Chew on This

Starvation in the pursuit of happiness

By Gretchen Giles

Encased in a plastic box suspended over London’s Thames River for 44 days, American trickster David Blaine performed a stupendous feat of perseverance. His self-imposed Perspex prison regularly pelted by onlookers with fish and chips, egg missiles, greasy sausages, and paint-filled balloons, Blaine had drunken women expose their breasts to him, was awakened to disruptive horn blasts and drum beats in the wee hours of the morning, and was verbally taunted by an outraged public almost without cease. What had he done to warrant such huge attention and bad manners?

Quite simply, he didn’t eat.

Embarking on a water-only fast in full view of the English public and various international TV cameras, Blaine starved himself as his “toughest endurance feat” ever. He lost 50 pounds in weight, reportedly gained £5 million, and to judge from his incoherent statements upon exiting the box for an ambulance this Oct. 20, evidently found some sort of a babbling god.

That people without an agent or a television contract unwillingly starve to death every hour of every day evidently upset some of Blaine’s detractors. That the cessation of eating is often the final stage of terminal illness assuredly affected those whose loved ones might be suffering that effect as Blaine wasted grossly away for the cameras. And with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan underway since Oct. 27, one would assume that there are not a few spiritual adherents who might find such a public “feat” disrespectful.

But Blaine isn’t the only one starving for attention. The Aug. 24 New York Times‘ Sunday Styles section ran a feature story on Manhattanites who, while emphatically not stuck in egg-begrimed plastic boxes, instead cab about the city shopping, clubbing, and going to work energized by little more sustenance than comes from a commercial-grade juicing machine. Gushing about the myriad pleasures of not eating, adherents assured that they felt great, were having near-spiritual moments in the petites section of the Barney’s department store, and revealed sometimes unmet longings to spend a week in Desert Hot Springs at We Care Spa, a pricey “holistic health” facility offering a juice-only diet.

Frequented by celebrities seeking foodless down time replete with lymphatic massage and earnest “breath work,” We Care Spa charges some $3,500 a week–filet mignon not included. Flaming from one media outlet to another, the Sunday Styles story earned the ire of syndicated Miami Herald satirist Dave Barry. “I don’t know about you,” he wagged in a Oct. 12 column, “but when I see misguided individuals spending large sums of money–money that could be used to feed the hungry–on New Age wacko self-abuse, my reaction, as a humanitarian, is: How can I cash in on this?”

The Truest Prayer

Much more than just a quick zip down to a size zero, fasting has long been used as a means of making penance, assuring fertility, achieving retreat, commanding political influence, and finding a deeper connection to the ethereal. Ancient fasting traditions evolved in part to emulate the suspended sense of time experienced by those about to both enter and exit the world through birth and death, respectively. Almost every religion includes short fasting spates in its observances. The Encarta Encyclopedia reports that “Native North Americans held tribal fasts to avert threatening disasters. The Native Americans of Mexico and the Incas of Peru observed penitential fasts to appease their gods.”

Jews abstain on Yom Kippur and other holy days. Tibetan Buddhists take fasts, though Buddhism generally preaches more moderate observance. And the Bible is filled with stories of those including Jesus himself going for 40 long days without refreshment. Ruth fasted for a child; Moses to receive the Ten Commandments; Elijah to surmount Jezebel.

The great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi regularly used fasting as a political and spiritual tool, writing that, “A complete fast is a complete and literal denial of self. It is the truest prayer.” But Gandhi denied more than the self during his fasts, abstaining even from water during his frequent hunger strikes.

So too did Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands, who died 66 days after he began his fatal 1981 refusal of food and water in order to protest British authority over the Irish people by demanding to be termed a political prisoner for his activism rather than a common criminal. Canonized as an informal saint by IRA sympathizers, Sands and the nine others who died with him during the strike came not only to represent ill-conceived English rule but the dangers of refusal as a means to action.

Refusal of food is one of the most powerful personal tools of rational modern-day humanhood. Anorexics who reject sustenance to the point of hospitalization exercise punishing authority over the messy demands of a calorie-needy body. The exasperated parent of a firm-lipped toddler can only weakly hail the emerging selfhood shown by a repeated “no no” nod to that spoonful of greens. By negating nourishment, hunger strikers and children and those with eating disorders attempt to effect differing levels of command over situations that seem beyond their ken. The simple act of not doing something, the arc of absence, is wildly potent.

Show-offs and those who can afford to spend thousands of dollars in order to not eat make us extremely angry–otherwise more fish and chips would have been consumed than hurled at David Blaine, and Dave Barry wouldn’t need to call anyone a “wacko.” As animals, we innately can’t understand not eating; as animals, it fills us with dread.

Our entire genetic history is one long, elaborate story that essentially details getting enough food to be able to successfully reproduce and raise offspring who will also need to get enough food to reproduce. Culture and politics and societal structures are a recent and fairly light dessert addition to the constant ceaseless grubbing of the main meal.

Fat and Sick

Yet what if refusal were in fact the best means to action? What if not eating could actually save your life? Publishing a peer-reviewed scientific study in conjunction with Cornell University and as outlined in a new book for the nonscientific reader, Rohnert Park chiropractor Dr. Alan Goldhamer avers the radical notion that water-only fasting is sometimes the best nonprescription method of avoiding early death.

Co-author of The Pleasure Trap, published in October, with colleague and psychotherapist Dr. Doug Lisle, Goldhamer suggests that our constant grubbing has been far too successful. As a nation, according to a study released last month in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 34 million of us are either already diabetic or in the beginning stages. Some 58 million of us have high blood pressure. And a full 20 percent of us are morbidly obese. If Americans continue to grow at the rate we currently are, a super-sized 80 percent of the population will be morbidly obese by 2040.

And why are we so “fat-and-sick” (pronounced by Goldhamer as a one-word phrase of disgust)? Because we want to be happy. Sweet, simple happiness, which pursuit is an unalienable right so desirable that it finds reference in our Declaration of Independence. And what makes the modern-day American so hugely happy? Oil, flour, and sugar.

Seated in his office at his TrueNorth Health practice, Dr. Goldhamer has a fresh-faced aspect and the professional clinical demeanor of someone who treats thousands of patients each year. Our foods, he explains, are so highly processed that they buffet our minds about with each bite we take. Like alcoholics, like junkies, like those who crave and need and jones for the next fix, we have by the millions become a nation of addicts whose pursuit of happiness is wholly controlled by the ups, downs, and surprising sideways emotions caused each hour on the hour by the highly processed food and drink we regularly consume.

When the feel-good hormone dopamine released by these foods ebbs, we want more so we eat more to attain it, slowly getting fatter and more prone to diabetes and heart disease with each bite we take. This is what Goldhamer and Lisle identify as the “pleasure trap,” and they ably set out to prove how it’s killing us.

As with any addiction, the fastest and perhaps harshest fix of all is to go cold turkey. In reference to foods, this means not eating at all.

Fortunately, this trap can also be broken by a devout consumption of only whole foods. By adhering to a strict regime of fresh fruits and vegetables, brown rice, potatoes, small servings of such ostensibly “rich” things as nuts, and eschewing every other single thing available in markets and restaurants–including alcohol, aspirin, and foods processed in any manner–fully robust, long-lived health is within grasp, Goldhamer avers. But here’s the surprising catch: Contrary to the “eat, drink, and be merry” school, there is no middle ground.

“You cannot talk about moderation in response to substances that have no normal relationship to the human organism,” Goldhamer says. “In a natural setting, there’s no chocolate chip cookie tree, there’s no cheeseburger bush. These are . . . modern contrivances that artificially stimulate dopamine in the brain and, to vulnerable people, it leads to an addictive cycle that makes them fat and sick.”

And vegans can wipe that smug smile away. Tofu is just as bad in the paradigm of the pleasure trap as is a burger stuffed with triple-crème brie and topped with bacon. “You can be on a vegan diet that’s nothing but processed foods and be fat and sick,” Goldhamer says. “[Vegans] often trade their meat for processed soy products. What we’re suggesting is that you have to actually go back to a diet designed with your biology in mind, a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed grains, beans, walnuts, and seeds. That means,” he says, drawing a breath in order to prepare to slur the next several words together, “eliminating meatfishfowldairyproductssoysaltsoilflour-andsugar.”

Nature’s Surgeon

Goldhamer’s word-slam elucidates that which he believes–when combined with sedentary living, smoking, and alcohol–eventually conspires to cause most major American health epidemics. And giving them up is easier said than done in what he calls “a world that’s designed to make you sick.” But on a lonely strip of a country road high above Penngrove, his residential health education program is aimed at resetting the internal dopamine-driven gnaw for more of what’s bad.

Combining bed rest with just water, TrueNorth Health’s fasting clinic has treated over 5,000 patients since its establishment in 1984, documenting the results of 174 consecutive patients in a study showing that their blood pressure rates and insulin levels dropped dramatically upon enduring 40-day water-only fasts and stayed down after release if the patients adopted Goldhamer’s diet. The Union of Operating Engineers was impressed enough to include the facility in its private insurance coverage.

“Fasting is very radical,” Goldhamer says. “Even though it’s a simple natural process that’s a biological adaptation, in people’s minds it seems so counterintuitive. The World Encyclopedia around the turn of the century told people that if they didn’t eat for a week they would die, because they didn’t understand the adaptation process that happens with fasting.” Though Goldhamer says the biology of fasting is extremely well-understood and documented, none of the physicians contacted for this article would agree to comment on the practice.

“There’s lots of criticisms of fasting, but they mostly focus on how fasting is misused,” Goldhamer says. “Using fasting for weight loss or because you want to fit into a dress and then binge eating afterwards–with all of these things I agree completely with the critics and that’s why we insist so vehemently that if it’s going to be done, it be done right or forget about it.

“Human beings had to be able to fast for our species to survive,” he continues. “We have the largest brain-to-body mass ratio and the largest use of glucose. If human beings could not fast, our species could not have survived. Sometimes spring comes late and there’s not always enough to eat. Part of that adaptation is the brain’s ability to provide fuel. That’s very unique to humans, where it shifts from burning glucose to burning ketones, that’s what allows fasting to take place.

“In a natural setting, I’m not sure that fasting would have been necessary from a health standpoint. But in a natural setting, we didn’t have dietary excess except in very rare individuals–we used to call them kings. They developed the diseases that we see epidemic today. And it just so happens that when you allow a person to properly fast, the consequences of dietary excess are reversed. And that’s why diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes can be treated so effectively, by using these very simple natural biological adaptations.”

But this experience is not for Manhattanites planning to catch a cab, chard juice in hand. At TrueNorth Health, patients may not leave the grounds, can see visitors only on Saturdays, must submit to daily medical oversight, and may not exert themselves beyond the odd group lecture, video screening, or book. Deborah Boyar, a teacher, has visited the facility four times since 2000.

“It actually feels very nurturing,” Boyar says, seated cross-legged on a couch in her Marin County home. “I’ve never felt trapped when I was there. Each time I’ve felt very glad to be there, very glad to be free of my responsibilities and my environment, and like I’m being taken care of in this big family that understands real health–which is so rare in this world.”

Boyar says that she’s naturally been adhering to the diet outlined in The Pleasure Trap for 14 years, well before she met Goldhamer. She goes to TrueNorth not because she has dire health problems but to “use fasting as a recalibration, like hitting the reset button on my system.”

As for the experience itself, Boyar says, “Once you get there and you get in your room, you’re able to do it. You’re in the transmission of the place, and everyone there is doing the same thing, and they’re very supportive and welcoming, asking what day are you on and where are you from and what do you do. There might be discomfort along the way, and some days are better than others.”

Asked to describe what she means by “discomfort,” Boyar responds, “There could be headaches, pains in the belly or lower back, or any other part of the body depending on what’s happening with the person. I’ve only had headaches and lower back pain but it was very fleeting. The more water you drink, the less pain you have. [Fasting] is called ‘nature’s surgeon.’ Very deep levels of healing take place, and discomfort is understood as part of the process, not as a reason to break the process unless the doctors decide. I have seen a couple of cases where the doctors ended the fast early.”

Back at the clinic, Goldhamer says, “Health results from healthful living. Fasting alone won’t do it. You have to adopt a health-promoting diet in order to be healthy. Many people are so afraid of fasting and they don’t want to do it so vehemently that they’re motivated to stick with the program and get well. There are doctors in town who threaten their patients with me, ‘If you don’t get well soon, we’re going to have to send you to Dr. Goldhamer’s place.’ They joke that our sign should say, ‘The Last Resort.’

“Because clearly, people don’t want to have to take the time out. It can be quite uncomfortable. It takes time away from work, away from family, there are costs involved with staying in a facility. There’s nothing about it that people like, except,” Goldhamer says with a chuckle, “the results are quite dramatic.”

From the November 6-12, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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