual than they were physical, even though during and after the fast I felt physically energized and the aches and pains that attend my experience of middle-age diminished significantly. Any one person's experience of fasting is unique; my primary "takeaways," while not a complete list of effects, seemed consistent with the experience of many others who fast.


Catharsis: absent from my usual crutch of food to resolve psychological issues and unfulfilled needs, I was left with the full force of deeper, psychological and symbolic "hungers" that typically plague me; loneliness, vague and sometimes acute dissatisfaction and anxiety reared their ugly heads. But armed with intensified mental clarity, a degree of cultivated mindfulness and self-awareness, and absent the quick fix of food to quell the hunger, I found that fasting gave me an opportunity to come to terms with those issues that have fueled my tendency to overeat. Even now, weeks after my extended fast, the deeper realization of emotion-based eating has served me well. Alarm sirens that were not there before start to sound when I am thoughtlessly and mechanically eating.


Control: As an American, food is all around me. All of the time. This said, if I do not have control over what I eat, the food controls me. The food production industry, especially providers of fast food, know this well and are expert at leveraging the immediate and passing experience of vague and relatively inconsequential "hunger" into the purchase of a double hamburger and fries at the local drive through. The experience of fasting was enormously empowering to me in at least one significant way. I now have a better feeling for what real hunger is, and I know that real hunger is not the momentary growling of my stomach and salivation at the thought of something fried, chewy and salty when I haven't eaten in the previous three or four hours. Go three, four, five, ten days without eating and you start to get a feel for what real hunger is. Fasting gave me the insight that I am not going to die and blow away if I don't eat something, right away, upon the first experience of superficial hunger pangs.  


The consequence of this realization is huge. First, it frees me to relax. I know that I really don't have to eat. I can wait for something that is good for me. I can wait to cook something that will nourish me rather than dump a load of junk food into my blood stream. And, no matter what I decide, I am left with the knowledge that, indeed, the choice is mine. If I eat the burger, it is my choice, not a preprogrammed, thoughtless response. This knowledge is fundamental to the Simple, Good and Tasty mission. I am in control and I am making my own choices, dammit. And...dammit it's often easier to relinquish control, but rarely is it better for you.


Cultivation: "Cultivating" hunger—letting hunger build—can both clear the palate as well as make the experience even more satisfying when you finally do eat. Taste and scent are stronger, and the experience of finally fulfilling desire is more...well...delicious. The simplest foods—an apple or a piece of buttered bread take on qualities and an intensity that are impossible to describe. You have to go through the end-of-a-fast experience to fully appreciate its effects on not only the palate, but the total body experience of eating. No doubt there is an almost prurient edge to this admission of mine. But it is not wholly, or even mainly a sensual experience. A more appropriate way to characterize post-fast eating is heavenly. The connection between the sensual experience of eating and the spiritual value of gratitude for what the material world provides for our bodily nourishment is strengthened and intensified. Even now, many weeks past my fast, not only am I far more likely to cultivate hunger, but I consistently say Grace, a habit that I had fallen out of for some time. Meister Eckhart famously opined, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough." Cultivating hunger for food and for life is two-fold: passion and desire on the one hand, and appreciation and gratefulness on the other are interdependent experiences that create a satisfying whole.

Admittedly these are personal takeaways specific to me. Other friends who have fasted have had very different experiences from mine. However, I can say in a completely anecdotal and unscientific way, that all of us came to enjoy the effects of fasting. As my friend Chuck put it, "Now that the fast is over, I miss it." I also found this to be true. And I fully expect to revisit the experience from time to time, as I might an old friend whose company reinvigorates and restores me.


After the relatively passive experience of fasting, it was time for me to take a bold leap forward, into the woods, where the process of reinvigoration and restoration might take on a more active and rugged character. As I started training my body and collecting my gear in preparation for a summer of two and three day hikes into the wilderness that would stir my body as well as my creative energy, a major question loomed.  

What to eat?


Denise Kulawik is a freelance writer now residing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In addition to her work for Simple, Good and Tasty, her work has been published in the Boston GlobeThe Arlington Advocate and The Journal of Healthcare Philanthropy.  Ms. Kulawik's original screenplay, Music Lessons, is currently in development with New Globe films. Her last article for SGT was: Eating to Love: The Challenge to Eat Responsibly.