Michael Arnstein and I are wandering aimlessly through the chaos of the Grand Street markets in New York City's Chinatown. Actually, check that: I am confused and disoriented, overwhelmed by the crush of vendors, shoppers, tourists, and locals using the thoroughfare to get somewhere else. But where I see a mass of unorganized, unexplainable, unpredictable humanity, my guide sees breakfast. And lunch and dinner. Also: snacks in between meals. And juice.
Five years ago, Arnstein—one of the best 100-mile runners in the country—became a fruitarian. "I read a book on low-fat raw fruit diet, based on fruits and vegetables,” the slight runner says a few feet from a street-side stand brimming with apples, oranges, pomegranates, mangos, and other unidentifiable-but-colorful fare. “It changed everything about me, almost overnight. I went really hardcore about it." The cardboard signs are in Chinese, except for the prices. Those are in regular old Arabic numerals. "I've become a super athlete based on just eating fruits and vegetables."
Arnstein, who finished 29th in the 2011 New York City Marathon, currently consumes 30 pounds of fruit daily, enough to fuel the 15-mile run he does twice a day between his midtown Manhattan office and his house on the border of the Bronx and Westchester County. After starting the diet, he learned that Chinatown boasted the best selection of fruits in the city. Individual vendors have more than two-dozen different options, even now in mid-January. He agreed to show me around his favorite spots, even though he no longer shops here. After a few years of buying retail, Arnstein realized the vendors must purchase their fruit from somewhere bigger. He located the wholesaler's shop in Queens, near the Kosciuszko Bridge, and goes once every two weeks to stock up. His home has four fridges.
THE RUNNER ARRIVES IN Chinatown as he arrives almost everywhere: by running. He is wearing the typical New York-distance-runner-in-the-winter uniform: a hat, a long-sleeve shirt from a marathon, tights, and gloves. I don't know how far he ran to reach lower Manhattan, but he doesn't appear even a little bit winded. Arnstein is slight in the way that good marathoners are—all taut skin and sinewy muscle; it's a body tuned to go rapidly forward, one step at a time, for hours on end—and he speaks with the energy of a rambunctious four-year-old or an adult who knows about a secret lifestyle of which you are unaware.
It's because he does. The man, who says he was raised on McDonald's, was a solid ultrarunner before taking up fruitarianism. Now, he's elite. "I just ran 100 miles in 12 hours, 57 minutes. I'm in the top 10 all time, ever," Arnstein says, sounding astonished at his own fruit-fueled capacity. (During long runs he munches on dates or Maltadextrin gels, which is pretty much the only time he's not eating 100-percent raw fruit.) "How do you run 100 miles and do the last 10 miles in an hour and six minutes? Mile 90, I'm running 6:30s. It's crazy. Look at these Asian pears! Crazy!"
He knows his fruits. A brief guided tour:
SATSUMA ORANGES: "Super, super sweet. Really easy to peel. You have to eat them when they are at peak sweetness. In terms of oranges, as a fruitarian, this is my all time favorite orange. I've been eating cases and cases of these for the last month."
SHARON FRUITS: "They are flown in from Israel. When they are soft, they are one of the sweetest fruits you can eat. Available for six weeks out of the year. Exceptional, awesome fruit, but you gotta eat it when it's ripe."
DRAGONFRUIT: "Without question, the most attractive looking fruit. The plant, by design, makes the fruit look attractive. We are attracted to bright colors. It doesn't have a lot of taste, though. I like to buy it just to look at it."
Plus many more species you won't find at Trader Joe's. It's a market issue, supply and demand at its most basic. Arnstein points to a fruit that is sold in Chinatown and, perhaps, only Chinatown. "There's not a big industry in the starfruit business," he says, which is ironic seeing as he eats enough fruit to nearly singlehandedly create an industry himself.
THEN THERE'S DURIAN. THE "King of Fruit"—which grows on trees in some southeast Asian countries, is frozen, and shipped to the Untied States—looks like something out a Guillermo del Toro film: its shell covered in dramatic, imposing spikes. The flesh, boasting an absurd 30-percent fat content, sits hidden in pods under the surface, and its unavoidable odor emanates through the skin. "Most people consider the smell either offensive or heavenly. People love durian or they want to die," Arnstein says. "If you try a good one the first time, most people are hooked on it."
Arnstein spends 10 minutes picking through the thawing specimens in an attempt to find a "good one." He consults the vendor, who is helpful because he'd like for us to purchase one of the $2.50-per-pound objects, not because he cares whether we achieve our goal or not. Arnstein, reluctantly, settles on a five-pound specimen that looks acceptable, but you never know until you open it. He does; we eat.
It's disappointing, a "five out of 10, a two out of 10 on the consistency of the flesh." Arnstein asks whether the vendor, eyeing us strangely as we consume the just-purchased durian at his stand, gets any from Malaysia. Those are the best, it seems, a fact I take on face value. They come on Monday and cost $7.50 per pound, which brings up another issue with the fruitarian lifestyle. Namely: "You gotta be rich to eat this way. Who's going to come down here and spend $50 a day on really high-quality fruit?" Arnstein asks this to no one in particular a few minutes after pointing out another type of fruit that runs $6 for two. The cost is one of the factors that drove Arnstein from Chinatown to the wholesaler in Queens. It can add up quickly, especially in the winter when prices rise.
When I wonder about protein, as in where, exactly, does a fruitarian get it, Arnstein has a prepared, passionate, complex response to the "number-one question people ask." The simplified version is that protein consists of amino acids, which are found in fruit and vegetables. To get nutrients from protein, our bodies need to break it down into amino acids, then build it back up again. Eating fruit skips that digestive step. Studies show that people with diets that are high in fruit produce less stomach acid.
Fruitarianism is a growing trend, says Arnstein, who has seen it first-hand. "In five years, fruitarianism is going to be the new vegan. I'm fanatical about it because the shit works," he says. "It's incredible. It changes everything, man. Your shit doesn't stink, literally. Your thought processes. Your moods. Your body odor. Everything. I think it's going to grow. I really do."
BY NOW, WE'VE MOVED across the street to another vendor. This one, Arnstein says, is cheaper because it's further from Bowery. Location, location, location applies to unusual diets as well, apparently. We poke around, examining fruit that might be a little beaten up but tastes better than your average supermarket fare. In this world, appearance can be deceiving. We cross the street and keep talking about fruit.
After a few minutes, Arnstein looks at the stand we left. I look, too. The oranges, mega apples, starfruit, and mangos look back. It's a peaceful moment in the chaos of Chinatown. "This is health food," he says, partially to me, partially to anyone else who might be listening. It's unnecessary evangelism. Arnstein is a living, breathing, running example that fruitarianism works.
Then, the runner has to go. He is shivering, freezing because his eating and exercise habits leave almost no fat on his body. "That's a problem with this diet," he offers, as if this isn't a problem most people would love to have. Arnstein shakes my hand, steals one final glance toward the stand, smiles, then turns and jogs up Forsyth Street.
I stay. There is still fruit to buy.
Noah Davis (@noahedavis) is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.