Friday, December 20, 2013

Me and the Master Cleanse

In a slight departure, today I'll recount my experience going without food for over a week. Fasting is an ancient religious practice, and while I did incorporate it into The Last Ancient, this blog entry is really about the post-holiday-gluttony anxiety we all feel upon ratcheting down the top button of our blue jeans on January 2nd.

A few years back I woke up so bloated from a Thanksgiving orgy of turkey and chorizo stuffing I considered something crazy: fasting. We’ve all been there, mentally. But in the name of science and a good grade for grad school, I decided to go there, physically – all the way to starvation town. Hence, The Master Cleanse, otherwise knows as The Lemonade Diet, a daunting feat of self-starvation dreamed up by a quack named Stanley Burroughs in 1940 and which remains popular with celebrities still.
Yup, I did it: Ten days of no solid food. Just liter after liter of a wretched concoction of water, maple syrup, lemon, and cayenne pepper. I’ll post my grad school article about it after the holidays, but I thought you all might be interested in my experience with what is arguably one of the dumbest things a person could do to one’s self in the name of health, mental wellbeing, and body image.

The first day was fine. Like a camel, I’d stored enough calories over Thanksgiving to not be hungry for over a day. Still, choking down the formulae was laborious. It’s imperative to drink your portion of “lemonade” on a regular schedule, even if it tastes like Komodo dragon urine. When feeling frisky, I’d heat it up and pretend it was tea. Unfortunately, I never got the expected boost typical of my go-to hot beverage, black-as-tar coffee. By the end of the day, the coffee began calling my name from every steaming mug of Starbucks clutched in every student’s hand riding the Mass T. The coffee proved to be my greatest challenge.

Hunger set in by the end of the second day. All I thought of was food. Everything I smelled and saw that could be eaten I wanted to buy or steal or fight for. Even though I was downing roughly 1,800 calories a day in maple syrup (shudderwincegulp), the hunger grew by the third day into an actual emotion, a pure and primal drive that someone who’s always 15 pounds overweight like myself rarely feels. Worse, however, was the caffeine withdrawals. Not headaches, I rarely get those. Just a general sense of impending world-ending doom, a darkness staining my soul and a thorn in my mind. Yes, my name is Eliot and I am a coffee addict. It’s pathetic, but oddly acceptable by society.
The fourth day my tongue turned white. I stared at it in the mirror for a long time, wondering if this was how tongues were supposed to look or whether I’d just spiraled into full-blown malnutrition. I had woken up feeling as though someone had funneled kitty litter into my mouth and then given laxatives to a constipated calico. Some heavy toothbrush scrubbing removed most of the grit. Turns out, according to a doctor friend of mine, the accumulation of bacteria on our tongues is normally scoured off by the act of eating. No eating, no cleaning of the tongue. Go figure.
By day five, my senses grew heightened, particularly my sense of smell. For instance, I was gagging at the scent of something rotten in our kitchen that my wife literally couldn’t detect. I sniffed the air around the refrigerator and cupboards like a hound. It was killing me, the stench of something dead and rotten. I pinpointed it with my nose, followed the line of offensive reek like a Looney Tunes animal, and discovered an onion that had turned soft and black in a kitchen crevasse. So awful was that smell, I would have puked had anything solid remained in my digestive system (I’d stopped going number two by this time, if you’re interested). Moreover, the scent of coffee was killing me. Every cell screamed for the black nectar of Starbucks.

While my senses were heightened, my mental faculties were dimming. I couldn’t balance two thoughts at once. As I was still working at the Harvard Health Letters, I kind of made that work for me by focusing extra hard on whatever task was at hand, while swigging from a 2-liter bottle filled with a ration of dirty rain-water colored “lemonade.” I found myself staring into people’s eyes with heavy concentration when anyone spoke to me. I had to, otherwise I’d miss the conversation, and I didn’t want to screw something up bad enough that I’d have to explain to these people of science and high professionalism that I was experimenting with starvation on myself. Not sure if anyone was freaked out by how intense I was. No one mentioned anything.
Well, one person did. My professor knew what I was doing and by day six she looked at me in class and said, “Eliot, I have been watching you throughout this crazy project and there is some kind of a demon growing inside of you.” Uh-oh. They’re on to me, I thought. My professor is highly attuned to the pitfalls of eating disorders and the grave threat of malnutrition they entail. She wasn’t happy about my choice, and kept reminding me that no one in Boston University’s Master’s of Science Journalism Program had ever died for an assignment. She demanded I keep that streak alive.

Okay, actually, my wife might have noticed something was up, too. I was short-tempered. I mean, Rob Ford-after-being-cut-off-at-an-Irish-bar-and-buffet-table short-tempered. I knew as the anger built that it wasn’t a rational argument I was inciting (unlike Mayor Ford), so I’d try to bite it back (also unlike Mayor Ford), but sometimes the spleen would shoot out anyway (exactly like Mayor Ford).

I was waiting for the lemonade cleansing spiritual Nirvana around which Stanley Burroughs built a whole empire. Many internet testimonials report a spiritual uplifting from the act of fasting, a self-induced high. I remained at the edge of miserable throughout my experience, my only Nirvana experience coming from Kurt Cobain in my iPod to drown out the sound of my growling tummy.
Well, it wasn’t Nirvana exactly, but around day seven I noticed a mental change. Walking through a supermarket, I found everything in it absolutely beautiful. It was like seeing red apples and green broccoli and gold pineapples through the eyes of a child. I realized that I was looking at food that I would not consume, that I was free from the constant judging of whether or not to eat everything I saw. The hunger within me sublimated into a profound appreciation for the shape and color and texture of food—for its natural beauty. I see now why cultural anthropologists say that the evolutionary function of our faculty for beauty relates to food selection (as well as healthy mates and suitable shelter). But I wasn’t thinking it over too clearly at the time. I was just experiencing the rush of being in control of this most basic of drives.

That appreciation extended to my sense of smell. I would stand and sniff the air long enough to probably look like a weirdo whenever I’d pass a restaurant, processing the individual ingredients floating onto my olfactory system. It was amazing how good certain foods smelled, such as Indian and Thai restaurants full of their spices and vegetables, and how brutal other foods reeked, such as the chemical fast food slop and even the charred meat from the BBQ joint below where we lived in Brookline Village (this is coming from a devout carnivore, by the way). A new connection between mind and stomach was being established. My sense of smell was helping me appreciate food that I knew would be most suitable for me.

My stomach, by this time, was without any pain for the first time in years. I’m sensitive to a multitude of grains, even in trace amounts, so not eating pressed the re-set button on my stomach as all the wheat and whatnot was processed out.

By the end of the cleanse, fifteen pounds lighter,  I realized I could keep on going but didn’t see  the point. Some hard-cores swear by the 20-day challenge, but no thanks. So for my first meal post-cleanse? Thai food. It was sensational. Each spoonful of Tom Kha Gai was like a drug. Not only was my stomach excited to get real food, my brain was igniting with the coconut milk and spices. The mild curry put me into a cloud of serenity. It felt like coming home.

This is in no way a promotion of The Master Cleanse. It’s really a stupid thing to do. Which makes me… well, I’ll let you decide. Aside from the re-established mind-tummy connection fasting provided, and the joy of that triumphant meal (and the reprieve from chronic allergenic pain, which I’ve since maintained through smarter eating choices), I would recommend this diet to no one. For a hundred reasons it’s not a good idea. If you really wanted to do a hard-core juice diet, I could understand blending healthy smoothies and drinking things with proper quantities of protein and electrolytes. But after the inevitable moral hangover of holiday gluttony, I urge you to not take drastic measure other than the most sensible thing: eat less, exercise more.
Stay tuned for more on this topic after the holidays! And feel free to share your most extreme dieting attempts.

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