The Art of Not Eating

A few years ago, my good friend Kevin started a cleanse. He bought a cleansing kit. He took the cleansing pills and fiber for ten days. He refined his diet. For breakfast, he ate berries. For lunch, he ate salad. For dinner, he ate baked salmon and steamed broccoli. More importantly (for him at least), he did not drink his micro-brews, and he did not eat his favored hard pretzels.

Kevin felt light and optimistic. He also felt insatiably hungry. So he called me.

“I need to eat more food,” he said.

“So eat more food,” I said.

“Like what?”

“A sweet potato?”

“But that sounds good.”


“Shouldn’t I be suffering?”

The Faces of Fasting: Kevin

Kevin’s attitude is not unique. Most people, I believe, equate cleansing and fasting with suffering. We look at a cleanse as a Great Giving Up. We give up our favored foods and drinks, our preferred ways of eating. Why do we do  perform this fanatical act? We think it will make us feel better.

“That’s it,” we say, “I’m never eating wheat again.”

Then we wake up, have a bagel.

Sometimes, though, we just stop eating.

If you’re like my friend Kevin, though, you go out and buy a cleansing kit. You give up carbohydrates. You give up bread, ice cream, red meat, beer–everything you love. You willfully suffer.

To many, this is a cleanse: Suffering. To many, a cleanse is penance. For eating too much. For drinking too much.


One might fast by eating nothing, or eating only one type of food, or simply eliminating a few foods from the diet. A fast can last several days to several weeks.

“Cleansing” is a relative term; it generally means the purging of excess toxins and residues–a view  not supported by medical science. According to the alternative health community, cleansing can be achieved in many ways; a fast is one method of cleansing.

Others might include: enemas, cleansing kits, or extreme flushes.

Medical science and alternative medicine speak about cleansing and fasting in dramatically different terms. In fact, medical science believes “cleansing” is a misnomer, and has has all but denied its value. As Christopher Wanjeck writes on Live Science:

“Most doctors consider detox therapies to be pseudoscience, based on a misunderstanding of basic biology. Moreover, mainstream doctors view detox products as either a waste of money or potentially harmful.”

Additionally, medical science has long debated the value of fasting, and although clear benefits have been observed in animals, the value of  fasting, or calorie restriction (CR), for humans is still unclear.

In their review of the literature on calorie restriction, Leonie K Heilbronn and Eric Ravussin, writing in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, say:

“CR reduces metabolic rate and oxidative stress, improves insulin sensitivity, and alters neuroendocrine and sympathetic nervous system function in animals. Whether prolonged CR increases life span (or improves biomarkers of aging) in humans is unknown.”

Although the value of CR is unclear, the new research on intermittent fasting is promising. As David Stipp notes in Scientific American, for example, intermittent fasting “revs up cellular defenses against molecular damage” and increases insulin sensitivity.

And last year, a study from Harvard revealed that “fasting can increase lifespan, slow aging and improve health by altering the activity of mitochondrial networks inside our cells” (Source).

Alternative health practitioners might urge you to expel mucoid plague. For medical science, though, the value of fasting is not detoxification, but cellular renewal and increased insulin sensitivity.

If anything, the two agree on one simple fact: the digestive system requires a great deal of energy. Depending on your view, then, you might believe that when not digesting food our body works to detoxify or, as Stipp, writes “rev up cellular defenses against molecular damage.”


I started fasting at twenty-one, when home from Italy in June 1998, I discovered my father’s water-stained copy of Fit for Life, a book that theorized that eating fruit, in the morning, on an empty stomach, to the exclusion of other foods, inspires exuberant energy.

I call that summer “The Fruit Summer.” Each night, I feel asleep in faded Levis, and each morning, I leapt from bed, already dressed, primed for another day of fruit. Blueberries, cherries, and watermelon, and later peaches, plums, and nectarines: the evolving summer bounty.

With a few exceptions, I managed to avoid full-time employment until the age of twenty-eight. That summer, with little else to do, I devoted my life to “health.”

In my father’s basement, in flood-damaged cardboard boxes, I soon discovered other books: Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss, Arnold Ehret’s Muculess Diet Healing System, and Fresh Vegetable and Fruit Juices: What’s Missing in Your Body?

The latter, written by a fanatic’s fanatic, Dr. Norman Walker, a full-time juicer who lived to 107, claims that carrot juice is the most efficient food on the planet. Walker soberly explains the phenomena of orange skin, a symptom of dissolved waste passing through the epidermis. Like sweat. I underlined the following:

“In any case, is it not better to have a healthy satin-like skin, even though it may be slightly on the carrot shade, than to have the pasty complexion that publicizes the unhealthy condition of the body?”

Motivated by this sort of talk, and my new fruit-inspired energy, my fanaticism evolved. I pledged my body to juicing and cleansing. I did, in fact, develop a “healthy satin-like skin…slightly on the carrot shade.”

Throughout my early twenties, I explored cleansing more deeply. I practiced food combining.  For three years, I followed the illustrious Master Cleanse in the fall and spring, for ten days at a time. Fruit, especially, began to inhabit a special presence in my life. For each fruit, I had a story. I’ve recounted this time in my memoir:

“There was my first mango, shared one summer morning with Karen after a horrid fight. Later, whenever I ate mango, alone or shared, the grassy notes tasted of absence, her absence, which I could never bear, even when she left the room for a moment, so that I found myself, against my better judgement, blaming her for wanting to always leave.

Then there was the watermelon. It was a midsummer night, and I’d cut a ten pound watermelon in half. Standing on my father’s back stoop, wearing only Levis, I plunged my face into the red pulp and sucked—a Titan, I imagined, devouring a lycopene-rich planet.

Karen sat next to me, in perfect silence, reading for the first time my copy of Leaves of Grass. Twice she paused to look at me. Twice I lifted my head, and spit a seed at the sky. When she paused a third time, with a bold laugh, I was surprised to see tears in her eyes.

“Listen,” she said, and she recited:

This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look’d at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit, 

When we become the enfolders of those
and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in
shall we be fill’d and satisfied then?

And my spirit said,
No, we but level that lift to pass and
continue beyond.

My wife, Karen, on the final day of a 10-day fast in 2008

My good friend, Steve Pyle, a former champion wrestler who has practiced some form of fasting or cleansing for his entire life speaks about fasting quite eloquently on our food blog, FoodVibe

So much of what he says rings true for me I’d like to quote his post, “On Cleansing and Fasting,” in its entirety, but I’ll limit myself to this:

“I find something so attractive in the idea of the cleanse. As if, through fasting, we can correct everything wrong with our bodies and ourselves. It’s the ultimate romantic notion—that by simply cleansing ourselves we can seemingly fix our past, or even repair the broken relationships in our lives.

The Internet is rife with websites devoted to fasting, cleansing and natural healing remedies. Some sites have shocking photos of mucoid plaque, gall stones, kidney stones, and other physical monstrosities expelled from peoples’ bodies during a cleanse. Page after page offers ecstatic testimony: “Fasting saved my life!” “Fasting cleared my acne!” “Fasting cured my cancer.”

Many of these testimonies delve deeply into the idealism and mysticism of self-purification—that you can fast and cleanse yourself to a perfect body and soul.

While I do believe several of those testimonies, the idea of cleansing this way comes very close to the misguided idea that one can get something for ‘nothing,’ that one can reap maximum benefits from a minimum effort or sacrifice…

Yet isn’t that what repentance is all about? That we can somehow fix ourselves? That it can happen in a moment or quicker? Isn’t fasting a sort of atonement?

I think life is much harder. Life requires more work.

While fasting has many untold healing and spiritual benefits, there seems to be also a sort of delusion involved for the many dilettantes who swear by it. It can all get out of hand. Approached incorrectly, fasting can be dangerous. One can become carried away with the idea of self-righteousness and purification, to the point where you end up like the kid in Into The Wild. Tragic and pointless.”

The Faces of Fasting: Steve

In his book Healing with Whole Foods, Paul Pritchford writes about the Eastern philosophy of yin-yang:

“Yin and yang, in essence, describe all phenomena. Some people may claim not to believe in yin-yang philosophy, yet these terms are merely descriptions of easily observed processes—day changing into night, youth into age, one season into the next:

Among its myriad possibilities, the philosophy of yin-yang is used in Eastern medicine to diagnosis and treat medical conditions; yet, even without specialized knowledge, a Westerner can apply the philosophy to his/her own health.

Essentially, yin-yang describes a duality, yet at that bottom of this duality, as Pritchford notes, is an unchanging source:

“Even though yin and yang specify change and separation, their source is permanent: ‘The Great Ultimate is Unmoved,’ according to Shao Yung, the 11th-century Chinese philosopher. The Bible expresses this idea in the phrase, ‘I am the Lord; I do not change.’ (Malachi: 3:6)”

This unchanging source can be likened to the human body: by nature, our body has a capacity for what Dr. Weil, in Spontaneous Healing, calls the “innate, intrinsic nature of the healing process.”

Our health might manifest as “good” or “bad”, but our bodies, at their very core, offer the possibility of unified, solid health: “The word healing,” Dr. Weil notes, “means ‘making whole’—that is, restoring integrity and balance.”

In terms of cleansing, those words—integrity and balance—feel especially instructive to me. To the point: I often wonder whether my early cleansing contributed to my later illnesses. In any case, once ill, my fanaticism for cleansing and fasting transformed into something altogether destructive.

As I wrote last week:

“When I experienced my first symptoms of autoimmune illness, my obsession evolved, into what I now view as an eating disorder. My early symptoms were vague: moving pain, crushing fatigue, listlessness, depression. Blaming certain foods, I refined my diet. For months, I refused to touch anything but organic greens, sprouted grains, wild salmon, brown rice, and tempeh. I drank green drinks. I refused wine. I did not eat one ounce of cheese or bread. I avoided all night-shade vegetables. I never, ever combined proteins and carbohydrates at the same meal.”

Blame. It seems ridiculous to blame food, but I believe this is the impulse behind so much of the fasting and cleansing practiced in America today. It is, at its root, extremism.

So why, exactly, do we fast? For that matter, why do we eat? Why do develop cravings for a certain thing? It isn’t always food, this thing. Actually, it’s never food. What is it then?

The Faces of Fasting: Emo Edition

I took the above “celf portrait” in the midst of my final fast, in the summer if 2006. And yet, even though I no longer practice fasting or cleansing, I still practice the sort of extreme penance I came to associate with the practice. Attempting to recover from a party, for example, I get on the treadmill and run until my heart nearly explodes.

But is running to exhaustion the cure for partying to exhaustion? Or is it, in a way, the same thing?

I believe fasting can be beneficial–if practiced in the right way, with the right spirit. My experience might be a cautionary tale. Steve’s experience, though, offers a different view:

“Even as I write this, I’ve just finished my second cleansing fast, and am still thinking about it. I’m thinking what people who know have told me—that the most important part of any fast is what comes after. That is, how the fast has changed your perceptions about health and wellness to the point that it has permanently changed your habits.

Because your body exists in such a delicate stasis while on an extended fast, you really see how the things you put into your body affect your energy level, mental acuity, and spirituality. As a result, I have made some drastic lifestyle and wellness changes that I can see lasting for a long time, hopefully forever. So in that sense, the fast was a success.

But on a more important level, fasting has made me realize a few other things. First, I noticed how much time we spend preparing food, eating food, or thinking about what to eat next. The entire day opens up when you are not concerned with these things. This feeling is similar to the one I had when I swore off television—you realize how much time you have wasted. I experienced the same thing when I gave up smoking as well. Even with all of this new found time while fasting, it still seems that I spend most of it just sitting around, waiting for my water to filter.

There is a metaphor in there somewhere. Continuing on the subject of time, it is just exactly that which fasting has taught me the most—that time is indeed precious and scarce. Fasting forces us to think about how we fill the empty spaces, the silence. It all comes down to how we have used our time. That has been and always will be how we assess the success of life. There is no quick fix. You can’t get something for nothing. It all comes down to how we fill the seconds, the moments, the hours. These are the things that ultimately make up all of our days. And we live them.”