As someone who had eaten standard dorm-room fare for four years, fruitarianism was intriguing. I had heard stories about fruitarian ultramarathoners who regularly ran 120-mile races, and years ago I read an article in Wired magazine about a fruitarian who never got sick. Of course I wanted to try it, so on the morning of the festival I started eating only raw fruits and vegetables.
For the first two days I felt full, but not satisfied. Remember as a kid, when you told your mom you were hungry and she said, “It’s almost dinnertime; eat a piece of fruit”? You probably said, “but I’ll still be hungry”, and maybe sulked for a bit, but eventually you ate the fruit. Maybe you felt a little better, but you weren’t completely satiated. It was like that. I lusted for bowls of sugary cereal, juicy burgers, and thick burritos; muffins with crystallized sugar on top; fresh baked bread and carrot cake. But that pain didn’t compare to what happened on day three, when I started to feel like shit. That’s what I wrote in my notebook: “Today I feel like shit.” I was tired. My thoughts were sluggish. I know people talked to me but I don’t remember responding. That night, I woke up to pee five times. When you don’t have salt in your system, your body retains less water.
On day four, I began to worry that I had done something incredibly stupid. No one else seemed to be having problems. The average fruitarian looked healthier and happier than almost everyone I knew at home. Many of the men walked around without shirts, and the woman wore yoga pants and sports bras. They woke up early and smiled and laughed. So why was I the only one pallid and shaking, running to the bathroom every hour and hoping I made it in time?
According to fellow festival-goers Anji Bee and Ryan Lum, vegan YouTube sensations and principal members of the California-based musical group Lovespirals, I was experiencing a “healing crisis” — known in the medical community as the Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction — which occurs when the body releases toxins faster than they can be disposed. Another of the festival attendees, Kevin, had a different explanation.
“How many calories did you eat today?” he asked.
I did a quick count. Half a watermelon, a few bananas, a few lychees, a mango and a salad equaled about 820 calories.
“No wonder you’re not feeling well”, Kevin said. “You’re not eating enough. You have to stop thinking about a banana as a banana and start thinking about it as a hundred calories. A date is sixty calories. A lychee is seven. Your goal is to reach three thousand per day.”
You have to stop thinking about a banana as a banana and start thinking about it as a hundred calories.
That day, I ate half a watermelon, ten dates, three bananas, three plums, four cartons of grapes, a salad, and vegan lasagna. I drank two sixteen-ounce glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a six-banana/five-mango smoothie, a green juice made from spinach, cucumber and apples, and the contents of two young coconuts. That might sound like a lot, but eating like a fruitarian requires a shift in outlook. Not wanting to be rude, I had restricted myself to small portions at breakfast, lunch and dinner. But as a fruitarian, you can’t worry about mealtimes or social eating conventions. You eat like our ancestors did: whenever you want, and as much as you can handle. This, the fruitarians claim, solves a wide variety of problems, both physical and emotional.
However, not everyone agrees that a strict fruitarian diet yields optimal health. During my post-festival research, I found the popular Fruitarian website, 30bananasaday.com, as well as an angry, critical website, 30bananasadaysucks.com. There, users post everything from personal attacks against some of fruitarianism’s more outspoken leaders to horror stories about trying and failing to subsist on a raw fruit diet. Encouraging people to try, they say, leads to malnutrition and eating disorders.
In order to get a more mainstream medical point of view, I spoke with Dr. Richard Carmona, the former Surgeon General of the United States. When it comes to matters of public health, the Surgeon General is the nation’s leading spokesperson.
“I’ve seen groups come and go over the years,” Dr. Carmona said. “Everyone claims to have the magic bullet. Fruit is an essential part of any diet, but what we’ve found over the years is that you need a more balanced diet commensurate with your level of daily activity.”
For the fruitarians, the criticisms aren’t new. Even after listening to the attacks, they adhere to the diet, using their own health and well-being as proof that fruit-based nutrition works. I can only speak from my limited experience, which is that on the last day of the festival, when the festival organizers announced that we had collectively consumed more than 100,000 pounds of produce, I felt great.
I still do: I’m healthier and more alert than I’ve ever felt in my life. Gone are my days of Pop-Tarts and ramen, greasy fast food and excessive meat. Now, if I eat meat at all, it’s usually for dinner, every other day, and of the leaner varieties. Although I’m not a full-fledged fruitarian (I did start bringing half a dozen bananas to work every morning), eating such a focused diet made me think about function of everything I put in my body. Sure, it’s fine to indulge, but there’s no escaping the fact that food is our fuel — for better or worse. That wisdom is worth its weight in, well, fruit.