The strip mall joint serving rotisserie chicken on the corner of Western and 8th Street in L.A.’s Koreatown is glowing. The embers of its orange-tinted lights cast its satiated patrons in the kind of romantic, golden hue that’s usually reserved for sunset frolickers and is rarely, if ever, ascribed to people hunched over plates of poultry-forward nutrients inside a fast-casual dining establishment.
Stopped at a red light, I can neither see nor smell what they’re eating from the inside of my car. But I’ve dissected enough rotisserie chickens to experience the wonders of eating the sort of food that doesn’t grow on trees: The smooth fleshy warmth. Its crispy charred skin. The steam that rises when you unmoor the chicken’s oyster from its holy crevice. It’s so fucking good, I tell myself, with my jaw clenched, stomach grumbling, a piece of honey crisp apple viciously lodged between two of my teeth.
Typically, I’m not so crazy about chicken. It’s not even in my top three favorite meats. But I’m on hour 68 of a one-week fruit-only diet and the deprivation euphoria has a way of implanting eulogies onto every restaurant I pass through during my hour-long commute home.
I put off writing this story several times, primarily because I was avoiding having to write it. I didn’t want to become a fruitarian for a week. I’m an intuitive eater — that is to say, I have a healthy relationship with food. I don’t want to lose any weight. I’m not interested in the promise of “more energy.” I have zero athletic ambitions other than not cramping up during sex. But it’s my job, I agreed to it, I have regrets, and now here I am on day three of my fruit cleanse, ridding my body of “toxins” and an unquantifiable amount of joy. Tonight, the rotisserie chicken is both my muse and my mistress, the facade of all the dirty things I’m going to eat in approximately 100 hours. Tonight, although previously one of my favorite foods, I never want to see another fruit again.
The Labors of My Fruit
If you’re perplexed simply by the term “fruitarian,” don’t worry, so was I. Even in a culture doused in extreme diet plans that have propelled the rise of the nut-cheese industrial complex to unhallowed heights, fruitarianism remains an outlier — an extreme version of an already limited vegan diet. More specifically, though there is no universal definition of a fruitarian, the BBC explains that, “a commonly cited ‘rule’ is that between 55 percent to 75 percent of the diet should be made up predominantly of raw fruit.” “Some people also include nuts, seeds and grains,” per their report. Others, the subset of fruitarians that live to do anything but eat, take it one step further and only eat fruit “that falls off trees or vines,” according to The Independent.
Michael Arnstein, aka “The Fruitarian,” an elite endurance athlete who has been on a mostly-fruit diet for over 12 years, tells me that he considers a fruit-based diet as someone who gets 80 percent or more of their calories from fruit alone. “Some people in this diet/lifestyle will argue that anyone who eats a non-fruit item is no longer a fruitarian; I don’t subscribe to this kind of religious dogma,” he says.
Neither do I, which is why I should confess right here and now that, while I did adhere to the 75 percent or more rule of an all raw fruit diet, I did drink coffee and sprinkle in handfuls of almonds and walnuts. On one especially somber Sunday night, when my teeth began chattering because I couldn’t get warm — a likely outcome of a fruit-only diet that renders your body’s B12 levels deficient, according to Dana Hunnes, a clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center — I ate a couple of oven-roasted eggplants topped with a few drops of oil derived from extra virgin olives. (Sue me.)
This wasn’t the only side effect that Hunnes warned me about while I was preparing for my newly restricted meal times. In addition to developing a B12 deficiency, eating a fruit-only diet comes with myriad other health issues. “The main potential health risk would be that, while most fruits do have some protein in them, for the most part they’re very low in protein,” she says. “Most likely, within a week or two, a person who is eating only fruit would begin to lose weight, including muscle mass.” There’s also the fact that, depending on the length of time a person follows this diet, while unlikely, there is a very small risk of developing kwashiorkor, a malnutrition disease where you’re getting insufficient protein, but enough calories. “However, this would likely take weeks, if not months, to develop,” says Hunnes. “Most likely you’ll be obtaining sufficient micronutrients except for B12, which could also be debilitating — you might notice some changes to your skin or hair texture.”
That said, there are some advantages too. “The major benefits would be that you’ll be getting good sources of fiber, water (in raw/fresh fruit), vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (antioxidants) and many anticancer nutrients — this is mostly in the form of antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber,” says Hunnes. Arnstein — who in the 10 years prior to becoming a fruitarian was desperately trying to run a marathon in under two hours and 30 minutes but was unable to do so — is also enthusiastic. “After I changed my diet I ran under 2:30 and surpassed all my athletic goals far beyond what I ever thought possible,” he says.
All in all, then, there are some decent pros, and some pretty damn serious cons.
Peeling Off the Skin
On the first night of my fruitarian journey, my girlfriend, Sunny — who is graceful enough to set aside her concern at needing to share a life with a somewhat emaciated, soon to be fully emaciated frugivore — brought home a market haul of bananas, oranges, grapefruits, raspberries, blueberries, watermelon, mango and my personal favorite fruit, pomegranates. “This is going to be fine,” I tell her.
To be frank, on that first night, propelled by the same sort of crazed energy that leads someone to do a cliff-jump gainer, I believed it. “It’s only for a week!” I tell her, despite the diet being mostly hailed (beyond Arnstein, of course) by vloggers who start every vlog with “hey guys,” and who like diets that prevent them from eating things so they can vlog about the wonders of not eating things and fresh figs.
Unlike the archetypal food vlogger, whose videos commonly feature pristine kitchen laboratories and marble countertops, marveling into the camera while pouring six different types of flaxseed into a jar of kefir yogurt, the natural habitat of a fruitarian vlogger is usually somewhere overrun with green vegetation. Among the more notable examples are heavily bearded Norwegian brothers Mikkel and Mads Gisle Johnsen, who have nearly 57,000 subscribers and who “started chronicling their fruit-based diet on their YouTube channel, Sweet Natural Living, after they became interested in health,” according to a 2016 report in VICE. There’s also Fit Shortie Eats, “a fruitarian couple traveling full time in search of the best fruits out there,” with 63,000 subscribers per their YouTube channel. And finally, there’s Hyde Smith of Abundant Source Raw, a homeless fruitarian whose channel has nearly 3,000 subscribers and is all about “fruitarianism, natural living and spirituality.”
I should note, though, that not all fruitarians look as though they’re into ska. In fact, Arnstein, with his cropped brown hair, looks like and frankly is a normal guy, save for the fact that he eats 25 to 30 pounds of fruit every day and tends to finish in the top 10 of nearly every marathon he’s ever run in. His advice to me, a burgeoning and already resentful fruitarian: Don’t switch overnight.
“I stay away from eating a lot of fat, like avocados, nuts and seeds, but I do think eating these options is important when trying to transition from a cooked food diet,” says Arnstein, explaining that while he’s met plenty of people who switched to an all-fruit diet overnight, most take years of slowly cutting out one unhealthy food at a time. “Most people who switch overnight don’t eat enough calories — they think it’s too much to eat an entire cantaloupe, six bananas and five mangoes as a lunch meal,” he says. “They often undereat and then feel very unsatisfied, and before long they’re back to eating cooked foods and saying the fruit diet didn’t work. Other people eat a lot but they don’t eat enough fat, which is necessary to feel more ‘full.’ When I first started eating this way, I’d often have five or six avocados in a big salad at night. If I didn’t eat a lot of avocados I couldn’t fall asleep well.”
In the Belly of the Cantaloupe
Several days after my first enthusiastic all-fruit meal, I myself am not sleeping well, either. After the initial buzz of subsisting on as much banana and blueberry as my stomach can handle, on day four, I’m avoiding home and Sunny — who probably wants a cheeseburger for dinner because she always wants a cheeseburger for dinner — as though I’m a husband in a loveless marriage with three kids I wish weren’t mine. It’s impossible to know if my energy levels are low or if I’m just clinically depressed. It’s Friday night and my phone buzzes: Two of my friends are trying to decide where to go to dinner. A few minutes later, one of them has the gaul to send me a picture of a tomahawk steak. A single, sad, merciless apple in a plastic bag that was once nine apples in a plastic bag sits on my desk.
Calorically speaking, my overnight transition to an all-fruit diet has led me to develop a small but weirdly deliberate eating habit. Though I began things eating at least three bananas a day (this diet wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for bananas), three apples for lunch and an assortment of citrus and berries for dinner, by day three, the flavor of nearly every fruit tastes like cough syrup. Any initial excitement I had around the all-you-can-eat buffet of pears, grapefruit, melon, raspberries and the nightly treat of an avocado, cucumber and tomato salad (they’re all fruit, I swear) with a bit of olive oil quickly fades. Rather than gorge myself on nature’s candy, I turn to a mix of black coffee and several liters of water that, if drunk quickly, heavily and in tandem, will render me nauseous enough to go to sleep without feeling like I’m still hungry. Honestly, anything to avoid having to eat one more bite of a tangerine.
This is all exactly along the lines of what Hunnes warned me about, when she told me that any unverified extreme diet plan can lead to “hidden hunger and hidden malnutrition.” “We can also see the development of disordered eating patterns,” she says, “whereby people want so much control over their eating that they no longer have healthy relationships with food and sometimes with other people.”
More than the hunger and food cravings, it’s this last part — the effect the diet has on your relationships with others — that’s the hardest part to deal with. Just when I think that I couldn’t possibly be any hungrier and more alone, it’s Saturday afternoon and I’ve preemptively eaten two bananas, an apple and an orange before meeting a few friends for lunch. I’m feeling bloated and fine until, well, I’m not.
“Hey, look, they’ve got a fruit salad!” one of my friends announces with the sort of glee usually reserved for evil masterminds. I decide I won’t be paying $8.95 for a fruit salad that’s sure to make me feel more isolated than I already feel, especially when I have to watch this same “friend” sloppily eat a perfectly crisped tuna melt with oozing cheddar cheese and French fries cooked in duck fat. Everyone shares a gooey chocolate chip cookie while I drink my fourth cup of water. The absolute worst part of this experience is knowing that this fruit salad has been the only item I’ve encountered on any restaurant menu thus far that my diet would actually permit me to order.
Arnstein is very aware of the way in which fruitarianism can isolate a person. “If you eat mostly fresh fruit, it will become an ‘oddity’ that people will comment about when they eat with you,” he says. “It’s tiring talking about this, and over time, most fruit diet eaters stay away from sharing too many meals with others who don’t subscribe to eating for health-first. I often feel people will look as if I’m judging them because I won’t partake in what they’re eating in a social environment. It’s akin to being in school while others are doing drugs and you aren’t interested.”
It’s for these reasons that Arnstein founded a fruit event in 2011 called The Woodstock Fruit Festival, an annual summer camp in Upstate New York where about 500 people get together for a week. “All the fruit and fun you can imagine!” he enthuses. “Everyone on the same diet and lifestyle — it’s truly a heaven-on-earth event for all of us together. We party hard!” When he’s not at the festival, thanks in large part to fruitarian communities online and through social media, Arnstein spends time with friends who are focused on working out regularly and surviving on a “very high quantity fruit diet as well.”
I don’t have those sort of people in my life, though, which is why, at 8:45 on that same Saturday night, nearly 96 hours into my fruit-only diet, while watching Sunny dip her fries in a chipotle garlic aioli, I toy with the idea of taking a Xanax. I don’t, though, mostly because it’s not made of fruit. I can tell that she’s grown increasingly uncomfortable with me watching her eat without joining her. She apologizes for eating fries in front me. I apologize to her for making her feel secluded even though I’m sitting next to her. I wonder what the rest of the people in the restaurant think while watching me watch her eat a basket of fries alone. I go to bed early.
On Sunday morning, I’m reminded that in a few hours, I have a family meal at my favorite Persian restaurant in L.A., where the white table cloth will be beset by everything from chicken and steak kebabs, a variety of yogurts, herbs and salads, to saffron-coated basmati rice topped with slow cooked lamb. I prepare for this final test by eating three bananas, a handful of raspberries, two dates and a grapefruit. I’m feeling good about myself until the moment the scorched rice topped with pomegranate reduction walnut stew hits the table and my loving, but somewhat forgetful, Persian grandmother scoops a piece onto my plate and tells me in her native tongue that no one will care if I just eat a little bit.
I smile, tell her she’s right and inhale the fumes of this chocolate-colored stew before excusing myself to go to the bathroom, where I look myself in the mirror as though I’m shooting an overly precious music video and watch my face as it realizes that our table has only just received the appetizers.
It’s at this point, on day five of my fruitarian diet, my stomach bloated from all the apples and oranges I ate before dinner, that the crux of any extreme dieting plan comes into focus. This sort of self-mastery is for people whose entire lives revolve around their diet. To be a fruitarian is to plan your entire day around how and when you’re going to eat. Although Hunnes tells me that for some, knowing exactly what you’re eating all day, every day can be very comforting and a stress-reliever, I see it very differently.
The limitations of fruitarianism are a near-constant reminder of how alienating it is to be unable to meet people where they are — celebrating in the ecstasy of flavor. This is especially true in a city where dining out is a mandatory social lubricant. Sure, that lunch cafe may have a fruit salad that no one ever orders, but relegating yourself to food that only grows on trees makes it really difficult to connect with people over a bowl of something warm that’s prepared with spices. Flavors that are often so unique, that friends and loved ones are likely to insist that you taste, that they believe you, too, will find delicious. And when you can’t because it doesn’t align with your dietary restrictions, whether you like it or not, the fabric of this social connection begins to fray.
Tossing the Core
Like nearly everything else, time has a way of normalizing what was once seemingly aberrant. As of writing this, though I’m a day and half removed from my last mealy banana for breakfast, my final two days under the shadow of fruitarianism were by far the easiest. On the sixth day, I watched Sunny and her mom eat a homemade stir fry while I picked at a pomegranate and some berries and I was fine. I didn’t mind when they talked about the spices and sauce that went into forging a caramelized teriyaki aroma. Instead, I quietly peeled apart my pomegranate and (kinda) enjoyed it. And on my seventh and final day, I took two apples to work and found myself oddly liberated by the fact that I had only one option for lunch.
On that final night, too, hours before my re-entry back into the real world where people eat food with high-fructose-corn syrup, I discovered Minneolas, a new flavor of citrus that easily propelled me past the finish line. I slept well knowing that if I absolutely had to, I could continue on this fruit-only path.
I won’t, though. I’ve got plans with Sunny tonight, and I’m pretty sure she wants a cheeseburger.