“A little starvation can really do more for the average sick man than can the best medicines and the best doctors.”
Last month saw possibly as much as a fifth of the world’s population embark upon a period of fasting during daylight hours in celebration of Ramadan. Islam isn’t the only religion to embrace such abstinence, many Buddhist nuns and monks don’t eat after midday, while Christians, Jews and Hindus also observe regular periods of restraint.
Not simply for spiritual purposes, some of history’s greatest minds have long promoted the healing properties of the practice. Both Hippocrates and Pluto fasted, while Mark Twain once noted: “A little starvation can really do more for the average sick man than can the best medicines and the best doctors.” If those three thinkers aren’t convincing enough, Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez both swear by it, too.
Last year I spent a month at an ashram in Nepal where the yogini matriarch observed weekly fasts; and a couple of months ago interviewed celebrated explorer Sarah Marquis who also believes in its power. Sarah was nominated as a National Geographic Explorer of the Year in 2014 for her three-year, six country trek. “Before I left for the walk, my doctor checked my blood numbers and when I returned, some of them had gone up, including my iron levels,” she said. “This is incredible, especially as I’m a woman and don’t eat meat. I lost 5kg in the first month, but then my body adapted. Our bodies of course have many requirements, but fasting is also important too.”
There’s an ever-growing body of scientific research to suggest fasting does yield health benefits, and it’s being adopted by evermore health conscious populations. One of the most popular recent trends is the 5:2 diet which encourages participants to eat as they please for five consecutive days of the week — but still adhere to recommended daily calorie intakes — while near starving themselves for the other two by consuming around a quarter of those calories. Among its proponents’ claims is that fasting increases life spans, reduces risks of heart disease, stroke and cancer, and improves cholesterol levels and blood sugar control as well. “More evidence is coming to light regarding the benefits of this type of diet,” writes nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens for the BBC, “although there is clearly a need for longer term human-based studies.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by dietitian Sioned Quirke who runs weight management clinics in the UK. Quirke admits to the Guardian that while there aren’t enough “good-quality, high-participant” studies to encourage her to actively promote the 5:2 diet to her clients, it is the only one that she doesn’t discourage.
Major studies so far, are, excuse the pun, relatively thin on the ground. But what is worth bearing in mind is that unlike most studies which are often funded by organisations likely to make financial gains from the results, no one stands to profit from the promotion of fasting. Among the most commonly cited research comes from the lab of Dr Valter Longo of the Longevity Institute of the University of South California which backs up many of the above health claims, while implying fasting may also boost the immune system (though another study, by the University of Bath, concluded fasting may actually help obliterate it).
Earlier this year, JAMA Internal Medicine published the results of a two-year long study of 218 healthy people who were advised to either cut their usual calorie intake by a quarter, or continue eating as normal. On average, not only did those who fasted lose a tenth of their body weight, but also reported reduced levels of depression and an increase in sleep quality and sex drive. The lead study author, Cory Martin of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, told Time that once participants rode the initial hunger pangs and began to lose weight, cravings subsided and they generally just “felt better”. Follow-ups showed that some stuck to the diet following the end of the experiment, while others put the weight back on. Martin points out the difficulty in adhering to “these diets in today’s society” where it is so “easy to overconsume calories”.
While the scientific and nutritional communities may not yet all agree on whether fasting really is the way forward, what they do agree on is that anyone considering embarking on such a diet should first seek medical advice — particularly those pregnant or suffering from conditions such as diabetes.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces