How a diet drove me to distraction

Last updated 11:07 21/05/2014

EMPTY PLATE: Fasting for two weeks was the most difficult - and interesting - thing I've ever done.

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I should have turned left into my street, but I'm following a guy who is carrying a pizza box.

It's a warm, still night and the scent of pepperoni hangs so strong in the air it's like a leash pulling me behind it.

Six blocks later I'm still following the pizza, until the guy turns into a house, leaving me bereft on the footpath.

I am on a special plan, the 101 Wellbeing Program, which strictly controls your diet for up to 101 days. The night I stalk the pizza is Day Four of no food at all.

For the first two weeks of the controversial plan - developed by Sydney-based traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Dr Shuquan Liu - participants eat nothing and drink only foul-tasting Chinese herbs three times a day (plus unlimited water and black tea).

I am required to report to a Chinese medicine clinic daily for acupuncture, massage and a weigh-in.

The aim of the program is not weight loss; rather, it seeks to optimise organ function through fasting.

A break from eating - according to the program - allows your organs to rest and repair. Federal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was reported to have lost 13 kilograms on the same regimen in 2011.

Before I started fasting, my relationship with food was quite uncomplicated.

I had never dieted and ate what I wanted, when I wanted. I shared the view of Hannah Horvath - Lena Dunham's character in Girls - that there is too much going on in life to devote time and mental space to "food issues".

But that laissez-faire attitude had started to shift. Three months in the US eating a lot of fried food had left me feeling sluggish and ill, while my high cholesterol and blood pressure levels were warning signs that it was time to start looking at my diet.

A two-week fast would be radical, but it would be also a chance to examine and reset some long-entrenched habits.

Fasting for two weeks was the most difficult - and interesting - thing I've ever done.

Not only do you get to know your body in a different, fascinating and grotesque way, but the central place that food and drink takes in our society is sharply illuminated when you take yourself out of the game.

For a start, not eating removes you from a large segment of the economy. Suddenly there's all this stuff you can't buy - coffees, drinks, groceries, snacks - and a whole world of restaurants and cafes becomes forbidden.

It soon became startlingly apparent how much time, money and energy I spent procuring, preparing and eating food.

Stopping eating freed up huge amounts of time - time to spend thinking ... about food. People who had fasted previously told me I would fantasise about healthy foods - steamed broccoli, carrots - but that didn't happen. I wanted the white trash: pizzas, hot chips, Chiko Rolls.

At times I stood outside restaurants which had pictures of food in the windows (mee goreng, egg noodles, crispy duck) like a dog outside a butcher's shop.

When I sat with friends who were eating, I'd stare at, then sniff, their plates. Without taste, other senses took over. My sense of smell went through the roof.

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I had feral moments.

On Day Five, someone I had never met - someone crucial to my career - invited me to a morning meeting. She ordered a full breakfast and I ordered a black tea.

When her plate arrived (steaming, ambrosial, heaving), I reached across the table as if to throttle her and stabbed at her tomato and avocado (with my teaspoon!) before shoving it into my gob.

Not only was this unbelievably rude, it was bizarrely animalistic.

Then, on Day 10, a cruel friend ordered a plate of chips. I grabbed some, licked them (hot, fatty and salty), then put the soggy chips back on his plate.

The key was not to swallow. My behaviour was starting to resemble that of a person with an eating disorder. I was obsessed with food, but petrified of swallowing lest it ruin the mysterious alchemy of the fast. I'd grab chunks of meat that my housemate had cooked, chew them, then spit them in the bin.

At night I would call friends and ask them to tell me exactly what they had for dinner ("Butter or cream with the mash?"). They could have told me they had been diagnosed with some terrible disease, but at that point all I wanted to know was if they'd had dessert ... with the chocolate or caramel sauce?

George Orwell, in his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London, said the worst aspect of hunger was boredom.

By the end of Day Seven, I was going out of my mind from boredom - and loneliness.

When I felt strong enough to go out and not eat, I made arrangements to meet friends at dinner. But I underestimated how uncomfortable people feel when they are eating and drinking and you are not.

If you don't eat together, it profoundly unbalances the dynamic between people. I wondered if there was something deep in our DNA that made us mistrust someone who would not break bread with us - perhaps a primal fear of being poisoned if everyone was not eating the same food together.

Fasting has still not entered the mainstream sufficiently for people to accept it with a shrug, a pat on the back, and the odd "hang in there".

Occasionally, I would meet people doing the 5:2 diet, which involves normal eating for five days of the week but severe kilojoule restriction for the other two. It was hard not to laugh. These people were walking round like Stoics. Well, they should try the 0:7 diet.

My initial symptoms included terrible headaches (withdrawal from caffeine); fatigue (I would often sleep in the afternoon or go to bed at 6.30pm); back and shoulder ache (alleviated by the daily massages); foul-smelling breath and body odour (I was taking two showers a day and slathering on expensive scented lotions, but the smell overpowered them); moodiness and low-level depression (I was like a zombie, staring out of windows and unable to concentrate, but without enough energy to feel depressed).

Yet, by Day 10, many of the nastier symptoms had gone, to be replaced with incredible energy, increased concentration and deep, unbroken sleep.

For the first 30 days, I followed the program (almost) to the letter, but found it too restrictive to continue much longer than that.

Eventually, I returned to my normal diet; as I write this, I am drinking a glass of pinot grigio and eating tuna carpaccio - and loving every mouthful.

Despite abandoning the program early, I have lost about 12 kilograms, feel full of energy, and have normalised my cholesterol and blood pressure levels to a point where I've ceased taking medication for these conditions.

I appreciate food in a way I never did before. I eat carefully, slowly and full of appreciation for the fact that - unlike a large segment of the world's population - I have access to plenty of nutritious food.

I no longer take anything for granted, particularly the pleasure of sharing a great meal with friends.

When I saw my GP about what was happening to my body during the fast, he admitted that fasting was still not properly understood, but that it had been around for a long time and human beings were quite good at it - due to our ancestors having to endure long periods of time between catching prey.

He also said fasting is good from an ethical perspective - you get to understand what it is like to go without food.

That said, fasting was a highly unorthodox approach to resetting my relationship with food, and certainly would not be everyone's cup of (herbal) tea.

- Daily Life


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