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!

 

 

Food and money

raspberriesI am almost at the halfway point of the fast, after tomorrow there will be fewer days to do that have already been done, and the golden moment when I can eat again will be approaching rapidly.

Of course there is still some way to go, twenty days is not a short amount of time to fast.

But yet again this highlights to me the immense privilege I have in such a defined period of not eating.

I was able to prepare for it, take it on as a mental and physical challenge, and then look forward to a definite ending point.

I am also able to reassure people that: ‘If I get ill, I will stop’. All the while knowing that the likelihood of me falling ill is remote in the extreme.

As I have noted previously, those who go without food for reasons of poverty have none of these advantages. And the likelihood of them falling ill is significantly higher.

Another startling thing I have noted during this fast is the link between food poverty and crime. It is obvious when you think about it – we’re existing in a place of plenty, where window displays scream ‘consume consume’ and most people’s cupboards groan with edible things from all around the world.

For the hungry man or woman it must seem incredibly tempting to pocket something.

And that is happening – to a much greater extent than before. In North East Lincs the rate of shop thefts which are just food, has gone up to a massive 46%. In my book, that is as close as it needs to be to half of all shop thefts.

The police say that the vast majority of these crimes are due directly to food poverty.

And it’s not just here, a quick web search throws up stories from around the country about people who have been arrested for shoplifting food, often petty things like the man from South Shields who stole a pot noodle and a chocolate bar after a relationship breakdown left him homeless and broke. Or the down-on-his-luck teenager from Galashiels who stole muffins worth £2.00 from Asda. While the first was let off, the second received a four month sentence.

It’s not quite Jean Valjean territory – but we’re heading in the right direction.

Police have now been warning some time, of the rise in shoplifting from first time female offenders, all the more notable given that shoplifting is a male dominated crime.

One study in an area of Northern England showed that officers had stopped 26 first-time shoplifters, compared with five the previous year. Twenty of the people arrested were women, and 11 of the 26 incidents were low-value, food-related thefts.

A nationwide crime survey revealed a 4% rise in shoplifting, amid an overall 10% drop in crime.

For all the talk of economic recovery and budget giveaways, there is still little sign of any let up in the hardship faced by an increasing number of single people and families who are finding a way of scratching an existence amid the empty cupboards and grumbling stomachs of austerity Britain.

And that means that more and more desperate people will commit criminal acts, often while operating on low blood sugar and going through difficult and deeply unpleasant withdrawal symptoms from food.

I certainly accept that until the financial problems in our country are sorted out, there will be no end to this crisis, but whatever one’s approach to this matter, it is obvious that many people need help now, and they aren’t getting it.

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.

True Fasting?

chainIsaiah 58: v 6

This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.

I woke up this morning with a sense of emptiness in my stomach. Not hunger – the discomfort and craving for food which I experienced in the first few days of my fast are not with me any longer – but a strange hollow feeling.

While emptiness is uncomfortable, it is easily bearable. And it is much to be preferred over the early part of the fast, when the body is effectively detoxing and craving all kinds of substances, sugar, salt, and fat in particular.

I have now reached the stage of Ketosis, the point in the fast where the body begins to break down its fat deposits via the liver, to turn them into energy. Until this stage ends, I am not expecting to be terribly uncomfortable for a while.

But the thing is this: Most people who are going without food in the UK today are not doing so over long drawn out periods of never eating. They are missing meals here and there, they are going without food for a couple of days at a time.

More than that, they don’t have the luxury of planning or researching their hunger, as I have my fast.

Often these short blood sugar draining spells of hunger can lead to rash decisions. Just as most of us know we should not go food shopping when we feel hungry, so it’s best not to apply for a pay-day loan while you have low blood sugar. Hungry people are easy targets for exploitation.

Occasionally these rash hungry decisions can end up in criminal acts – there is nothing new about this: an ancient Hebrew Proverb calls on God to neither provide too much nor too little – in order that one should neither grow rich and ignore God, or grow poor and have to steal to get what one needs. (Proverbs 30: 7-9)

Another side effect of the early stages of going without food is a slow down of the body’s essential services, in particular the ability to regulate heat. I’m a naturally warm person, but even I was cold and shivery in the first couple of days of the fast.

This reminds me too that one of the big tussles people have financially is with the costs of heating their homes – the ever present card or key meter ticking down until ‘clunk’ the energy goes off. No central heating, no hot water. The difficult decision of whether to put more money on the gas card, or to get some food is not one to be made when the body is craving sugar.

I’ll continue to blog my thoughts on hunger as I fast through Lent – I’m now on day five, an eighth of the way through, and the other 35 days still seem like an improbably long period of time, but there is light at the end of my tunnel – I will eat again. I am privileged to be able to make this choice. Others are starting their own involuntary fasts today, and for them there is no clear way out.

You can sign up to join the End Hunger Fast campaign here – why not join the many others who have pledged to fast for the day on April 4th?

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.

 

If you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with

Or the strange fascination God’s people have with the world they’re in.

Stephen Stills was a great songwriter, and there’s no doubt ‘Love the one you’re with’ is a catchy song, which accounts for the fact that it’s been covered by gazillions of artists since Stills released it in the early 1970s.

But for me I find the amoral nature of the lyric fairly nauseating:

And if you can’t be with the one you love
Love the one you’re with
Love the one you’re with
Turn your heartache right into joy
She’s a girl, you’re a boy,
Get it together make it nice
Ain’t gonna need anymore advice.

It’s just more of that crappy hedonism that was and is preached by the kings of cool and which has proven to be oh so great for all of us.

But my problem with this notion goes further than a bit of a grumble about a pop song, after all many of my favourite tunes have morally ambiguous lyrics if I’m honest.

My real gripe is that this very sentiment is being played out each day by people who claim to follow Jesus, and from time to time, more often perhaps than I’d like to admit, by me too.

Somehow because of the nature of God, being all invisible and difficult to focus upon, and the very hyper-reality of the world we live in, we choose to forsake the apparently absent one we (say we) love, and instead have an affair, or at least a fling, with the one we’re with.

Perhaps it’s as Stills says:

…you’re down and confused
And you don’t remember who you’re talkin’ to
Concentration slip away…

…There’s a girl right next to you
And she’s just waiting for something you do.

There’s a real need for us to remember who we are talking to, to remind ourselves of the reality of our situation. Not to be so distracted by our surroundings that we forsake the one we love, for the one we’re with.

How can that be done? There’s a real question of discipline here, which again I’ll be the first to say I have not got a good enough hold of. But perhaps there was a good reason that the Jews and the early Christians chose to pray seven times a day, perhaps the Muslims have a point in their ritual daily observances!

Perhaps we have lost something by rejecting the Sabbath and letting the ways of the world in to our day of rest and ritual observance. Perhaps our choice to forsake the telling and retelling of stories of God and his people in preference to weak sermons and flashy multimedia presentations has had unforeseen consequences.

Perhaps we’ve mucked up by abandoning fasting as a regular part of our life, and allowing our every desire to be sated in a whirlwind of consumer culture. Maybe our unwillingness to take on the challenge of meditation in a world where information flies around at the speed of light is a bigger loss than we thought, as it has the potential to connect us to the unknown and unseen and remove us from the realm of the immediate.

Maybe the monastics really do have something to teach us in all this… I guess you know I think they do.

I suppose this is a mournful call for a return to spiritual discipline, in the knowledge that we walk only by grace any how, but in the sincere hope that with a renewed focus on the reality of the closeness of God, comes a greater faithfulness to him.