The pangs are strongest around her meal times. It’s actual pain, churning in her stomach. She can hear her stomach growl and feel her body’s distress, the knots, aches, the sense of actual emptiness. It becomes an obsession. All she thinks about is food.
Then, seemingly miraculously, it passes. For the moment.
Shelli Johnson of Lander is hungry as she blows on her green tea on Wednesday afternoon. It is her fourth week of a 10 week self-experiment that involves fasting on Wednesday, where for 24 hours she eats nothing and drinks only water, green tea and an occasional nutrient supplement mix that she does not recommend for the taste.
It began as an experiment. Johnson wanted to lose five pounds in an effort to be lighter and faster for skate-skiing this winter.
There were easier ways to lose the weight. She successfully took off 30 pounds in 2009. Fasting was not part of the program.
But Johnson didn’t want to just lose weight. She was curious about the difference between hunger and appetite. In a world where food is available all the time, Johnson realized she didn’t know when she reached for sustenance if it was because it was there or because her body actually needed it.
What she’s learned is that while she might be experimenting with hunger, there are others who are living with it.
Johnson, a life coach and avid long-distance hiker, came off a summer season where in six months she logged about 800 miles of hiking. It was October and she realized she was tired. An avid skate-skier, there was time before there’d be snow for her next sport. Yet she didn’t want to just sit back and do nothing.
Johnson has always liked things that are hard — often picking the more challenging route in life on purpose. A goal-oriented person, she’s motivated not just by success, but also her curiosity in how it’s reached.
Once she gave up eating grains.
“It was drastic, but I just wanted to see what would happen,” she said.
Intrigued by the idea of fasting she looked at options that involved eating only during certain hours of the day. That’d be hard, but not hard enough, she thought. The fast she chose is for 24 hours beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday. On her non-fasting days she eats healthy.
Johnson normally eats lunch about 11 a.m. By 11:15 on Oct. 17, her first day of fasting, she was cranky.
“I was about ready to bite my own head off and eat it,” she said.
She looked at the clock and willed it to move faster. The mother of three boys Johnson often wishes time would slow. She didn’t want to wish her life would fast forward even by a day.
That was when it hit her. She was hungry by choice. Others watch the clock daily, fighting the pangs of hunger, not to lose five pounds, not out of curiosity, but because they can’t afford food.
That afternoon she decided she’d use her fast to learn about hunger in her community, raise awareness and maybe even a little money.
“It gives me something bigger to think about,” she said.
Johnson reached out to her friends and family, pledging to donate $24 for the 24 hours she fasted to local organizations, like food banks, that work to end hunger. Others picked up the cause matching donations. Donations have mostly been from her friends, but one came as far as Thailand; the person heard about her efforts through a friend and sent money in her name.
Each week Johnson picks a new local organization. She raises only a couple hundred dollars each week, but for some organizations that means another mouth fed.
“The impact is small, but important,” she said.
When she gave to Lander’s BackPack program, which provides kids with food, staff told her they had a student come to school Monday who hadn’t eaten all weekend.
“That broke my heart,” Johnson said.
It also opened her eyes. Johnson hadn’t realized hunger was such an issue in her own community. Her fasts have become a way to learn and talk about hunger in Lander, she said.
Since she started fasting Johnson lost two pounds in the first four weeks. She says she is more present, aware of her feelings and emotions. On her non-fasting days she’s conscious if she’s eating out of habit, or truly out of need. Johnson discovered the difference between hunger and appetite. Appetite is the psychological need for food that has you reaching for the refrigerator without thinking about it. Hunger, is the physical need for food, she said. Hunger is when you feel something and eat.
But more importantly, Johnson says she’s realized some people don’t have the luxury to differentiate between the two. Some are simply hungry. So Johnson is no longer fasting simply for weight loss. The self-experiment part of her plan is even less important. Johnson is now going hungry in hopes, that for at least one meal, someone else might not have to.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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