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On the fasting track

Abstinence makes the stomach growl louder

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"What is pasta?" Arden Zinn asks, causing me to panic. It's my first day at the Arden's Garden cleansing class, and Zinn has already railed against every food that is not a raw fruit or vegetable. I doubt she wants me to describe pasta as a versatile Italian staple, or a nutritious source of energy.

"Jenny, take one letter off the word, pasta, and what do you get?"

Mystified, I toy with different variations of the word -- asta, past, pasa, pata -- and a mortifying silence fills the room.

"Past?" I venture.

"No," she replies swiftly. "Paste!"

Did I miss something?

"Pasta is paste," she explains. "Think about it. What do you put up wallpaper with? Flour and water. What is pasta? Flour and water. If flour and water keep wallpaper up for so long, how much time do you think pasta will spend in your body?"

Her argument does not strike me as very scientific, but as I scan the nodding faces in the backroom of Arden's Garden Midtown store, I begin to wonder if my judgment has been impaired by last night's red wine binge.

Turning up for my first day of a 21-day cleansing class with a hangover was not the brightest idea. Yet it is perhaps fitting given that my love of food and wine has brought me here. As a woman who thinks about dinner before finishing lunch, structures vacations around new culinary treats, and married a man who reads cookbooks in bed, I am curious why fasting is growing in popularity.

Fasting, the voluntary abstinence from solid food, has been practiced as a religious discipline for centuries. It is observed among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Confucians, Hindus, Taoists and Jainists. Originally, it was conceived as a rite that would reduce physical appetites, purify the spirit and facilitate communion with God.

Now, however, fasting is attracting new converts. In Atlanta, a growing subculture of young professionals -- teachers, nurses, executives -- is choosing to refrain from solid food. Amanda Walton, a 33-year-old Spanish teacher, did Arden's Two-Day Detox to prepare for a trip abroad. Kate Smolski, a 26-year-old organizer of the Sierra Club, consumes only juices and herbal tea up to four days each month. Bryan Thompson, a 39-year-old nurse, organizes a local juice club that fasts together three days each month.

Then there are the hardcore fasters, like Gerald Martin. After attending a course at Holistic Life Center in Decatur, he fasted for 40 days. Now the 39-year-old small business owner does the "Mastercleanse" -- water with lemon, cayenne pepper and maple syrup -- for the entire month of January.

"I started for physical reasons. I've always been healthy and lifted weights, but detoxing helps me not to get sick," says Martin. "I think I have better overall health."

When he started fasting five years ago, he passed out, lost more than 50 pounds, and had "mucous exploding" out of his nose. Now that fasting is a regular part of his life, he says, he remains stable "as long as I get enough water and I don't do too much."

A fasting novice, I decide my best initiation into fasting is to sign up for the Arden's Garden 21-day cleansing course, which promises to "energize your body, balance your emotions and strengthen your spirit."

As soon as my alcohol-infused body enters the Arden's Garden vivid yellow and purple store and inhales the fresh fruity aroma, I feel queasy. Meeting Arden Zinn, the founder of the fresh juice company, only exacerbates my condition. Her penetrating brown eyes (I dare not compare them to coffee or chocolate) give her an intense, almost Evangelical aura.

Arden Zinn is on a mission. She sells nearly 20,000 bottles of fresh juice across the South each week, but her work is not done: "I have a dream," she says, "that one day everyone in Atlanta will take my Two-Day Detox."

I expect the program to be extreme, but I do not realize what cleansing means until I sit in Arden's store, listening to her expound upon her requirements for healthy living: "You will not cook," she says. "Ugh! I hate that word. Everything must be raw!"

I stare in disbelief at her list of banned foods: "animal's flesh, limbs, internal organs, fetuses, milk, animal scavengers, heated grains, brown rice, breads, tofu, commercial cereals, coffee, caffeine tea, alcohol, tobacco, sugar, salt, non-prescription drugs, artificial sweeteners, insecticides, processed foods, canned foods or commercially frozen food."

Juice and raw fruit and vegetables will be all I consume for 21 days. The plan is to limit myself to juice for two days during the first week. The second week, all solid food is banned. The third week, food is gradually reintroduced.

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