Food Week: Fruits of Labor

The author prepares for battle.

This post is part of The Raptor Lab’s Food Week. Follow #jurassickitchen for more!

They say you should never discuss politics or religion in polite company.  To that short list, I would add nutrition too.  For instance, your uncle might be justifying his prodigious red meat intake with Paleo gospel at the moment, so it’ll be tough to put him at the same dinner table as your little brother who’s dabbling in veganism to prevent animal cruelty or your sister-in-law who’s going organic vegetarian for the summer in order to fit into her bridesmaid dress.  The perils of fad diets certainly need no introduction from me; they’ve spawned an untold number of stand-up comedy routines and sitcom plots already.  But nutrition has a tendency to divide us into tribes that way.  Everyone has his/her own reasons for sticking to a particular plan, and while some of that rationale might actually be based on well-established fact, certain tenets may be nothing but irrational hearsay.  Food science often has a tough time dissuading certain diet trends that are at best sub-optimal and at worst, downright dangerous.

That tension is important to keep in mind when considering fruitarianism, a way of life that is, by anyone’s reckoning, pretty far out there on the nutrition spectrum.  It is exactly what it sounds like: a diet based almost entirely (75% of total calories or higher) on seed-based foods such as fruits and nuts.  Just about everyone knows that the benefits of fresh produce are legion: clear skin, better digestion, decreased risk of heart disease, etc.  Eating fruit also appeals to eco-conscious folks who want to reduce their footprint by cutting out all processed and chemically modified foods including grains.  Fruitarianism, then, is considered by some to be the Shangri-la of 100% all-natural, back-to-nature health.  It’s little wonder why it’s often touted as the “Garden of Eden” diet, more restrictive and puritanical even than veganism.

In 2008, per capita fruit consumption in the U.S. fell to 256.6 lbs, an 18-year low.

Fruitarianism has not always had that name, but it has had its share of influential adherents throughout history.  Leonardo DaVinci and Mahatma Gandhi went on all-fruit diets for long stretches of their lives, as did the late Steve Jobs (ever wonder how he landed on the name Apple?).  Among contemporary athletes, distance runner Michael Arnstein is the most notable advocate.  On his website, The Fruitarian, he describes the transformation in his body that allowed him to run a sub-3 hour Boston Marathon and post the 6th-fastest U.S. time in a 100-mile ultramarathon.  In 2011, Arnstein founded the Woodstock Fruit Festival, currently the country’s largest fruitarian gathering.

Of course, there are always downsides.  All fruit, all the time may sound promising in the abstract (after all, who hasn’t made a resolution to shape up by eating more produce?), but it is absurdly difficult in the execution.  After all, raw fruits are naturally low in calories and high in sugar, so they have to be consumed almost constantly throughout the day to maintain energy levels.  Nutritionists will tell you that you’re missing out on key B-vitamins and minerals, and heavy concentrations of fructose can overload a person’s pancreas in a hurry.  Jobs died in 2011 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, and when actor Ashton Kutcher tried to replicate the tech titan’s diet in order to portray him in an upcoming biopic, he ended up in the hospital.

I love fruit as much as the next person, probably even more so.  So I decided to try a little experiment: one full business week eating nothing but produce.  Could this be done?  Should this be done?  Would I end up like Ashton Kutcher?  Would I actually turn into a piece of fruit, as my mother threatened when I was younger?  The diet certainly didn’t seem any worse than my current eating habits — despite knowing better, I often skip breakfast and coast through entire days on apples, Clif Bars, and coffee.  But five days seemed like a reasonable amount of time to immerse myself in the fruitarian lifestyle.  What’s the worst that could happen?

Day 1.

The experiment began at 8:30 AM when I stepped inside the local temple of well-being: Whole Foods Market on Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado.  The sprawling airplane hanger of health is practically as big as the Vatican; the trail mix section alone is double the square footage of my apartment.  But fortunately, I could bypass the kombucha bar and the cheesemonger this time around.  I was headed for one section and one section only.

Before going shopping, I established a few ground rules to keep myself in line generally accepted fruitarian practices.  Nuts and seeds are permissible to all but the most puritanical devotees, so I figured I would keep some on hand (but challenge myself to only use them as a last resort).  Preserves are fine as long as no extra sugar has been added (though come to think of it, when would you ever spread preserves on top of other fruit?  Discuss.).  Any store-bought fruit juices need to be 100% concentrate without any additives or blends.  Tea and black coffee are OK (a necessary pre-condition of this experiment, for me at least), but beer and soft drinks are most definitely not.  You can imagine that culinary variety might become a problem after a while and indeed, one fruitarian website recommends boiling pungent tamarind and drinking it when you need to take the edge off.  That just seems like a bridge too far.

I had no idea how much fruit I would need to make it through the week, but I wanted to make sure I had enough calories on hand to sustain a decent exercise regimen without collapsing of starvation.  I bought a whole pineapple, three mangos, seven apples, a dozen bananas, and various oversized packages of berries.  Ripe cherries, grapes, and peaches went in at the last minute.  Mango juice (the pure, undiluted kind) seemed like a handy base for any smoothies I might dream up.  Walnuts and almonds would be my emergency backup, the nutritional equivalent of defibrillator paddles.  I was actually feeling pretty good; my shopping basket was the epitome of health, wholesomeness, and virtue.  Everyone look at me, it seemed to cry out — look at how much good stuff this guy is about to eat!

The checkout dude, eyeing the massive amounts of produce rolling down the conveyer belt toward him, asked if I was “hosting a big party.”  I shifted my feet a little and said yes, because the truth is just too strange.

The bill came to a whopping $103.85, illustrating the first and foremost barrier to widespread fruitarianism: It’s far too expensive for the average person to sustain.  Even buying at a lower-priced supermarket chain or wholesale off the docks (like Arnstein, a sponsored athlete, does), a dedicated fruitarian’s monthly grocery tab would likely run upwards of $600 per month.  That’s like having a second rent payment in most neighborhoods.

When I got home, I immediately skinned the ripest mango and consumed it along with orange juice and coffee.  I downed a handful of cherries as a chaser.  So far, so good.  I felt energized and ready for the day, though I suspected I might still be coasting on yesterday’s meals.  I went for a run to stave off hunger for the time being.  Psychologically, it’s probably important to stay busy.  Since I had a full day’s worth of errands to do, I hardly even noticed that I didn’t think about eating again until almost 6 PM.

But when my appetite came back, it came with a fury.  I ate three bananas back-to-back-to-back like some kind of cracked-out gorilla, then polished off two apples and most of the grapes in one sitting.  Once I finally felt sated (and weirdly so), I could sit back and take stock.  It’s strange having to eat that much sheer volume at once.  Still, I felt I’d weathered the first major hurdle without having to resort to ordering pizza.  Things didn’t feel too tough…yet?

Day 2.

Now that I’d been initiated into fruitarian clan, I decided to do some research on the raw food community at large.  Via Michael Arnstein’s site, I came across 30 Bananas a Day!, a forum for raw foodies to discuss issues, share personal stories, and air out concerns.  Many have questions about how cancer cells use fructose as fuel.  Several commenters talked about maintaining a single golden ration: 80% carbs from fruit, 10% proteins, and 10% fat.  80/10/10 appears to have originated in a 2006 book by Douglas N. Graham, a chiropractor and self-styled fruitarian guru.  Graham argues that humans must strive to eat the highest percentage of “nutritionally perfect” food as possible, even going so far as to say that fruitarian is our “species-specific” diet.  His approach has spawned legions of fans — and some notable detractors.  In a intra-party debate posted on the site, Tom Billings, a former raw foodie-turned-apostate, takes Graham to task over his claims.  Have a read for yourself.  On the merits, it’s tough not give Billings the K.O.; he links to over a dozen scientific papers supporting fruitarian skepticism while Graham links to zero.

I took 2 apples, 3 bananas, and a tanker’s worth of coffee to the office.  But by 3 PM, my hollow stomach started making sounds like those poor captive Orcas in the Blackfish trailer.  Starvation-level hunger set in, to the point of not being able to concentrate on anything else.  A low-level headache took up residence in the front of my skull.  Had there been other food available (a donut deus ex machina, say), I probably would have been pretty tempted to rethink this whole assignment.  Instead, I hunkered down with herbal tea and counted down anxiously to the moment that I could race home and reload with the heavy artillery.  Never before has a handful of walnuts sounded so appealing or seemed like the key to my entire happiness.

Day 3.

In the wake of the Kutcher incident, no less a diet authority than Shape Magazine roundly criticized fruitarianism.  That opinion is largely consistent with the general nutritionist consensus.  One of the main knocks against veganism has always been that its restrictive nature cuts off natural sources of B-6 and B-12 vitamins, both essential to cell metabolic processes and linked to anemia.  Fruitarian philosophy doubles down on that gamble by taking away chocolate (with its helpful alkaloids) and even imitation dairy (with its calcium and probiotic compounds) as well.

In passing, I mention the weeklong experiment to two of my co-workers.  “That sounds awful,” one said.  A long pause, and then: “Is that the weirdest thing you’ve ever done for science?”

Possibly.  But even though I’d been living off of peaches and mango juice all day, the hunger pangs were getting better. Perhaps it was my body’s tacit acceptance of the fact that this experiment was actually happening and not just a cruel prank.  Or perhaps my vital organs were too busy preparing to shut down to bother me.  But in any event, much of Day 3 passed pleasantly without incident.  (I did, however, eat the whole pineapple all at once, another first on my life list.)

Day 4.

I was coming into the home stretch.  A friend reminded me about the man who ate nothing but potatoes for 60 days.  As I understand it, by the end of that period, he was understandably getting a little antsy and began molding his daily heap of mashed potatoes into the shape of other foods.  I was not quite at that point yet, but I was starting to rack my brain for creative ways to combine these same ingredients.  Juicing goes a long way (see sidebar).

Blend 1 cup orange juice, 2 cups ice, 1 banana, 2 handfuls of blueberries, 10 blackberries, and 10 diced strawberries.  Repeat frequently because you’ll need a lot of it.

I was still strong enough to run in the morning, though my legs had precious little fuel to burn in the rolling Boulder hills.  Right now, I couldn’t imagine racing 10 miles, much less 100, on fruit alone.

My body had turned into a virtual sump pump, shedding water and waste quickly and, uh, efficiently. The combination of aerobic exercise and limited caloric intake (I was probably averaging 1,200 per day or so — a long-term fruitarian would probably need more) caused me to drop 6 lbs, which is not a boast so much as a grim statement of fact.  By mid-afternoon, I was starting to tire of bananas and wished I had some citrus fruit on hand to vary the taste.  Apples were still on my good side (though maybe it’s just Stockholm syndrome).

I arrived at the 4:30 editorial meeting prepared to have to turn down the delicious cookies and/or brownies that the editor-in-chief usually brings in for any planning session that’s going to run more than an hour.  As luck would have it, he brought strawberries instead.

Day 5.

The last of the berries went into the blender this morning, along with the remains of the mango juice, a banana, and half of a peach.  It was the kind of meal that you make when you’re trying to empty out your kitchen to go on a long vacation.  My refrigerator was starting to run dry.  If the experiment were to continue much longer, I would have to re-up with another cartload full of produce a whole day ahead of schedule.

But as I write this, and my fruitarian immersion is wrapping up, I feel both exhausted and enlightened.  Five days is not a large enough sample size to pass judgment on fruitarianism’s overall effects on my personal health, nor is this piece a definitive medical opinion.  It is merely one man’s experience.  In researching the issue, I tend to side with nutritionists when they say that there are some real long-term health risks and that fruitarian diets should be approached with caution.  However, I am not entirely unsympathetic toward the lifestyle.  Fruitarianism really is something that probably has to be tried firsthand in order to be understood completely — yes, it’s difficult and unwieldy and expensive, but in actually doing it yourself, you can start to understand why it attracts followers.  The feeling of purgation in the name of all-natural health holds a certain intoxicating appeal.  Perhaps there’s another article to be written in the future about the fascinating psychology of restrictive dieting, by someone who knows far more about neuroscience than I do.

In the meantime, there are going to be beers after work tonight, and I’m thrilled to be able to participate.  I think I’ll go find a hamburger, too.  Not this one though.

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