Harper’s: Don’t eat this magazine


(Harper’s magazine, March 2012)

The cover story of the March issue is “Starving Your Way to Vigor: The Benefits of an Empty Stomach,” by Steve Hendricks, a writer who lives in Boulder, Colo. His witty essay blends a modern history of fasting with his own experience of giving up food.

He started on a whim after noticing that his svelte runner’s physique had settled into deskbound pudginess. What better way to lose weight, he decided, than to try fasting? At first, he just skipped a day of food. Then three. Finally, he describes fasting for 17 days — an ordeal that shaved 30 pounds off his middleweight frame.

He’s wonderfully candid about the experience and how he felt as his fast progressed — the lightheadedness, the loss of libido, the increasing irritability. This is no hunger strike, no spiritual quest, nothing more than a casual experiment that just happens to be on his own body.

The more provocative parts of the essay interrupt his personal story to survey the strange medical history of fasting in America. He starts after the Civil War with a depressed doctor named Henry Tanner, who decided to commit suicide by starving himself. But as the foodless days wore on for weeks, Tanner noticed that his depression and other ills vanished. Rather than end his life, he became a vocal proponent of fasting in the Gilded Age. Other advocates followed over the decades, along with some startling medical experiments in the 20th century that suggest fasting can cure obesity (perhaps not so surprising), alleviate or cure epilepsy, lower high blood pressure, extend longevity and make chemotherapy more effective.

Why has the medical community ignored these miraculous findings? Because, Hendricks suggests, fasting is free, and all the big money is in producing new drugs.

It’s good to remember that Harper’s is not a doctor; it just plays one on the newsstand. This cover story contains little about the risks of fasting and no significant response from the medical or pharmaceutical companies that Hendricks maligns.

But that wasn’t enough to keep me from trying it, of course. I don’t have a tradition of fasting in my church, so this was entirely new to me. Christian Scientists abstain from lots of things — alcohol, cigarettes, aspirin — but not food. (Put an open carton of Häagen-Dazs in a field and watch us creep out of the forest.) On Wednesday, after dinner, I resolved not to eat for 24 hours. I didn’t experience anything particularly unusual, despite my apprehension. I was probably a little quieter at work, a little more conscious of the fact that I wouldn’t be going out for lunch or later for a cookie. And, surprisingly, I felt a little less groggy than I usually do as the day grinds on.

But otherwise, it was just a day without calories. Unlike Hendricks’s essay, which is really something to chew on.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.

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