It occurred to me, while hunched over an outdoor toilet by my cold bungalow in mountainous Northern Thailand, that I’d never gone a full 24-hours without eating food in my life. In this bout of stomach sickness caused by the food (for the first time in 4 months eating cheap food in Asia- not bad), I had been brought down- though only temporarily. I try my hardest to think back to a time where I might have needed to not eat all day, but there’s no reason I ever would have done such a thing. Currently in the UNESCO crowned city of Luang Prabang, Laos- it seems that this particular food sickness has followed me on my journey from Thailand. But this has led me to attempt a personal challenge- a 24-hour fast to discover the incredible powers of fasting. Sometimes, even an illness can be transformed into a life-changing reflection.
Willpower – Isn’t fasting the ultimate test to what our minds are capable of? After a life of continuous nonstop eating (of any sort, let alone indulging in all the foods our bodies blatantly warn us to stop eating) I realize that it’s just plain difficult to stop eating. You know the feeling after going one too many hours without a bite to eat. Your stomach rumbles, your mind panics, and you instantly need to drop what you’re doing to grab some food.
But here I am, sitting in a beautiful café in Luang Prabang, Laos, and I’m not eating while watching monks walk by in their saffron coloured robes. These monks are skinny. Very skinny. They live a life of what you or I would call poverty, and they certainly do not eat much per day. Yet they survive. I’m not saying we should all eat the way monks do, but I’m using them as a clear example. They go day in and day out living that lifestyle, so surely I can try intermittent fasting now and then to push my willpower and see if I can handle it. I go a few hours without eating and I call myself hungry? Think of all the people who go a lifetime struggling to find food. They say the human body can go weeks without eating and still survive (water is of course needed), so why do we fear going only a few hours without food?
Gratitude - I haven’t gone 24 consecutive hours without eating before because I have been privileged enough to never have to worry about that. This day of hunger has made me realize just how fortunate I am in a million ways. I’m in Laos, a country with a history of poverty and corruption. Yet it’s so easy for me to realize that I am privileged to even be here in the first place. I’m travelling on my savings that I accumulated before quitting my job, but I was lucky enough to come from a country that let me work in the first place. My life could be far more difficult. My journey now is rewarding and enriching, and I’m privileged to be on it.
As I spent the day roaming the city I became so heavily aware of the food around me. I walked by French bakeries and street vendors. I began reminiscing of good meals of the past. I looked at my friend eating and imagined the sensations and textures. I smelled the fragrances of her pumpkin soup as the steam rose from it in the café. The crunch of her croutons, the colours of her mint-chocolate shake. Never have I paid such intricate attention towards food before. A few hours of deprivation was making me love food in ways I never had.
Health- This is the reason that most people fast for, and it’s the part I will touch on the least - mainly because I’m not a specialist and it’s not my place to talk about this stuff. But there are numerous articles on fasting out there, and lots of new authors have begun publishing books on the benefits. Basically, the idea is that our bodies need time to process and digest the food. When digestion is always occurring in our nonstop eating culture, we give it no time to fully digest the way it has for centuries. This whole notion of a 3 meal per day lifestyle didn’t exist with our ancestors (and certainly not with the all the toxins and packaged food we eat now). When people were hungry, they ate. Now we have regimented our lives and bodies into eating breakfast lunch and dinner. Intermittent fasting allows our systems to recalibrate, and the results include mental clarity, weight loss, and many others. When the body isn’t constantly digesting food, it can focus on other things (concentration, memory, etc).
Disclaimer -- I’m not a nutritionist or doctor. I did a fair amount of reading on this fasting topic, and you should too before trying it. This post is showing you the value of fasting through my lens, but I have no idea who you are or what your medical history is. I just ask you, as always, to open yourself to the possibility that what you have grown up knowing isn’t always correct. There’s no shame in explore new life options, challenging yourself, and seeing if fasting (for any amount of time) yields positive results. If it doesn’t? Then go back to your old state. Maybe you’ve lost an entire day from your life of eating. But hey, that’s not a bad track record as far as hunger and humanity goes.
So I think back to that dreadful night during the holidays in Pai with my food sickness. That feeling in the middle of the night when I felt my stomach rumbling, knowing what was to come. Up, off the mattress on the floor, untangling myself from the mosquito net, running out into the cold mountain air, and being sick – again and again. In the moment, this was suffering. My body weak, my mind distracted. But I found the silver lining in Laos. You can’t just indulge on food and forget it’s importance. I was given a gift that night- the gift of resetting what I know about food. The gift of a challenge. Fasting will challenge much of what you know about food and hunger. Let it. This was my first 24-hour fasting challenge of many to come. It’s the time of year to make resolutions, so why not challenge ourselves to see if we really mean them?
What type of challenge seems too tough for you to attempt?