By Matt Stone
“The constant desire to go deeper into the Wilderness is shared by almost any backpacker. There is a relentless urge to travel further into the heart of pristine nature ? to become more united with the vastness of it.
?It’s been over two years since I walked out of Wyoming’s Wind River Range, exhausted, depleted, and confused. The Winds, a set of three immense Wilderness areas tied together by a pristine Indian Reservation, comprise one of the most sought after backpacking destinations in the country. My mission was to be lost among this inspiring landscape for as long as possible. Alone, unsupported, without resupply, I stumbled out on the forty-fourth day.
?Strained, lonely, starving, traumatized at times, I experienced the most exquisite earthly connections imaginable in those 44 days. My thoughts raced uncontrollably, the void in my stomach caused insomnia and near insanity, but occassionally I found myself thrust into an inexplicably blissful moment ? into the grandeur of my surroundings, and I would fall to my knees in tears of immense gratitude for the earth I so cherish. Since that day, I’ve delved deeply within myself to understand it all.
The above is an intro to an old draft I’d originally planned to send in to Backpacker Magazine. It was written about a year and a half ago, so technically it’s been almost 4 years since that epic trip.
Since I can remember I’ve had a real infatuation with nature, with survivalism, self-sufficiency, the whole nine yards. Although I anticipated disappearing into the wilderness for 50 days Chris McCandless-style (Into the Wild), finding some kind of spiritual revelation of sorts, I ended up instead learning an extremely profound lesson on human physiology and psychology, and how these two relate to our dietary needs. In fact, one of the reasons I decided on doing this trip was to have good material for a second book, which I had hoped to entitle, Fifty Days Silence, or something along those lines. Half way through the trip I was leaning towards The 124th Trout. By the end the appropriate would-be title was clear, The Wind River Diet.
Why such a title? Because this journey, although I might have intended it to be about a deep connection with nature, or a coming of age, or what have you, it had nothing to do with that. This epic endeavor quickly became about one thing and one thing only ? FOOD!
Because I love taking on new challenges (and was really obsessed with doing so back then), I thought food should be something that, you know, I don’t take for granted anymore, so I intentionally did not bring enough. I would just have to find a way to mentally get through it. Plus, I was always under the impression (probably because everyone on the planet is shouting it), that the more you exercise and the less you eat, the healthier you will be. So yes, you are reading this correctly ? I went out in the wilderness for what I intended to be 50 days, without resupply of any kind, and intentionally brought too little food to properly sustain and nourish myself. A little on the intense side perhaps? For the record, those who describe me as ?a pretty mellow, laid back, easy-going guy? have witnessed an Academy Award performance on my behalf.
But as I’ve discovered time and time again in my life, with great challenge and great suffering and abominable mistake comes a much higher magnitude of revelation.
So yes, I’ve witnessed first hand what starving to death feels like and what physiological and psychological changes that occur under such a circumstance.
I didn’t know how to exactly explain this at first. I looked into all kinds of realms of religion and spirituality to try to describe what occurred, but in the end, by far the most accurate explanation comes from an experiment performed on a group of young men in which calories were cut by about a third.
The report on the observations made in these young men on a 1,400-2,100 calorie diet (mine, including trout and berries was about 2,000, but I was doing 6 hours of hiking over rugged terrain per day with up to 90 pounds on my back) is 700 pages long and entitled, Human Vitality and Efficiency Under prolonged Restricted Diet. Ancel Keys, founder of the low fat, low cholesterol movement (Satan basically), performed a similar and even more rigorous study with identical results (some of which are cited below).
And what happened to these men is exactly what happened to me, without exception. So what happened to me?
First of all, let me explain precisely the food I brought, and how it was eaten.
My shopping trip consisted of, I believe, 11 full-sized Quaker oat tubs, 1 quart of high quality extra virgin olive oil, 2 pounds of butter, and about 12 pounds of cornmeal for making polenta (corn mush).
That’s all I brought. What variety! All I know is that my food totaled 45 pounds, less than a pound per day of food. This may sound like a lot, but trust me, this ain’t sheeit. 2 pounds of butter? I often eat that in a week now while sitting around on my ?fanny-cake,? as my 5-year old niece would say.
For flavoring I did bring a little spice blend mixed with sea salt which I entitled ?money spice,? as well as a cinnamon/raisin/pecan blend which totaled about ? ounce per pot of oatmeal, just enough for it to not be completely plain.
In the morning I’d get up and cook the most gargantuan pot of oatmeal you can envision a human consuming in a single sitting ? about 1.5 quarts. Then I’d hike all day without any food most days until dinner about 10 hours later. Dinner was polenta, a plain cornmeal porridge with added butter or olive oil and money spice. That was all the food I ate some days (1500 calories). When there were trout, which was sometimes twice a day, sometimes not for 3-4 days, I’d eat trout ? anywhere from a couple littlun’s to 2-3, 15-inch cutthroat trout ? force-feeding myself the last few bites like a competitive eater.
Now, back to the studies performed on calorie deprivation ? mentioned in Ron Shmid’s Traditional Foods are Your Best Medicine and Gary Taubes? Good Calories, Bad Calories (all quotes are taken from Good Calories, Bad Calories, chapter 15 ?Hunger?).
Symptoms of calorie deprivation that in no way contradict my first-hand experience with starvation include:
?a continuous gnawing sensation in the stomach?
Yes, the sensation of hunger was immeasurable. I couldn’t sleep at night I was hungry by the end. I felt so weak I could barely put one foot in front of the other some days.
?almost impossible to keep warm, even with an excessive amount of clothing.
When I began the trip I couldn’t even sleep in my sleeping bag because it was too hot ? a 15 degree down bag. I’ve always been on the warm side. By the end of the trip, I couldn’t stay warm in my bag, even while wearing every article of warm clothing I had. I could also hike up 3,000 vertical feet at an out-of-breath pace without breaking a sweat. On the next to last day I was so cold I had to stop and make an emergency warming fire on the trail, despite wearing more clothing than I would normally wear to downhill ski on a 10-degree day. And this was the 2nd week of September. In fact, the very last day I wore every article of clothing I had, fleece pants, pants over them, fleece jacket, long underwear, t-shirt, North Face insulated jacket, and raincoat and felt bitterly cold. People hiking up the trail were wearing t-shirts. This is not an exaggeration.
?They also experienced a 30% decrease in metabolism.
This I have no way to gauge, but when the trip began I was having 3 daily bowel movements. By the last week I was having 1 every 3 days. Now that’s some slowdown for ya.
?The men also experienced significant decreases in blood pressure and pulse rate; they suffered form anemia, the inability to concentrate, and marked weakness during physical activity.
My body always felt dizzy and limp. I have no way to prove my blood pressure was down, but it sure felt like it. My resting pulse rate was in the 30’s. I could concentrate well, but only on food. I felt exhausted every day when exerting myself physically, like a man in a desert scene about to keel over.
?They also experienced ?a decrease in sexual interest and expression, which, according to some of the men, reached the point of obliteration.?
On the 44th day I was picked up by my girlfriend of several years (who was cool enough to let me be as stupid as I needed to be to learn things). We were reunited after 44 long, lonely days. Not only had I gone the longest amount of time without an erection since I was about 5 years old, but I almost cringed when she touched me. Hmmm, funny, I seemed to enjoy her touch quite a lot before and after, enough to spend my entire 20’s by her side. Yeah, I’d say I experienced some sexual disinterest. I can’t recall a time in my life where I was less interested in sex ? not a typical response to seeing the love of your life for the first time in 44 days after being completely alone.
?[Afterwards], the men ?almost invariably over-ate?In particular, the cravings for ‘sweets and accessory foods of all kinds,? ? i.e., snacks were now free to be indulged, and so they were.?
When I returned to civilization I ate about 20 cookies, 3 bananas, a 12-inch sandwich from Subway (suck it Jared), a beer (Zonker stout, the finest on earth), and a medley of other crap, mostly sweets which I was obsessed with getting my hands on. I laid awake, on my back, concentrating the best I could to keep from vomiting until 4am. Now that’s overeating. And I was more sugar-addicted than I’ve ever been. I housesat at a place with about 30 pounds of leftover Halloween candy. I couldn’t go more than 60 minutes without a piece, and would sometimes eat 40 or 50 pieces of candy per day along with 1/2 pound of dark chocolate.
?Benedict’s young subjects managed to regain all the lost weight and body fat in less than two weeks.
I gained over 10 pounds in the first 3 days, and returned to my normal weight within 2 weeks, despite looking, and this is not an exaggeration (the only person who saw my body would agree wholeheartedly) having a body almost exactly like Bruce Lee. I looked like a muscle statue without skin. I had a 6-pack with veins popping out of it.
?Food quickly became the subject of conversation and daydreams. The men compulsively collected recipes and studied cookbooks. They chewed gum and drank coffee and water to excess; they watered down their soups to make them last.
I filled notebooks with recipes, sample menus, restaurant concepts, and even drew diagrams of kitchen setups. I would have phantom smells of brownies and things like that enter my nostrils as I was walking through the forest, just like they had popped out of the oven. I came to prefer my oatmeal extremely watery, almost drinkable. Even though I never liked caffeine or even hot drinks in my life, afterwards I drank a half-dozen cups of Earl Gray or green tea per day. For some reason it had suddenly gone from unpalatable my whole life to downright dreamy. I couldn’t get enough of that tea. So satisfying! (suggesting that an impaired physiological state may be a prerequisite for the development of addiction in some cases).
?Eventually, five of the subjects succumbed to what Keys and his colleagues called ?character neurosis?? it ?bordered on psychosis?? One subject?broke down ?weeping [with] talk of suicide and threats of violence,? and was committed to the psychiatric ward at the University Hospital.
During the last week I experienced a barrage of yelling fits, crying fits, tantrums, blissful states and other emotions far from what can be considered rational and even keel. On the final day (#44), surrounded by other campers, I began punching and yelling at my tent, ripped it, and collapsed to the ground in tears. Others watched me, and despite being mortified of having someone watch me do what I was doing ? especially considering I was by myself (cuckoo!), I had literally no control over myself whatsoever, prompting me to pick up my satellite phone (thanks pops), make like a bird, and get the flock out of there.
The physiological effects of calorie restriction combined with rigorous exercise (I covered 400 miles during those 44 days, and who knows how many miles of elevation change), were far beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined. It has taken me years to fully rehabilitate my body from those 44 days. It wasn’t until recently that my metabolism has sped up enough to be overly warm at normal temperatures like I was as a teenager. I even began losing hair around the time I returned, something I attribute much to this escapade, especially seeing that was yet another side effect among the calorie-restricted men in the above-mentioned studies.
I could go on for days on the saga of this trip, and I hope at some point to fully tell this extremely interesting story for a number of reasons, only one of which is the calorie-restriction education that I received. The point of what I’ve written here is simple, and I’m going to beat you with it like it’s a blunt object:
Eating less and exercising more as a recommendation for being healthier and losing weight is fucking moronic. I have taken dumps smarter than Bob Greene (Oprah’s diet guru). Metabolism and weight gain and loss, caloric expenditure, appetite, etc. are too homeostatically regulated to possibly outsmart the body so easily. Eat less and you will get hungrier. Exercise more and you will get hungrier. Eat less and exercise more and your metabolism will decrease until whatever weight you’ve lost via energy deficit will stop. Then, as a result, you will gain weight, just like the men in the calorie-deprivation study, just like I did, at an unprecedented rate until you’ve regained your body fat stores and then some. In fact, the men, after the study, increased their food intake to over 8,000 calories per day and were still hungry although physically incapable of ingesting more food. This is the result of calorie-deprivation ? along with sexual dysfunction, emotional instability, mental ineptitude, poor thermo-regulation, and otherwise faster degeneration than can be considered normal.
In fact, hunger triggers the slowing of the metabolism and storage of body fat. Never allowing yourself to become hungry is a much better strategy for speeding up the metabolism and triggering the body to release its excess fat stores. So why are we hungrier than ever despite eating more than ever? That’s the trillion dollar question during the age of the Diabesity epidemic, and one I hope to provide a respectable answer for in the next edition of 180DegreeHealth: Bloggie-Style.