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"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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