What Happened After Our Fast, aka the Challenges of Follow-Through
This is the last installment of my multi-part series on my experience going on a two-week water-only fast at TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, CA. You can catch up on the earlier parts below.
After counting down the fourteen days of our fast, each one feeling like it lasted forever, we finally got to eat again. It was like Christmas and my birthday combined. The only notable symptom other than what I’ve already mentioned in part 2 was extreme low energy around day twelve. We lay in bed most of the day and did not even leave our suite for a walk. That was apparently too low because our doctors responded by giving us vegetable broth three times a day to add electrolytes. We felt much better for the remainder of the fast.
Coming Off the Fast
By the end of those two weeks, I’d almost forgotten what eating felt like. To introduce food again, TrueNorth had a careful “re-feeding” protocol that lasts half as long as the fast itself because over-feeding after an extended fast can have serious consequences. The protocol progresses your food intake from fresh fruit and vegetable juices to raw fruits and vegetables to more complex foods like cooked grains and beans. The intestines also need this gradual progression to rebuild the gut flora.
Our first juices were glorious explosions of flavors. On the first day, they gave us a mixture of fruit and vegetable juices — watermelon-celery, apple-celery, and apple-carrot-celery. I’d never tasted anything so delicious.
They said that you truly taste the natural flavors of food after a fast, so meals didn’t need to be seasoned as much. This was true, but unfortunately, that didn’t mean I liked plain raw vegetables any better. Lettuces tasted bitter. Radishes-bitter and spicy. Bell peppers weren’t bad. Cucumbers didn’t have much going on. We weren’t allowed dressing for a day, so I made the vegetables more palatable by piling fruit on top of them.
The second morning, I hopped out of bed at 6 am like a whole new person, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was sure I’d never felt so good in my life. My body and mind felt clear and smooth, and I wanted to go for a run. I gushed about how good I was feeling to everyone (“just don’t get into too much trouble,” my doctor said). Another person we’d talked to earlier in our fast mentioned that I looked like a different person. I felt like I could take on the world and wondered why I hadn’t before.
However, how quickly people regain energy after the fast differs from person to person. Tex’s experience was more gradual without the sudden burst of energy I had. Also, more energy didn’t equal more stamina. We went for a walk that morning and lasted about half an hour before we had to return and take a nap. It took a few more days for our energy to fully return and a couple of weeks to regain our lost muscle mass.
Incidentally, my state of heightened energy only lasted until we started eating cooked food. That made me wonder if eating more raw foods would increase my energy levels. We eat more salads now, but alas, I like my cooked food too much to give it up.
At the end of the fast, my blood pressure had come down to around 99/69, which was picture perfect. We each lost about 20 pounds, though we expected to regain some of it after we started eating again. Since we didn’t have a lot of physical issues, our results sound less impressive than others who came here to heal. However, what we gained on a mental and emotional level was just as meaningful to me.
Tex’s knee issue improved somewhat during the fast. The more dramatic improvement came when he tried the chiropractic treatments offered at TrueNorth. The chiropractor used something called the Graston technique to break up scar tissue around the knee joint with a flat, stainless-steel tool. It was excruciating, but after each treatment, the knee joint had more range of movement. Afterward, his knee bothered him so little that I often forgot about it while managing our dietary changes.
Overall, we had a transformative experience beyond my expectations. The “spiritual” benefits alone were well worth it. I expect we’ll be doing this again in a couple of years. Next time, Tex wants to go for 30 days.
Fasting is not a magical cure-all. Any health benefits gained can be quickly lost by returning to an unhealthy diet. This was why much of TrueNorth’s education programs revolved around the benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet free from salt, oil, and sugar (“SOS-free” for short).
We knew we needed to improve our diet after we found out I had elevated cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure, and Tex had diabetes. Since we’d already been following plant-based doctors who recommend similar diets for a while, this approach wasn’t entirely new for me. It was just easy to backslide to when we got busy or stressed.
Going oil-free and sugar-free weren’t a big deal, but the salt-that just killed me. I had not intended to go “all the way” with this diet when we first arrived because it would mean revamping our habits and cooking a lot more. Both Tex and I are busy people, and I’m the only cook in the house (Tex is way too creative for his own good. You do not want to see the condiments he adds to my food). We previously ate a combination of quick and easy meals, Chinese-style noodles with tofu and greens, and going out three to four times a week.
My first thought about going SOS-free was: no more Asian food. Most Chinese dishes can’t be made without soy sauce and other high-sodium condiments. Forget Korean tofu stews with gochujang and kimchi. How would noodle soups taste with unsalted broth? The vegan SOS-free cookbooks I purchased had almost no Asian recipes in them, probably for this reason. This is always the struggle with eating healthier foods — the loss of foods connected to my culture, familiarity, and comfort.
We decided to compromise. Instead of cooking every meal, we’d still eat out once a week on Fridays, which was our night out. In addition, I tried to focus not just on what I’d lose but on what I’d gain. After reading The Pleasure Trap, I felt inspired to practice listening to my body more by paying attention to how different foods make me feel. I wanted to keep feeling as good as I did after the fast.
As soon as we stepped out of TrueNorth and arrived at the airport, we realized how challenging our diet change would be. All around us were food that we couldn’t eat, even more than before. For two months, we followed through with our promises to ourselves. Tex really did reduce his workload and helped me prepare meals when he’s home. We only ate out once, okay maybe twice, a week, and chose the most SOS-free options we could find. We traveled to see my family during this period chose not to stick to the diet while traveling since I didn’t want my family to worry about feeding us. It was not too difficult to return to our diet after the trip since it can be a relief to go back to lighter foods after several days of heavy eating.
However, there was another wrench in the works. Remember Tex’s diabetes? We thought going to more whole foods and cutting out sugar would keep his diabetes in check. But then his glucose readings told us whole foods weren’t enough. Most fruits and grains made his glucose shoot up too much, including whole cooked grains, which are lower-glycemic than grain flours. So we had to get even more specialized in our diet by removing most grains and fruits.
Having to manage diabetes was part of why we couldn’t stay on the SOS-free diet as much as we wanted. Tex had to get enough calories on a plant-based diet without fruit or grains, so sometimes it meant he had to eat food that had more salt and oil.
Besides the health challenges, life got busier. Tex decided to take on more work because it was hard to give up the money, and I started working more on my creative business and working longer hours. As a result, it became harder to cook everything we ate, so we started eating out several times a week again.
However, the good news is that Tex’s knee continued to feel better when he reduced his carbohydrate intake, possibly due to keeping his glucose under control. It’s still a bit weaker and has less lateral movement than the good knee, but he’s back to doing normal activities with it. Tex is proud of the improvement, as reversing knee problems at 70 years old is pretty much unheard of.
Six Months Later
Where we are now with the diet is a compromise that we can maintain. I still cook mostly SOS-free at home, but there are days I get too tired to cook, so we eat out a lot. When we go out, we order healthier meals than we used to, often salads (of course, Tex has no choice). But we don’t eat an ideal diet by any stretch. I still want a muffin when we walk into our local coffee shop, and sometimes I get one. But I’ve found that letting myself splurge every so often is more sustainable in the long run.
My philosophy on healthy eating is that I do my best while considering my time, resources, and preferences. Stressing out too much trying to comply with a healthy diet can be counter-productive since stress can also harm our health. It can be a juggling act trying to balance convenience, enjoyment, and eating healthy and not go too far in the wrong direction. That’s why I aim for sustainability rather than perfection. From a health perspective, what matters is what I eat for a lifetime, not the occasional splurge. Sometimes I do better, and sometimes I don’t. And that’s good enough for now.
As for the peace and sense of “true north” we had at the end of the fast, they lasted about two months, like our attempt to stay on the SOS-free diet. It wasn’t as easy to follow through our intentions when immersed in the demands of real life and our own triggers. That’s always the trick, isn’t it? Tex cut his workload in half for about two months, until the demand for his services was too tempting to ignore. I did quit playing video games for about 3 months and focused on my writing and art. But then the ramp up of my creative business triggered a huge case of imposter syndrome, and gaming was a way to take my mind off of the stress. My inner peace and trust went out the window. I haven’t gotten it back yet.
I don’t think this means our epiphanies weren’t “real,” but these insights and ideals are seeds that take effort to follow through. A beautiful vision gained in a cloistered environment met our daily life, and carrying out that vision takes frequent reminders and taking the time to slow down even if we don’t feel like it. It’s never just, “hey, I had this vision of how things could be, and I went and did it.” Thank you, the end. Even though I keep expecting that it would work like that, it hasn’t yet. What we do have is a treasured memory of the peace that is possible, even if we’re not always embodying it.
It has taken me much longer than I’d hoped to finish this series of posts on fasting, but in some ways, this gives a more realistic picture of the whole journey. If I’d written story right after the fast, I would’ve gushed at how great it was and how much peace it brought me, only to feel like a failure two months later when my old patterns of anxiety returned. With hindsight, this version is a more authentic story, where the epiphanies are just a beginning and not the conclusion.
Originally published at https://www.soultoworld.com on March 16, 2022.