The practicalities of a 40 day fast

look north cropOn Shrove Tuesday 2014 I had my final meal before giving up food entirely for 40 days. I am fasting to help raise awareness of the issue of food poverty in our country, as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign. I am doing so along side Keith Hebden and Scott Albrecht, who are doing the same fast, and thousands of others who fasted for a day, on April 4th. Many others have chosen to fast for single days each week in Lent. They have my sincere respect, gratitude, and admiration. I’m also grateful to the journalists and media channels who have helped to publicise this.

I have previously written a couple of posts about my reasons for doing this, but this post is about the practicalities, arising from the innumerable questions I’ve been asked by all sorts of people about the process.

There’s perhaps a chance of being presumptuous in writing this on day 32 of my 40 day fast. But I can at least share the story so far.

I did quite a bit of research before undertaking this fast, which included lots of reading and also speaking with people who have accomplished 40 day fasts in the past. In some cases, they have done it a few times.

So what I got was basically what I was expecting.

The most important thing to know is that, so long as you are a person who is in good health, this is a primarily a mental challenge. The body is actually equipped to go for relatively long periods without food if necessary, and has internal mechanisms to deal with it.

The key thing you must do, is ensure you are properly hydrated. And that means in particular that you need to drink lots of water. In my case I have not restricted myself to water, I have drunk fruit juice daily, I have also drunk green tea daily. With these three and the occasional addition of things like carrot juice, carrot and orange juice, V5 vegetable juice (bleugh) and similar I have kept myself feeling pretty well nourished. I have also accepted the occasional black tea when given one, or when there was no other option.

I have also maintained a regular supplemental vitamin intake, I take a multivitamin & mineral tablet every morning, and an effervescent vitamin C tablet most lunch times.

In this way, I have kept up what I think is a reasonable supply of essential nutrients into my system.

I was also advised to consider supplementing the fast with a ‘very thin soup’ such as a vegetable stock, or water from boiled vegetables. I thought about this a lot, and decided I would keep this as a reserve option for a late stage of the fast. So far I have not bothered with doing so, and I suspect I will not resort to it. I dont feel particularly tempted by the idea, and am not sure it would add much at this point.

“Are you hungry all the time?”

The answer is basically no, I’m not. After the first few days in which the body detoxes and deals with its food addictions, you go into ketosis, and the the body begins to break down fats to provide the sugars it needs. Because I have maintained some sugar intake with fruit juices I have managed to sustain ketosis until now. I am hopeful that it will continue until day 40. If it does not, then my body will begin to consume muscle, which will be unpleasant.

“Are you tempted by food all the time?”

Again the answer is no, I have cooked for the children from time to time, and sometimes sit at the table for meals. That doesn’t always work for me, so I’m not religious about it. But so far as I have been able, I’ve attempted to carry on as normal. I must admit that at times when I’ve been in the house on my own, and I’ve known all the nice food we have in our cupboards and fridge, I’ve thought: ‘nobody need ever know…’ but happily I have managed not to go down that route, I’ve eaten nothing.

“How much weight have you lost?”

I went into the fast expecting to lose a stone and a half over the forty days, an amount I felt I could afford to lose reasonably well. I had actually let myself eat a bit more in advance of the fast, so that I had a bit more in reserve. Unfortunately this was an underestimation, and I had lost a stone and a half with two weeks to spare. I think that this week I may have lost another half stone, which means I have gone from just over 13 stone to just over 11. I think it’s roughly 15% of my total body weight, maybe about an arm’s worth. It’s now quite evident that I have shed weight, and my face in particular looks quite different.

“Are you still ‘well’?”

In general I remain in good health. I’ve continued to work all the way through the fast, at times I’ve worn myself out, which was unwise. In general the main problem has been lack of energy, I have certainly suffered from a loss of energy, and at times I just feel weak. I have deliberately cut down the amount of exercise I do, and have tried to be sensible about that. I needed this fast to be sustainable in the midst of what can be a pretty busy life. Internally my body continues to function well, although bowel movements have certainly slowed, and possibly now stopped – you cant blame the bowels for not moving if there’s nothing in them I guess.

The other issues I’ve had are sleep and temperature – I’ve slept less, at least an hour less per night which is a bit of a drag, and my sleep is more broken which is also annoying. It adds to my overall feeling of tiredness. And body temperature has been an issue at times, mostly I’ve been fine but sometimes I’ve just felt very shivery, and I have to wear more in bed in order to be warm enough. I’ve thanked God for the lovely warm jacket which I got just before the fast began, it’s been a real boon.

The one health issue I do have is that I have a slight problem if I get too hot, my blood pressure drops a lot and I am prone to passing out – I have noticed an increase in light headedness at times during the fast, and I think my blood pressure has gone down a bit, so I have to be extra careful about that generally, and about not getting too hot in particular, so no hot baths anymore.

Has it made you grumpy?”

In general no, I don’t think so, but from time to time it probably has. I think in some ways it’s made me a bit more manic, and I suspect there’s some survival instinct going on meaning that I will take decisions faster, think more clearly and be less tolerant of shilly shallying. I have a feeling that this has not made me the easiest person to live with at times, and I owe my family an awful lot for supporting me in this.

“Has it been a ‘spiritual experience’?”

Unlike other fasts which I have done (much shorter) for specifically ‘spiritual’ reasons, this was never intended as an exercise in prayerful asceticism.  This was always a practical thing, but to divorce those two concepts entirely would be wrong. So I would say that this hasn’t been the kind of transcendent experience one might expect if doing it as a time of concentrated prayer and meditation, but the spirituality of the mundane is not to be undervalued, and in that sense it has been a deeply spiritual experience. The focus of this fast has been (essentially) justice and peace – and the spirit of God is justice and peace – there is a clear link.

“What are you going to eat first when you stop?”

It will have to be a gentle soup diet to begin with, I don’t eat meat anyway, so that’s not an issue, but I’ll have to have vegetable soup for the first few days at least until my internal organs can handle being filled again, then it will be simple things like a bit of scrambled egg, and stuff with plenty of fibre in. My first real meal will probably be a Mung bean soup, which is a traditional way to break a fast in certain Indian cultures, as it has particular restorative qualities.

“What has kept you motivated?”

Knowing that this is a much bigger issue than some temporary discomfort of my own, and that in doing this I am helping to raise the general awareness of that issue. The support and encouragement of family, friends, colleagues and strangers has been really great too. A consistent prayerful approach has helped me stay focused for the most part, and also a bit of sheer bloody mindedness hasn’t hindered me, nor has a latent competitive instinct if I’m really honest.

Overall the main thing to understand is that this is entirely achievable with the relevant preparation and motivation. One needs to understand that there are periods when it is hard, and periods when it is really quite easy. The idea in my mind is not to pay too much attention to either of these two things, and just to be present in the moment that I am in. I liken it to climbing a cliff, or walking a ledge – just don’t look down. If you do then it scares the living daylights out of you. I occasionally catch a glimpse of the fact that I have not eaten anything for a month, and that seems extraordinary to me, then I remember just to continue the fast. It’s a lot like meditation actually, just be there in a meditative state, retain no thought, resist no thought, resent no thought. I use meditation as part of my personal spiritual practice and perhaps that discipline has been a help.

“What has been the hardest thing about it?”

The hardest thing about this whole fast has been the impact it has had at home – no more date night meals for Kelly and I, no special meal for our wedding anniversary which fell on day 31, fewer family meals around the table and so on. I have felt that loss keenly, and I know Kelly has too. That has felt at times selfish and unfair, and I don’t feel good about it.

However, there is a much bigger issue at stake, an issue of justice, and I focus on that, knowing we will be able to make up for some lost time afterwards.

So there you have it, I think there was only once when I seriously doubted I would complete this fast, in the main I’ve just managed to plod along. I’m still not ruling out introducing some thin vegetable soup, or Miso soup or something in the last few days if I grow very weak, but I can see the finish line and I’m plodding towards it. See you on the other side!

 

 

How are you not dead?

waterBreaking 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.

To read my previous reflections on the fast see previous posts here and here, and to learn more about the End Hunger Fast campaign and how you can get involved, go here.

Profiting from hunger?

file0001556043806The End Hunger Fast campaign has three principle concerns. We are calling on the government to ensure it provides a robust last line of defense for those who find themselves without resources, to ensure that work actually pays enough for people to live on, and to prevent companies from profiting from hunger.

The question, how would companies profit from hunger, and why?

The second part of that question is the easiest, to make profits and thereby enrich shareholders.

But as for how – that is slightly more complicated.

The easiest way to demonstrate how this works is by looking at Glencore – one of the worlds largest commodities trader. Glencore makes its massive profits by speculating, gambling, on the prices of commodities. Commodities in this sense are raw materials or agricultural products which can be sold or traded on international markets. So they could be Gold, lead, rice, wood, etc.

What gives Glencore an unusual advantage in this speculation is that it is a ‘vertically integrated’ company – in other words it doesn’t just sell the commodities, it also produces them, in enormous quantities. It controls for instance 50% of the world’s copper market, which means it has a particular ability to control the supply of that important commodity.

But Glencore doesnt just operate in mining – it also owns hundreds of thousands of hectares of farm land – which means that it has an ability to directly impact the price of cereal crops.

“A disturbing amount of price increases, I fear, is being driven by speculative activity,” Marcus Miller, a professor of international economics at the University of Warwick, told Al Jazeera. “Bets [on future price rises or declines] can become self-fulfilling if you are big enough to affect the market.”

Glencore is a perfect example of a company which can directly profit from hunger – as food prices go up due to the scarcity of wheat or corn or rice, a scarcity which they can to some extent manipulate through their agricultural activities – so their stocks soar. To put it crudely, starvation is good for business.

For forty days through Lent I will be fasting from food to draw attention to issues like this – my personal fast is alongside that of others, and is supported locally by friends from the Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist communities among others.

 

End Hunger Fast

file9941313599376This Lent I will be fasting from food for forty days.

I’m doing this because I want to raise awareness of the fact that in my community, and in other towns, villages and cities around this country, people are going hungry every day. Parents are making the hard choices between food and fuel, between eating themselves, and giving food to their children.

In my own area of Grimsby the local food bank has seen a staggering rise in use since 2012 – a massive 420% more people are accessing the Daily Bread Food Larder food bank. Even more chilling is the statistic that 25% of those who are relying on food hand outs are children.

Across the country there are millions of people, many of whom are in work, who have had to access a food bank since last year. In that time thousands of people have been admitted to hospital with malnutrition.

In any country it is terrible that people should be going hungry. In a country like ours, a rich country where ‘money is no object’ when it comes to rescuing flood victims, and where billions are spent on bailing out banks, it’s nothing short of a total disgrace that people should be going hungry.

You may know that another issue in our town right now is the proposal that a new series of ‘Skint’ will be made here. It’s a programme which highlights the way some individuals have chosen to live in a climate of unemployment, benefit dependency, and social problems.

I have been involved, heavily involved, in campaigning to prevent this filming. But this is not because I don’t want the problems to be highlighted. Some people have said that we ‘shouldn’t hang out our dirty washing in public‘ – I disagree with that. I want people everywhere to understand the plight of those who live on or over the edge of poverty and hunger. I want us all to wake up to the fact that societal failings have led to children going hungry.

The difference is that I don’t want individuals and their families to become scapegoats for the moral failings of society. I’m not interested in providing fuel for a form of contemporary freak show where we can all gather round our large televisions and laugh at the village idiots in the hope that it will raise awareness of what our communities have to live with.

We need to face up to the problems of our society and acknowledge their causes, not mock their symptoms.

That is what I am going to be going without food for forty days, starting on Ash Wednesday, I’m doing it as part of the ‘End Hunger Fast’ campaign, and if you want to support what I’m doing, you can find ways of doing so on the campaign website.

A practical response could be that you could make a donation or series of donations to your local food bank, if you’re in Grimsby you can do that via either of the schools I work in, Oasis Academy Nunsthorpe or Oasis Academy Wintringham. If you want to join in by fasting, there is a national day of fasting on April 4th. You can also tweet your support using the hashtag #endhungerfast.

Some people have voiced concerns about my health, please be reassured that this is planned, and I have measures in place to protect myself from harm – but lets not forget that I’m privileged to be able to do that, for others this is more like a way of life.

 

Inspiration

“To inspire people, even just for one second, is worth something.” Paul Simonon

The best dressed man in Punk rock, and sometime undercover chef on a Greenpeace ship, Paul Simonon is a true artist.

A painter prior to becoming a musician, and now a man of many achievements, and an impeccable collection of fedoras, Simonon, along with Strummer, Jones and Headon, was a key inspiration to a whole generation.

But he recognises that really four guys with guitars, drums and microphones were unlikely to change the world. The utopia they hoped for never came to pass, and now of course, their standard bearer and combat coat wearer Joe, is dead.

Nevertheless, they did inspire, and they continue to. And that, as Paul says, is worth something. People who were inspired by their vision of the world have made, and continue to make, small changes to their world. I am one of those people.

We all have that opportunity – don’t let it go to waste.

Shirts to have faith in

I love it when a plan comes together.

We’re in the middle of Fairtrade fortnight here in the UK, and the web is full of people talking about the steps they are taking to support the principles of fairer and more equable trade.

Probably nobody thinks of Fairtrade as the be all and end all of ethical trading any more.

That idea died away when we all realised that despite the public adoption of Fairtrade as an effective guide to brands and products which are produced with ethics in mind, there remain significant issues to be overcome in terms of living wages and the sustainability of industry.

Perhaps those issues will always remain while we live and operate in the kind of economic environment that we do.

Ethical trading

From my perspective the Fairtrade movement has been very positive in many ways. It has brought the plight of slave labour in the chocolate industry to widespread public attention for instance. And the Fairtrade mark still gives a good guide with regard to where a product is at in terms of its production supply chain.

That is why I think its very good news that retail sales of Fairtrade products rose by 12%in 2011.

One of my particular interests for about 15 years has been the garment industry.

I’ve been active in one way or another in activism and campaigning in that area since my late teens. My focus initially was on the plight of garment workers, particularly as sweat shops became better publicised.

I later became very invested in the issue of organic and sustainable textile production, particularly as I began to understand that the standards applied by Organic certification agencies often demanded a great deal from employers in terms of social standards, as well as regulating the use of harmful (often lethal) chemicals.

Organic cotton in particular is a vital part of sustainable textile production. When compared with conventional cotton farming the benefits are too many to list. In part, this is why I also think its very good news that the organic clothing and textile sector recorded an increase in turnover of nearly 8% in 2011.

Challenges

Over a number of years of involvement in this area, I encountered con-men and crooked dealing, I realised that life is very hard for small companies trying to help farmers convert to organic agriculture, and I saw how farmers could be lured away from sustainable agricultural practices by the promise of quick cash.I have also seen many well intentioned businesses go to the wall, leaving their suppliers with nobody to sell to.

My own attempts to set up an organic cotton farming project have so far come to nought, but thankfully that’s not all I’m involved in.

Solutions

A couple of years ago I was contacted by a company that manufactures uniforms, something which immediately interested me. As opposed to fashion which is built to be disposable, uniforms have to be long lasting, hard wearing, and aren’t just going to be thrown away at the end of the season.

ImageOne particular clothing line came to the fore in our talks, a market leading brand of clergy shirts called Reliant.

If we could begin to transition these clergy shirts to Organic and Fairtrade cotton, could other lines follow…?

Well the road to achieving our goal proved to be a rocky one, and I think its fair to say it took longer than any of us had hoped, but at the beginning of this week I received a box in the post. A Reliant shirt, made from 100% Organic and Fairtrade certified cotton.

So in time for Fairtrade Fortnight, the new Reliant Fairtrade and organic cotton shirts are available from clergy suppliers.

I love this, love it, love it, love it.

High quality shirts, not disposable fashion, produced by people we’ve worked hard (and spent considerable time and money) to develop relationship with.

This kind of process is the ‘present-future’ of garment production, while we almost certainly need to cut back on the production of disposable fashion, we need to re-invest heavily in establishing a direct link between the field where the cotton crop was grown, and the high quality output at the other end.

It combines ancient agricultural practices guided by sunshine and rainfall, with high tech sewing operations guided by laser cut patterns.

I love it when a plan comes together.

George Monbiot declares his earnings

George Monbiot yet again sets himself at the vanguard of public morality by declaring his earnings.

Monbiot says that he believes journalists like other public figures ought to demonstrate what income they receive in order that the public can know who is influencing them. I think this is admirable. In the week that politicians are talking nonsense about journalists being ‘struck off‘ (errr, from what exactly?) this is the kind of bold move which should be encouraged.

It certainly gives me pause for thought, and makes me wonder if religious and faith leaders shouldnt also be doing the same thing.

Check out George’s enviable contract with Penguin, and his salary from the guardian, down the last 7pence right here.