The Lite Stuff: Better Fitness Through Fasting
Midwinter is a bad time of year to visit Morocco. The Muslims there all fast from dawn to dusk for the entire month of Ramadan in honor of the return of Mohammed 1,300 years ago.That means no food, no drinks, no water, no gum, no smokes, no nuthin' all day long.Some party. By dumb luck I visited the North African country on the first day of Ramadan several years ago. The people on the streets of Tangier all hated fasting. Everyone grumbled about it, but they had no choice -- breaking the fast meant an attitude adjustment from the "religious police" and your possible disappearance. It wasn't some kind of namby-pamby thing like giving up chocolate for Lent and then forgetting all about it four days into the deal.As I'd been warned, the people were indeed crabby; some of the guys hustling on the streets practically showed a tooth and snarled. That night, a mob of men ran through the street at midnight, yelling beneath my hotel window, and for a moment I thought they had come to string up some Yankee infidel, but it turned out they were just whooping it up over completing the first day of the fast.If you've noticed, fasting has become somewhat in vogue in our country lately, with articles in many health and fitness magazines. Fundamentalists such as Pat Robertson are urging their followers to fast for 40 days for Lent in the example of Jesus.Fasting for a day or so is said to detoxify the body by flushing it with water. Fasting also gives the stomach and bowel a rest, since unlike animals or people in the Third World who often go hungry for days, we Americans are always literally full of crap. When was the last time you didn't eat a single thing all day? Probably when you were 17.Some even claim that fasting has spiritual benefits. Every major religion practices some form of fasting. Voluntary fasting takes the mind off material things and leads to a state of spiritual joy and insight. Thus, the visions shared by teachers as diverse as Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses and Black Elk.Fasting for fitness takes a variety of forms, depending on how lightheaded you wish to become.* It can mean a day of eating nothing but fruit.* It can mean drinking nothing but fresh-squeezed juice (big-time fasters swear by carrots).* Or you can go all the way and subsist on nothing but water flavored with a bit of lemon, which also acts as a detoxifying agent for all the gunk you've been stuffing down your gullet since Christmas.* All-out masochists prefer going cold turkey on everything, including water.Eating food activates the body's metabolism the same way that coal stokes a fire. Conversely, fasting lowers the body's metabolism. Your body's furnace can burn as much as 22 percent lower during a fast.The body reacts to starvation by burning its stores of starch (glycogen) or fat. When those give out, our bodies resort to burning muscle and protein from other tissues.One can well imagine that a long-term fast could result in the hallucinations of a Native American's vision quest, in which young men were sent off into the wilderness to starve until they received a visit from their totem animal. It's easy to imagine that Jesus did indeed talk to the devil after 40 days of fasting in the desert. Some of us would probably see Beezelbub after only 4 days shy of Micky D's.Besides the visions, long-term fasting can kill ya'. An Irish rebel named MacSwiney starved himself to death after 55 days in a hunger strike at a British prison earlier in this century. Various shipwreck victims have been able to survive for two months at best without food.I've experimented with fasting over the past few months. One day a week, I drink nothing but fruit juice over a 36-hour period. I started with hi-citrus V-8 Splash, but am switching to a mix of all-organic carrot goop.So far, spiritual enlightenment has eluded me. Instead, I get a pounding headache and am grouchier than any junkyard dog wandering the medina in old Morocco. A McDonald's sign suddenly seems dazzling in its colors and more interesting; and you can get serious wallet burns on your hands if you're unwise enough to go grocery shopping during a fast.As for detoxifying, I don't know if fasting has done one lick of good, although I can say with some confidence that my bowels are probably emptier than yours on Thursday.One clear result however, is weight loss. Thanks to fasting, I can fit into pants that were a lost cause five years ago. No diet, no extra exercise, no hassles -- just fast one day a week and you ditch 1/7th of your food intake and all the calories, saturated fats, cholesterol and preservatives that go with it.You also gain respect for the religious teachers of the past. Those guys were onto something. In our society, everything is geared towards immediate self-gratification. We feel bad about ourselves if we can't have the latest hot thing right now, and we gladly become slaves to VISA and MasterCard.Fasting, however, teaches willpower and builds the strength of mind over matter. Few people in America knows squat about willpower -- it's like it doesn't even exist. Yet, if you can say no to food for a day, you can learn to say no to other things as well. You gain power over your life -- the religious gurus of the past were wise to that.So pass the Cheetos please, and the nachos and beandip and pizza too. Tomorrow, I fast.