The Fallacy of Fasting
January 1, 1970I listen to the NPR radio program This American Life
as often as I can, but not until today did my fascination with the show’s wacky insightful way of observing the world coincide with my fascination with eating disorders. Today, in pursuit of the spiritual “enlightenment” that’s supposed to accompany fasting, contributor David Rakoff embarked on a 20-day guided fast to see if he could find nirvana through restriction.
I was particularly interested in this because, some years ago, a member of my meditation group embarked on one of these Web-driven fasts. She was talked into it by friends, resisted in the first week, lauded it the second, and became visibly sickly and defensive the third. When I told her I was worried about her because the fast had made her gaunt and the hunger high she was experiencing could be an invitation to anorexia, she looked at me with an expression that can only be described as hatred. I recognized that expression too well; she’d become both hostage and guardian of her brain’s starvation.
So I was curious to hear what David Rakoff, a self-acknowledged skeptic, had experienced on his journey to “purification,” which, by the way, cost him $300. That fee was paid to the Internet shyster who promised nirvana in exchange for deprivation aided by enemas and “special” elixir recipes designed to “detoxify” the body and restore “balance.” Rakoff’s radio journal tracked what sounded to me like a 12-step program INTO an eating disorder.
1. Surrender to the higher power of an online Oz who proclaims fasting to be the Ultimate Key to Perfection.
2. Follow in lockstep Oz’s rules and regulations for self-deprivation and abuse.
3. Defend the ideal of restriction from all objective and rational detractors.
4. Utilize guilt, shame, pride, and fear to override the physical, emotional, and psychological weakness and pain caused by hunger.
5. Interpret the lightheadedness and emptiness of prolonged hunger as “clarity” and “wellbeing.”
6. Embrace the all-consuming self-absorption and self-involvement that results from self-induced starvation as an earned privilege –even an attitude due to the superior “specialness” of those who are able to persevere on a fast.
7. Enjoy the illusion of separation and disengagement from anxiety as the body’s normal reactivity to stress gradually fades away. Even if the slow reaction time does put the body in some physical danger, the mind won’t notice.
8. Value the “success” of staying on the fast above any other accomplishments that might have been achieved with this same time, energy, and discipline – it’s not what you actually do with your abilities that counts, it’s the fast-induced feeling that you could achieve anything.
9. Discount or deny the abundant scientific evidence that the mental and spiritual “benefits” of fasting are, in fact, caused by the brain’s forced metabolic shift from carbohydrates to ketones as fuel – and that the “clarity” that follows initial hunger pangs is, on an evolutionary basis, designed to enable the starving body to survive until the food supply resumes, not to voluntarily prolong starvation.
10. Seek evidence of enlightenment in every waking moment, thought, perception, and experience and, should anything beautiful or out of the ordinary occur, credit it to the fast –never mind the possibility that this same level of focus brought to a well-nourished body might actually produce equally or more rewarding breakthroughs.
11. Reach out to others who admire you for fasting, who will reinforce the belief that depriving the body somehow elevates the soul and improves the spirit – and of course, dismiss or avoid anyone who says you look like you have cancer.
12. Notice how challenging it is to return to eating after a long fast, and marvel that even a single apple can taste like a feast.
I have to note that Rakoff touched on these pointers without necessarily submitting to them all himself. But if he didn’t actually feel them, he noted that others seemed to or that the message had gotten through to him that he was supposed to feel or abide by these rules – all of which, by the way, I vividly recall pumping through my mind when I was in the throes of my eating disorder.
Rakoff’s conclusion was that he “failed” at his fast because he didn’t “feel” the spiritual ecstasy that he was “supposed” to. Based on my own research, I’d take this as evidence that he didn’t have the genetic predisposition for an eating disorder, and he should count himself lucky in that. Also, it seems likely that the sources of anxiety in the rest of his life were not existentially threatening; if they had been, he might have embraced the disengagement (#7) he felt through his fast as a solution to his problems. People who fall prey to eating disorders tend to be drawn into ED’s self-absorbed cocoon as a sanctuary from overwhelming distress that they feel powerless to confront.
My takeaway from Rakoff’s report is that fasting doesn’t cause eating disorders, but it does invite them. All these online con artists taking money to “help” you fast the “right” way are promising nothing more than the human body’s natural response to deprivation. And just as some people’s bodies respond addictively to a taste of alcohol or a single pill, others are primed by experience and genetics to turn a “healing” fast into a potentially lethal eating disorder. Fasters beware.
There’s a poignant moment in Rakoff’s piece when he hears a woman on the subway asking her fellow passengers if they have any food to share. He’s too embarrassed to tell her exactly why he doesn’t, and in that painful split-second of truth the fallacy of fasting explodes.