Lori Anderson: Taking the fast track to a healthier lifestyle
Faith and science are now interwoven in the latest popular fad that may benefit us all, says Lori Anderson
After thousands of years of being the sole preserve of the devout ascetic, fasting is suddenly fashionable. Not since Jesus gave his sermon on the mount has a message called together so many disparate people, everyone from Gransnet.com to students.com to RippedBody.jp are now clamouring to hear the Good News on how to eat less and live longer.
Dr Michael Moseley, the GP and BBC presenter is the new meal-skipping Messiah. A few weeks ago he presented the BBC Horizon documentary Eat, Fast and Live Longer in which he studied the medical benefits of intermittent fasting. This involves an individual picking two days each week to cut their food intake to 500 calories (for women) or 600 calories (for men), taken either as a single meal or divided out during the course of the day. After studying the evidence and partaking for six weeks of the 5:2 Diet, as it is now known, Moseley declared: “This is the beginning of something that I think could be huge. This could be genuinely revolutionary.”
Later this month Dr Krista Varady, at the University of Illinois in Chicago will publish the results of a trial on the health benefits of intermittent fasting, her experiment, has now become this season’s “must do”. What separates this diet from the interminable array of diets clogging up bookshelves in stores around the world which focus primarily on appearance, is that this diet focuses on the premise that it is what is inside a person that really counts.
Scientists have known for many years that when mice are placed on a restricted calorie diet they live longer, with their life span extended by as much as 40 per cent compared to their chubbier neighbours who are never away from the Edam. The question of whether humans would also live longer is now the subject of a battery of experiments with many of the results appearing positive. In America, during the Great Depression when food was scarce the overall longevity did not drop as might have been expected but actually rose by six years.
Why? The key appears to be in the reduction of a growth hormone called IGF-1 which we require when we are growing however high levels as we become older lead to biological ageing, cancers and diabetes.
Fasting, according to scientists, is also exceptionally good for the brain, with some arguing that it is the equivalent of a gym workout for the body. Calorie restriction may delay mental deterioration connected with ageing by stimulating the growth of new brain cells. This is believed to be a throwback to ancient man as if he was hungry he had to use all of his mental resources to figure out a way to source or trap food in order to survive.
Medical science is now in agreement with ancient wisdom that fasting has physical, as well as, a spiritual benefits. For millennia man has deliberately deprived himself of what his predecessors previously fought so hard to secure: food. Fasting has been central to the Jewish faith for over two thousand years with observant Jews going without food or drink for on six separate days each year. Fasting was historically accompanied by acts of charity towards the poor and the sick and was viewed as a means of fostering prayer. King David fasted in a bid to save the life of his sick son (sadly it didn’t work, he died) while Moses fasted for 40 days prior to collecting the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.
Later Jesus said that when a man fasted he should appear happy and not sad, though he himself didn’t appear too chirpy after 40 days and nights in the desert. While fasting has largely faded out among Catholics and Christian faiths, abstaining from chocolate during Lent doesn’t exactly count as a great hardship. It remains a focal point in the Eastern Orthodox church where the faithful are still expected to fast twice a week, on Wednesday and Friday, with fascinating results. While scientists cannot calibrate if practitioners have moved any closer to God they could conclude that since their diets drastically decreased their cholesterol levels and so reduced heart attacks they may have successfully postponed an earlier introduction to their maker.
Siddhartha, the Indian Prince, who achieved enlightenment as the Buddha, also extolled the virtues of fasting after a single midday meal. Earlier in his life he had almost starved himself to death in a bid to achieve spiritual enlightenment before later appreciating the importance of moderation. Please note that the conventional image of the chubby-bellied buddha, who hasn’t passed on a single curry, is actually a Chinese construct.
Yet the faith which has most closely embraced the concept of fasting is Islam, for which it is the fourth of the five pillars that support Mohammed’s teachings. For the entire month of Ramadan, adherents are prohibited from eating or drinking anything between the hours of sunrise (fajr) and sunset (maghrib). Scots Muslims currently have just emerged from the most arduous Ramadan with the light summer nights forcing them to fast for up 18 hours each day. The physiological effects will include lowered blood sugar, cholesterol and systolic blood pressure.
The clear difference between the spiritual fast and its new secular cousin is that the former is designed to make a person more selfless, bring them closer to God and instil in them a closer affinity to the poor and hungry whilst the principle beneficiary of the latter is oneself.
Faith and science can often be strange bedfellows so it is refreshing to see these two threads weave together so harmoniously. As for intermittent fasting, I’m going to start next week.
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