Friday, June 15, 2007

10 Days of Hunger

This weekend I am entering a karate competition. Like most combat type sports karate tournaments have different weight classes, and I entered for the 65 kilos and under division. The thing is, I paid the entry fee and everything before I actually weighed myself. I roughly knew my weight, but that was from 6 months ago and in pounds, so my sensei brought in a scale to double check. A week and a half ago I got on that thing and it said... 67 kilos.

At first, I was like, "pshaw, no problem," because when I wrestled in high school I could lose 2 pounds overnight just by not drinking any water and spitting into a bottle a lot. Then it hit me... the damned metric system strikes again! 2 kilos over actually meant 4.4 pounds of heaviness! And 10 days left! In the language of my old wrestling days, I needed to seriously "cut weight."

When I wrestled, I had the hardest time with weight control. Like most teenagers I guess, just the fact that someone said I couldn't do something (like eating to my heart's content) made doing that thing just so irresistable. So it was doubly hard to diet. But I always made weight. One time I slept with my window open in the middle of winter because shivering helps shed a few extra ounces.

I decided this time wouldn't be any different. I was going to make weight. Besides, it was a perfect chance to try something that I had been thinking about ever since I heard of it, the CR diet. CR stands for calorie restriction, and it has been around since the 1930's. I won't go into detail but basically scientists found they could double lab animals life spans by restricting their diet to about 30% of what is considered normal. So imagine every meal you had today, and just eat one third of it. 1/3rd of that piece of toast, 1/3 of that spaghetti, 1/3 of that salad. Of course I am doing CR a disservice by describing it like this, in reality it's not just a matter of eating less, but of using your limited calories on the foods that will complete your nutritional needs. This funny, well balanced article describes the process very well and is full of good links if you're really interested.

So I decided to do "CR light" for 10 days, basically, choose healthy things and eat about 1/3rd of the usual amount. Also, I decided to only drink water to take off the extra sugar calories from the juices I usually drink. So, for the last week and a half I have been eating; for breakfast, half a piece of bread and an egg, for lunch, a vitamin bar, and dinner (when I have dinner), raw tofu with green onions and soy sauce. And if I get really hungry I will break down and buy a cheese stick. Mmm... string cheese...

At first it was hard as expected, but within 7 days I had lost the 4 pounds, and learned a lot of things about myself and my relationship with food, which I will share with you below.

  1. Being hungry isn't so bad. When was the last time you felt really hungry? I mean, not just a little rumbling in the tummy, but real gnawing hunger. I don't know if it's because I'm older now or because of zen training, but this week it didn't really bother me. It was just another feeling, which, if I didn't cling to, wasn't so terrible. Of course being chronically hungry is terrible and will kill you. But for just a few hours before my small cube of tofu, it was actually kind of a good feeling, a very alive feeling. Try it, you might see what I mean.
  2. Food is matter. Before, I just thought of food as stuff to eat. But when you start seeing a bannana as something that weights 30 grams, you get a new appreciation of it.
  3. I also learned that I spend a lot of time thinking about, preparing, and eating food. Suddenly, on this CR diet, I had so much free time! Before, I would spend 1 to 2 hours buying, cooking, and eating, but these last ten days that has all been condensed into about 30 minutes. That's at least an extra hour a day. I got so many things done that had been on my to do list for months. Plus, when you're hungry, you don't just want to sit around and feel hungry. You find something to do. Folding clothes, cleaning the toilet, catching up on emails, etc...
  4. I saved a lot of money. I didn't really think about this when I started, but cutting back to 30% of your regular caloric intake means cutting 70% of your grocery bill. And when a 120 yen block of tofu gets you through 3 dinners, the savings add up quick!
  5. Eating less actually gives me more energy. We have this kind of mentality that food equals energy, like adding gas to a car. But your body has to work hard to get energy out of that food, and, well, that can make you tired. Staying lean seems to strike a better balance betweeen the amount of work needed to break down food vs. the amount of energy gained.
  6. My sense of smell "improved". I put quotes around "improved" because I think that because I was often hungry I just noticed smells much more than usual. Biking around Yokohama there are so many delicious foods to smell! At first I kept thinking that it was a holiday or something because everyone seemed to be making so many wonderful smelling dishes.
  7. When you've lost some weight the desire to binge gets less and less over time. I thought that, like highschool, I would be spending all my waking hours fantasizing about food. But this time, the thought of an overly large meal just makes me queasy. I enjoy the small amounts I can eat, and when they're finished, I seem to just be able to let it go that I don't feel totally stuffed like I used to.
  8. And, of course, when the only thing you're going to get to eat for lunch is a nutrition bar, mindful eating becomes really useful. Small bites with many chews not only allow you to feel more full, but you get to truly experience the flavors of each morsel. If only we could eat like that all the time, obesity wouldn't be a problem. After about 30 minutes of working on just a small piece of food you don't want anything else!

Now I don't want to get a flood of emails about how I'm turning anorexic here. Let me be clear that after weigh-in on Sunday I will return to my normal diet, more or less. This was dreamed up entirely as a temporary kind of mindfullness training for myself, and not recommended for just anybody! However, my 10 hungry days gave me a lot of information about the role that food played in my life, and I am much better for having experienced it. My theory is, that, as organisms, we are suppposed to be hungry sometimes. Just as we are supposed to be happy, sad, bored, and excited at other times. It's an essential part of life, but a part that most of us in the modern world hardly ever feel. In the future my challenge for myself is to listen to my body, not the clock on the wall, for when it is time to eat something.

There are now more overweight people in the world than hungry ones. Technology has given us a huge gift, the ability to not worry too much about where our next meal comes from. We need to learn to control this power. Just as we try not to blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, we should avoid eating ourselves into the ground. So, next time your out and about, treat yourself.... skip a meal!


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