In the month of April, I devised an experiment inspired by two questions: What if eating wasn’t this easy? What if food was hard to get? For 30 days, I would treat food—from acquisition to preparation to consumption—as prehistoric humans did (with a few modern twists):
- No refrigerators
- No microwaves
- No ovens
- I could only eat food that could be reasonably hunted or gathered (e.g. vegetables, fruits, nuts, meat)
- I had to “forage” (read: walk to the grocery store) for all 3 meals
- I had to “hunt” (read: walk a mile to the store) once a day for meat
- And the coup de grâce: when I arrived at the store’s sliding doors, I rolled a die. If the result was a 1, I could not enter and had to leave empty-handed.
Day 26: Saturday, April 26th
My mom’s voice quivered through the phone, “No. I have been supportive up to now, but I one-hundred percent withdraw my support.”
Jesus. My mom had born witness to a laundry list of stupidity, but I’d never elicited a response like that.
Me: “Mom, I’ll be fine. It’s only for a day. Billions of people fast every year for religious reasons.”
Her voice softened. “Well, I guess when you put it like that… Alright. I withdraw my withdrawal of support.”
I had determined that the Paleolithic experiment could only be complete with an old-fashioned bout of starvation. I decided that I would not eat for 36 hours. I chose 36 for two reasons: one, because I wanted to outdo the major religions and their piddly 24-hour fasts; and two, because I needed to go to bed hungry at least once in my life, and experience what millions unwillingly suffer through daily.
Common fasting wisdom dictates that a fast should be preceded with a light-to-medium-sized dinner. With no facts or supporting rationale, I called bullshit. I was about to starve myself, goddamnit—I would feast until my stomach distended into my ribcage.
I facilitated this prodigal feast with an epic hunt at San Francisco’s food mecca, the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. I walked the two miles (and left the die at home because fuuuuuck that) and arrived on a bright Saturday morning.
The Ferry Building Farmer’s Market is a labyrinth. The path meanders through cartons of blood oranges, boxes of Portobello mushrooms, bales of cilantro, slabs of salmon, and every type of flora and fauna in between. The astounding array of food is formidably delicious—a foodie’s wet dream.
I ended up spending well over $50, filling my bag with strawberries, artichokes, carrots, sweet potatoes, oysters, tomatoes, peaches, red snapper, and half a chicken. The haul weighed 10 pounds.
I cooked so much food that I needed two plates. I ate ravenously. I ate long past the point of comfort. I ate like there was no tomorrow.
But oh, there was a tomorrow. And it would be one of the longest of my life.
Day 27: Sunday, April 27th
A day without food. The thought reverberated throughout my skull as I slipped out of bed on Sunday morning.
No egg, spinach, and avocado breakfast. No banana and cashew midday snack. No steak and sweet potato dinner. Nothing but an empty stomach.
Would I faint? Keel over? Throw in the towel? For 27 days, I had pushed my willpower to the limit. This time, would it push back?
I felt my first hunger pangs at 10am. Uh oh. I needed activities beyond just nervous fretting.
I researched fasting best practices—and by that I mean Googled “how do I fast?”—and read a host of articles on the subject (interestingly, most advice on fasting is spiritually-oriented, furthering my armchair-theory that food and religion are intimately intertwined). They suggested a day of reading, media-watching, and quiet reflection. This I could do.
My roommates were out of town so I had the apartment to myself. I plopped on the couch, opened my laptop, and started to write. I reflected on the month. Detailed yesterday’s epic hunt (and produced a quart of saliva in the process). Jotted scattered thoughts about my present state of mind.
By late afternoon, the writing sputtered and slowed, devolving into fragments and clichés. The hunger pangs were constant—a dull, metronomic thud. I counted the hours since my last meal on my fingers and wrote, “It’s 2:50pm. Haven’t eaten since 8:00pm last night, so I’m 17 hours without food.” In college, I majored in applied mathematics. It had been 19 hours.
I closed my laptop. Enough reflecting for one day. I would kill the next few hours by cleaning. No food temptations there, right?
Wrong. While folding laundry, my mind drifted to thoughts of shawarma and burritos. I piled dirty dishes in the dishwasher as faint aromas from last night’s feast wafted from the plates. I studied the fish in my aquarium and jealously wondered how algae tasted. I wiped down my coffee table and brushed walnuts into the trash, which looked an order of magnitude more appetizing than discarded coffee-table nuts have any right to be. Food. Food everywhere. It was inescapable.
By 7pm, my body began to break down. I stopped cleaning the bathroom mid-shower scrub due to waves of jittery dizziness. I resumed my post on the couch, attempting to expend as little energy as possible.
Twenty-three hours in, the hunger was omnipresent, but also starkly different than any hunger I’d previously experienced. Hell, I’ve craved turkey mere hours after Thanksgiving. No, this was deep and steadily ebbing, like Lake Erie in the midst of a drought. My head ached. My brain was addled. My stomach threatened to implode like a neutron star. I wasn’t despondent necessarily—just resigned to the simple, inescapable fact that I was hungry, in every sense of the word.
I killed the last few hours of the day by watching This is the End. Mindless entertainment, cheap laughs, and an apocalyptic battle for survival—should be perfect for a man in the throes of his own battle, right?
Nope. I salivated as Seth Rogan scarfed down Carl’s Jr. mere minutes into the movie. Watched helplessly as Danny McBride stuffed his fat face with pancakes. When the apocalypse came and the actors divvied up their food supplies: “I’d be pretty bummed if I don’t at least get a bite of the Milky Way.”
Fuck you, Craig Robinson. So will I.
Day 28: Monday, April 28th
I thought going to bed hungry would be just about the worst feeling in the world. I was wrong.
Waking up at 3am still hungry was worse.
I chugged a glass of water, which stabbed my cavernous stomach like falling icicles. I rustled through the sheets, fitfully watched Arrested Development, and eventually slipped into unconsciousness.
I awoke again for good at 6:30am. Even though I had only slept for six hours, I felt fully rested (I would later learn that digestion warrants extra sleep, and thus, one sleeps less when fasting).
I was 90 minutes from breakfast, a word that had never meant more. I researched how best to break a fast, so to speak, which was both informative (eat a small morsel initially since the stomach contracts while fasting) and torturous (I was browsing images of lavish meals while literally starving).
At 7:40am, I departed for my morning Safeway forage. I rolled a two—thank God, because I would have murdered someone otherwise—and picked up a banana and blueberries.
Even though my energy was nearly depleted, I still walked briskly back to my apartment. For the final 5 minutes, I sat on the couch like a five year-old waiting for his parents to rouse on Christmas morning.
The clock struck 8. I popped a blueberry into my mouth. The sweet, tart juices washed over my tongue like a stream through the Sahara. I chomped a banana, ordinarily a mundane mouthful that was now tropically transcendent. The sensation of something besides saliva between my teeth was overwhelming. I closed my eyes and nodded my head in a trancelike approval. I had another blueberry. And another bite of banana. Bliss. Just pure, unaltered bliss.
Thirty-six hours without food. I could hardly believe the feat. Few things are more brutal than food deprivation, and I had conquered it. I don’t know if a caveman would offer laudatory congratulations—for them, the act was routine—but I’d at least expect a grunt and a fistbump.
Food was good. That much I knew, and would not soon forget.
Day 30: Wednesday, April 30th
The last day. Finally. Fucking finally.
I ate breakfast and lunch in the same way that a host waves goodbye to an unruly houseguest. No more mopping up fried eggs with spinach. Last time I’ll have to crunch a broccoli stalk at my desk. Even though I wouldn’t necessarily miss them, the meals had grown on me. It was like my own version of Stockholm Syndrome, but instead of a kidnapper, a lifestyle from 10,000 years ago had detained me as a prisoner.
The physical transformation was astounding. On Wednesday night, I weighed 188.8 pounds, a weight loss of 18.2 pounds. My body fat percentage was at 10.1%, down from 14.7%.
This required extravagant celebration. I would trade up watering holes, and my last hunt would be at Whole Foods. I hungered for lobster. I planned to complement the crustacean with corn, artichoke, and mushrooms. Small problem.
This lobster was no guarantee. Batman had the Joker. Frodo had Sauron. Doug Funnie had Roger Klotz. And I had One.
I’ve written an inordinate amount about my statistical archnemesis, One. Physically, he’s not much. Just a single dot on the face of a die. But for 30 days, he had enjoyed a sinister power over me. He was uncontrollable. Unyielding. Unfair. He provoked anger and wrought despair. I loathed him more than any person I’d ever known. And like Red facing Blue at the end of Pokemon’s Victory Road, this was my final showdown. Either I would triumph over chance, or I would become its latest victim.
Fifty steps away. The green Whole Foods sign appeared. Thirty steps away. I reached into my pocket. Twenty steps. I fiddled with the die. Five steps. I passed by the grocery carts. Three steps. I cupped the die, swung my arm, flicked my wrist, and…
Epilogue (Day 90: Sunday, June 29th)
The Literal Paleo Experiment was the hardest of my life (and I’m the same man that that attempted no masturbation). The diet was grueling; the lifestyle, exhausting. So, freed from its shackles two months later, how did I do?
In the short term, not well. My breakfast on May 1st was telling: four pieces of bacon and two Cadbury Crème eggs. I frenzied for food, and spent the first week cramming in pizza, burritos, and chow mein. I gained back 10 pounds in a week.
Relapse is real; old habits do, in fact, die hard. Celebrating after an accomplishment is acceptable of course, but before I knew what was happening, I craved white carbs, fried foods, and sweets for nearly every meal.
I reined the impulses back in, thankfully, and a few Paleo habits stuck. I ate more vegetables because I felt healthier eating plants. I went on long, midday walks because I liked the locomotive exercise. I structured my day with more rigidity because it fueled enhanced productivity.
Still, I can’t deny that it was nice to be a 21st century man again. I missed the free time most. Under the Literal Paleo diet, I spent 4 hours a day—as opposed to 1—gathering, cooking, and eating food. Even that was a fraction of the estimated 6-8 hours expended by the Paleolithic man. Sure I liked the ritual and enjoyed the primal connection to food. But in exchange for a fifth of my day? No thanks. I’ll take the extra three hours, please.
Eating and living in present-day San Francisco produced one overwhelming emotion: gratefulness. After not touching a refrigerator, a microwave, or an oven in 30 days, I was thankful for convenient food. Now that I no longer had to smear my hands with avocado skin and chicken juice, I was thankful for hygienic food. And after getting jerked around by One—that rat bastard—I was thankful for guaranteed food. Even in modern-day times, those traits aren’t assured. I’m lucky.
April’s experiment was the most brutal of my life. It also awakened the beast of self-experimentation that had laid dormant since January 1st, 2013. The truth is that I enjoyed tinkering with my life. I relished battling insurmountable odds. I loved molding new habits. I’m not entirely sure why, but I did.
Still do. I wasn’t ready to call this chapter a one-off.
On June 1st, I wrote two words that would kick off the best month of my life: “Dear Mom…”