Breaking away from my reflections on hunger and poverty for a moment, I’d like to answer a question that lots of people seem fascinated by – essentially the practicalities of doing a long fast, or as my friend George put it: ‘how are you not dead?’
Obviously at the moment I’m only about a quarter of the way through this fast, so it may seem a bit precipitate to talk about how to do long fasts, but at the same time this is something which I had to read up on quite a bit before starting, so I feel like I’m reasonably well equipped to give a basic overview.
Long fasts are something that many people do. Fasting is common across the faith traditions, and long fasts are often undertaken by ascetics seeking some form of enlightenment or spiritual clarity. Likewise people often fast as part of a health regime, people even go on fasting holidays, so they can feel hungry in a group.
Fasting itself is claimed to have many health benefits, from the detoxification of the system to reducing internal fat stores.
But of course, fasting isn’t for everyone, and for many people – especially children – it can be quite dangerous and harmful. It’s not something to be undertaken lightly or without careful thought. If you’re not sure, seek medical advice.
The fact is though that lack of food is something humans have had to deal with for millenia. Abundance of resources is only a relatively recent phenomena, and the human body is designed in such a way that it can go for some time without food without dying.
What it cant do is go for long without water, so I drink lots of that every day, along with a bit of juice, I also take vitamin supplements. The juice gives me a bit of extra energy, but in the main my body finds the energy I need elsewhere.
In case anyone isn’t aware of the basic biology of how that works, let me give a brief and probably slightly inaccurate explanation. We eat various kinds of things, one of the sorts of things we eat is carbohydrate, its found in potatoes, grains, and numerous other forms. We often consume it in the form of rice, pasta, or bread. Carbohydrate is broken down by the body into sugars and either used up as energy or stored as fat, so that when the body doesn’t get the energy it needs from food, it can break down the fat to get more energy. The less energy one uses, the more the carbohydrate is stored as fat.
I used to be more active than I am today, and as a legacy of that previous more active lifestyle I still tend to eat a lot of carbs, that means that I have a reasonable amount of fat stored in my body, which gives me something to rely on during this fast.
Now, the body doesn’t particularly like breaking its fat down into energy, it prefers to take on new energy through food, so when the fast begins there is some difficulty persuading it that you’re not going to eat. This is much more about a mental battle than a physical one – you have to fight the cravings for food that your system throws at you. The battle can be quite intense, and one can require a fair amount of resolve to get through it, but having a cause to fight for very much helps.
I am fortunate in that I am a vegetarian with a pretty healthy diet (my over consumption of carbs notwithstanding) I don’t drink alcohol or coffee (not because I’m a saint, but because I don’t like the taste) and I drink a lot of green tea, which is very good for you. All this means that my body is quite healthy, and I don’t have many food addictions, this made the detox process of the first three days somewhat easier. For those with a lot of food addictions, the detox process can be quite a bit harder, and can go on for longer – which is why its better to wean yourself off things before beginning a fast.
After those first few days, the body settles down into a rhythm of living of its reserves – that’s where I am now, and that will continue until all those reserves have gone – which I am hoping will not be for some time. When they have gone, I will go through another period of mental battle as the body begins to apply the brakes – the only energy it can get then is from my muscles, and it will begin the unpleasant task of consuming some of my muscle to create energy.
As things stand I am living off my fat, and that should remain the case for quite a while yet – the only difference I feel is a slight lack of energy, which I am managing reasonably well. I have made a pledge that should I become unwell, I will stop the fast, but at the moment well – I aint dead yet.