Going on a little diversion today: 2016 marks a new start for me and I’d like to make it an interesting experience. This question’s been bugging me for a while:
How does it feel to not eat for a couple of days?
Hunger and starvation are central themes to humanity, an essential part of our evolution, and yet I don’t know either of them because I’ve “eaten well” (pigged out) pretty much every day since I was born. Is this pathetically over-privileged, or just lucky? Is it a betrayal of my own education, maybe even of my own body, or just good sense? Hunger is uncomfortable, a signal to eat and survive, but I run on a hair trigger — the moment I don’t feel full, I eat. Is this just me?
Anyway, I was rummaging around for breakfast ideas the other day when curiosity got the better of me and I decided to starve instead. And write a diary:
I get up, drink one cup of coffee — sugar and milk — feed the kids, and pack them off to school. I weigh myself: I have a BMI of 22.5, which is a Christmas pudding or five above my optimal but still healthy.
(I. Love. Christmas. Pudding. To the point where my mother bought three. Just saying.)
I think about breakfast, and then wonder, am I hungry? Then I wonder, have I ever been hungry? Do people even get hungry within 24 hours of not eating? What does it take to be starving? As the questions grow, so the answers become less and less comfortable, and I become more and more curious.
I don’t eat breakfast. I walk the dog up on the hill for an hour, the winter sun is bright and the wind fresh. With two jumpers on I’m warm, and the birdsong is sweet enough to not want music. I walk briskly enough for my thighs to burn, and when I return home my stomach is gurgling. I toy with an apple but don’t bite.
I take phone calls and do my filing. At midday, my stomach starts to growl. This is when I usually eat lunch — a habit picked up in the toddler years. I start shifting my filing archive boxes; it’s heavy lifting and the effort sets me back into exercise mode: my stomach shuts up.
At 2pm I allow myself a decaff coffee (hot water, coffee, no sugar, about 5ml soya milk — see rules below). I play Kirsty MacColl, write emails, and plan my writing. (Last year Bridport gave me wings; this year I need to fly, or at least jump and flap).
I don’t think about food again until after school pick-up, when I’m dishing out snacks for the children. I haven’t eaten for almost 24 hours and I’ve barely noticed. Now though, biscuits crumble on the plate and I have to fight the temptation to scoop up the crumbs. I serve chilled grapes and imagine their skin cracking, the cold juice bursting between my teeth… my mouth waters. I pop open a bag of crisps and they reek of salt and fat. I wrote a story once called VINEGAR about this self-same thing, and my character didn’t get to eat either. It takes willpower to not put anything in my mouth.
16:30 — 24 hours
It’s been 24 hours since I ate and most of the time I didn’t really notice; it didn’t hurt and I didn’t feel light-headed or low in energy. It was only noticeable when I started preparing food for others, and now I feel a nagging growl.
I watch The Gruffalo to distract myself. Youngest nibbles hazelnuts all the way through, and he gives me one. He puts a single nut into my mouth; I keep it because it’s a gift, and it’s heavenly.
17:30: the children have friends around and we serve fish and chips. Clearing the leftovers away makes my head spin (I could live a life without chocolate, but show me chips and I’ll show you Someone Who Can Eat Them All). I don’t eat, but I can feel the blood pulsing through my temples as I throw the excess away. (I hate waste — thankfully we waste very little food in our normal daily lives, but quite often this is because I use my mouth as a bin. I should probably think about that.)
The OH cooks seafood stir fry. He offers me some, but I decline. He doesn’t know what I am doing. I can smell each and every individual molecule of it.
Had I thought this through, I would have baked before starting my personal food challenge, but I didn’t. One of my children has just read the paperback ARC of Baker’s Magic by Diane Zahler, a beautiful book (out on 11 Feb 2016, age 9+) about a girl who bakes moods into magical buns — Bouts Buns, named after her baker benefactor. At the back of the book there is a recipe and I promised that we could cook and taste these before finalising his book review. We bake.
‘Mum, smell this,’ he passes the cinnamon and brown sugar with raisins, ‘it’s gorgeous!’ The aroma is absolutely exquisite, but strangely it doesn’t make me feel more hungry — there’s a comfort, satiety even, in the scent.
Once the dough can be left to rise and the cooking debris is cleared, my hunger settles back into the background and we go to read Paddington Bear and Watership Down. The grass, the skies, the light and dark of the stories: they feel vivid. The children nestled beside me are warm. These things take me away from any thought of food and I am relaxed.
Until now, I’d never really thought about how most of our evening is focused around eating, but it is, and in a way it’s nice to think of this primal force running through the whole history of humanity. I have to get up early tomorrow to knead the dough, let it rise again, and cook it. I bet it will smell delicious. I go to sleep without any problems.
6am: up to bake. Oh dear God, I am not a morning person (aligns head, holds up eyelids). Lots of butter-basting and cinnamon sugar, nom nom nom (except not for me).
I feel tired because I was up in the night with children, but I’m not starving — my stomach is empty but ignorable. I hoover up a fully caffeinated coffee (water, one splash of soya milk, no sugar).
8am: 40 hours after eating solid food and I have now entered the world of fat, western, crash-diets — the kind I might have tried back in the eighties, where a well-fleshed body isn’t fed for a day or two and feels a sense of lightness, not to say relief or restfulness, from the not eating. There is a sense of quiet that comes with this stage (this is not hunger, it’s peckishness with a hint of “phew, a break from the lard-fest”.)
I realise now what I should already have known: that to experience and understand proper hunger, I need to drop 30 pounds and restart this process from an underweight perspective. [File category: things that sound like a lot of effort and really do not appeal.]
8:30am: The buns have made our whole house smell divine. Risen dough baking is its own kind of heaven, but when you add slowly caramelising Demerara sugar and cinnamon, the air fills with food. I take a single bite of Bouts Bun, purely because it’s going to be bloody difficult to review one (or praise my child’s cooking) if I haven’t put one in my mouth. One mouthful of bun, I figure, does not screw up the whole observation — it won’t take my body long to process 50 kcal.
And awwwwwhhhhh: the bun! The cinnamon! The bun! The dark sugar! THE BUN! THE BUTTER! My tongue becomes a living entity in its own right, develops the language of flesh: sugar seeping into my blood, spice flooding my skull, the bolus hitting my fizzing stomach like a brick. As I put the bun down, my mind conjures banquets: cold grapes, blue cheese, roast duck in plum sauce, and fresh gooseberries. I wonder if Bouts buns should be eaten with clotted cream and honey liqueur? I think, probably so.
I allow myself just the one taste because this is what I’m doing. I promise myself more Bouts buns and a duck dinner before the year is out.
10am: everyone is at school. I am alone with the buns. Eye-bulge. There are ten left. Step Away From The Buns. I do not eat anything beyond that first taste; the buns are saved for my children later.
The rest of the day is spent in hospital, dealing with other issues, trying to imagine and quantify pain. Remembering pain is hard, imagining it unreliable, and quantifying it nearly impossible. I don’t think about hunger. I think about strength, power, muscles, and the need we have to be strong and alive. Funnily, being this hungry (however hungry I am now) makes me feel alive. Eating makes me feel alive. Without the beginnings of mild hunger, the eating is poorer. Without mild hunger, I feel less alive.
I get home, I glare at the buns and the grapes. I’m finding it easy to function but in idle moments, my mind returns to food and I realise this is only the very beginning; that if I were to continue to fast, I’d eventually spend all day fixating on grapes, berries, meat and lard, with little thought for anything else. But my fat, privileged body has a long way to go before I reach that stage and this week, with only time for a two-day fast, I will not find out what it is to be truly hungry.
I go for a run, up the local hill where the dog can gallop free and where I can watch the sun sink over a tiny, western fishing village. The south-westerly air screams up over the Atlantic — uncharacteristically cold; it’s the gale season. The light-headedness feels good; the hunger feels good. But only because it’s mild, and because I can choose when to eat. The privileges rain down and I run home.
16:30 — 48 HOURS
When I arrive home, dinner is waiting. It’s squid and pesto salad. The squid is good, although I eat mainly a vegetarian diet. As I’m eating, my tongue encounters a bitter piece of rancid leather and I smile because this could be my hunger litmus test: how hungry will I have to be to enjoy whole green olives? The spinach and pesto, meanwhile, is delicious, the cucumber subtly perfect. I eat slowly.
And so after 48 hours, my fast makes way for a family birthday — I’m not going to hurt anyone’s feelings this week when I can fast any time I like.
At some point, I’ll investigate this further — maybe lose some weight and then try again, perhaps for longer, because two days is not, it seems, long enough for a well-padded person to become properly hungry.
Until then, I will eat mindfully, run up more hills, and feel as alive as I possibly can.
I reach for the grapes.
(Notes: (1) I decided to allow myself water and my usual hot, watery coffees with 5ml or so of soya milk, because dehydration is not my co-parenting buddy, and (2) this is not a diet, nor is it healthy, it’s me testing myself — you shouldn’t just stop eating without GP advice.)