"Jenny, take one letter off the word, pasta, and what do you get?"
Mystified, I toy with different variations of the word -- asta, past, pasa, pata -- and a mortifying silence fills the room.
"Past?" I venture.
"No," she replies swiftly. "Paste!"
Did I miss something?
"Pasta is paste," she explains. "Think about it. What do you put up wallpaper with? Flour and water. What is pasta? Flour and water. If flour and water keep wallpaper up for so long, how much time do you think pasta will spend in your body?"
Her argument does not strike me as very scientific, but as I scan the nodding faces in the backroom of Arden's Garden Midtown store, I begin to wonder if my judgment has been impaired by last night's red wine binge.
Turning up for my first day of a 21-day cleansing class with a hangover was not the brightest idea. Yet it is perhaps fitting given that my love of food and wine has brought me here. As a woman who thinks about dinner before finishing lunch, structures vacations around new culinary treats, and married a man who reads cookbooks in bed, I am curious why fasting is growing in popularity.
Fasting, the voluntary abstinence from solid food, has been practiced as a religious discipline for centuries. It is observed among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Confucians, Hindus, Taoists and Jainists. Originally, it was conceived as a rite that would reduce physical appetites, purify the spirit and facilitate communion with God.
Now, however, fasting is attracting new converts. In Atlanta, a growing subculture of young professionals -- teachers, nurses, executives -- is choosing to refrain from solid food. Amanda Walton, a 33-year-old Spanish teacher, did Arden's Two-Day Detox to prepare for a trip abroad. Kate Smolski, a 26-year-old organizer of the Sierra Club, consumes only juices and herbal tea up to four days each month. Bryan Thompson, a 39-year-old nurse, organizes a local juice club that fasts together three days each month.
Then there are the hardcore fasters, like Gerald Martin. After attending a course at Holistic Life Center in Decatur, he fasted for 40 days. Now the 39-year-old small business owner does the "Mastercleanse" -- water with lemon, cayenne pepper and maple syrup -- for the entire month of January.
"I started for physical reasons. I've always been healthy and lifted weights, but detoxing helps me not to get sick," says Martin. "I think I have better overall health."
When he started fasting five years ago, he passed out, lost more than 50 pounds, and had "mucous exploding" out of his nose. Now that fasting is a regular part of his life, he says, he remains stable "as long as I get enough water and I don't do too much."
A fasting novice, I decide my best initiation into fasting is to sign up for the Arden's Garden 21-day cleansing course, which promises to "energize your body, balance your emotions and strengthen your spirit."
As soon as my alcohol-infused body enters the Arden's Garden vivid yellow and purple store and inhales the fresh fruity aroma, I feel queasy. Meeting Arden Zinn, the founder of the fresh juice company, only exacerbates my condition. Her penetrating brown eyes (I dare not compare them to coffee or chocolate) give her an intense, almost Evangelical aura.
Arden Zinn is on a mission. She sells nearly 20,000 bottles of fresh juice across the South each week, but her work is not done: "I have a dream," she says, "that one day everyone in Atlanta will take my Two-Day Detox."
I expect the program to be extreme, but I do not realize what cleansing means until I sit in Arden's store, listening to her expound upon her requirements for healthy living: "You will not cook," she says. "Ugh! I hate that word. Everything must be raw!"
I stare in disbelief at her list of banned foods: "animal's flesh, limbs, internal organs, fetuses, milk, animal scavengers, heated grains, brown rice, breads, tofu, commercial cereals, coffee, caffeine tea, alcohol, tobacco, sugar, salt, non-prescription drugs, artificial sweeteners, insecticides, processed foods, canned foods or commercially frozen food."
Juice and raw fruit and vegetables will be all I consume for 21 days. The plan is to limit myself to juice for two days during the first week. The second week, all solid food is banned. The third week, food is gradually reintroduced.
Why, you may wonder, would anyone pay $245 to eat as little as possible?
Fasting proponents claim that fasting is good for cleansing or "detoxing" the body and losing excess weight. Although it's not generally recommended for weight loss, the majority of fasters I met do it for just that purpose.
"I want to get rid of my excess fat," says Misty Saker, a 24-year-old nurse trainee, explaining why she joined the class. "I usually keep up with exercise, but this semester has been really insane. I end up sitting around not going to the gym, grabbing food more than I would want to, eating at places like Moe's and Willy's."
Misty is a size five.
A veteran of the program, Misty is emphatic about the benefits: "I did the 21-day cleanse in June and it was amazing," she beams. "At the end, I went to a wedding in Florida, and everyone said they had never seen me look so good. My skin was radiant, I lost weight and I felt absolutely great."
Inspired by Misty's testimony, Zinn rhapsodizes about the importance of fasting: "Fasting is a great oil change for the body. It is natural. All the animals in the world fast a couple of days when seasons change."
"Children stop eating when they are ill," chimes Misty.
"Exactly," Zinn says. "Adults don't realize it is not always healthy to eat."
Ideally, she says, everyone should fast for seven days, two to four times a year: "Fasting is important as it gives the glands and organs of the body a much-needed rest," she explains. "During an intestinal cleanse, the body expels digestive waste matter and mucoid layers. When cleansed, a well-functioning digestive tract can help purify the blood, lymphatic system and other organs and tissues."
So not only do we have to pay attention to what we put in our mouths, we have to monitor what comes out. She also talks about the importance of enemas. "As toxins come out of the bloodstream, they must be eliminated."
Zinn tells us to carry bottles of juice and water wherever we go, and several layers of clothing, in case our body temperatures plummet. "I wore sweaters when I was fasting in Florida in June," Misty reveals. "Everyone thought I was crazy."
When we complete the course, Zinn promises, our skin will glow, our eyes will brighten and our hair will shine.
Before I leave the store hauling two bagfuls of fresh juices, Misty and I exchange phone numbers. "You need a detox buddy," Zinn says. "Remember, you are swimming upstream as far as society goes."
The next morning, I feel buoyant after drinking the pineapple, orange and ginger juice. It has an impressive kick. Shopping for groceries, however, deflates me. As I scan the aisles of my local Whole Foods store, I find myself looking at food in a new way. Rather than casually hunting for groceries that appeal to my taste buds, I am obsessively scanning labels and worrying about the minutiae of what I put in my mouth. Are the chickpeas in the organic hummus raw or cooked, I wonder? Is there salt in the baba ghanoush?
I return home to the delicious aroma of roast chicken. Not only has my husband, Rob, roasted two chickens, but he is reducing chicken stock. He reassures me that he cooked the chickens not to tempt me, but to create space in the refrigerator for my juices. Miserably, I prepare a salad of spinach, carrots, green peppers, radishes and pea sprouts, and eat it without dressing. Each bite tastes one-dimensional. Switching on the television in a vain attempt to distract my senses, I am bombarded with fried chicken commercials.
During the Two-Day Detox, I am instructed to drink a gallon of watered-down grapefruit, orange and lemon juice each day. After five glasses, I do not feel hungry, just nauseated by the tedium of the taste. I cannot bring myself to drink the whole gallon.
I do not have the throbbing headaches most fasters complain about, but I feel fuzzyheaded and faint. On the second day of my Two-Day Detox, I decide to inquire about the effect of all this self-deprivation.
"It depends on how long you fast," says Nancy Anderson, a registered dietician with Emory Healthcare. "After 24 hours, you're probably not going to have the energy to do the things you normally do, or even the brain stamina to carry out a lot of complex tasks. After a week, your body would be lacking sufficient fiber, calcium, iron or protein."
After four days, I have already gone down a dress size. Does she recommend fasting to lose weight?
"Naturally, if you starve yourself, you lose weight," she replies. "But the moment you resume eating, you gain it back. There is no long-term advantage in terms of weight loss. A large percentage of what you lose is not fat, but water."
Zinn tells me she doesn't advocate fasting to slim down, which is curious given that so many people take her course for precisely that reason. Even the label on her Two-Day Detox mix enthuses "Lose Weight and Rejuvenate!"
Fasting for weight loss is not the only dubious motivation. Health experts also question the central tenet of fasting, which is that it cleanses the body.
"We have very good cleansing systems within the body in various organ systems -- from our GI tract to our liver -- and they keep us fairly cleansed," says Dr. Chris Rosenbloom, professor of nutrition at Georgia State University. "You don't have to go on any extreme regimen to get your body clean."
When I relay this criticism to Zinn, she is dismissive: "I think that they are mistaken. Most of the doctors I've talked to know nothing about food."
Most evidence in favor of fasting is anecdotal. An exception is a recent study showing that laboratory animals live longer when deprived of food every other day. Most scientists, however, believe we cannot extrapolate from mice to humans. All animals are different. A goldfish will eat itself to death if given enough food, but humans can exercise more control.
So, if the scientific evidence seems underwhelming, why are more and more people eager to adopt such a puritanical code?
Many of the fasters I spoke to seem to consider fasting a logical way of adapting to our national obsession with what we should and shouldn't eat. Abstaining from food seems appealing because it addresses anxieties about the body in the context of broader spiritual concerns. Fasting doesn't just slim you down -- it purifies. Whereas going on a diet can seem shallow, fasting can appear spiritually enlightened.
My week-long fast does not enlighten me, and my cravings are extreme. A friend calls to invite me to eat hamburgers at the Vortex, and for days I suffer visions of my favorite blue cheese burger with tater tots. My social life unravels. I just find it too hard to be around people who eat or drink. When I find myself tempted by Pizza Hut's latest mutant P'zone, I wonder if I am pregnant.
Amazingly, I adhere to the program until, on the last day of my fast, with only five hours until midnight, I spot an open tin of salted Spanish almonds at a local delicatessen. Popping one in my mouth, I convince myself that it is OK given that technically I ate at six o'clock on the last night before the fast.
When the week ends, I am a dress size smaller, but my face is covered in pimples. I honestly cannot tell if my eyes are brighter or my hair is shinier. No doubt Zinn would blame me for not giving myself an enema.
My detox buddy, Misty, has had a more dramatic week. She totaled her car on the first day of her fast, and felt very low. "I'm not injured," she says when I speak to her on the phone, "my body has just experienced huge stress." Misty has broken a cardinal rule of the course and taken painkillers. She sounds regretful, even though she sought Zinn's approval first.
On our last day of the fast, Zinn sermonizes about pushing ourselves further: "If you're having an absolutely wonderful time with fasting, and you want to go further, know that I encourage you."
I am the only one on the course who wants to eat again when the fast is up. I begin my third week with a dinner of steamed vegetables and slowly introduce nuts, eggs, fish and cheese to my diet. Misty, on the other hand, continues to fast for another three days, and then spends the rest of her third week indulging in juices, raisins and salads.
Living on fresh juices and water for a week has not caused me any harm, but I am unconvinced about the long-term benefits. I've heard too many flaky, feel-good catchphrases and am turned off by the half-cracked pseudo-thought.
"No man can be wise on an empty stomach," says Bartle in George Eliot's novel, Adam Bede. After exploring the world of fasting, I cannot agree more. My stomach is ready for a blue cheese burger with tater tots.
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