Why You Shouldn’t Fear Fasting

‘Instead of using medicine, better fast today.’

– Plutarch

I love food, and I love eating. I am a food professional, and cooking earned me a living. Well brought up, I never turned down the offer of food. Loving a challenge, I never surrendered when faced with a prodigious plate. I never refused chocolates, pastries, and other sweet treats when they tempted in a cafe or supermarket. Over time, I grew large, and then I became diabetic. The shock of the latter still resonates in my life, though I have reversed the disease. I did it with the advice of Dr. Jason Fung. If you are in a similar situation, I suggest two of his books, The Diabetes Code and The Guide to Fasting. Thanks in large part to him, I am thin again, and my blood glucose is healthy. 

There were two parts to Dr. Fung’s advice. The first was to stop putting sugar in my body, which meant a low carb diet, for starches convert to sugar. That meant bidding farewell to a very long list that included cakes, cookies, candy, pizza, potatoes, corn, rice, pasta, sugar, wheat, honey, and most fruit. The second part was to get the sugar out of my body, and that required fasting. Although the idea of giving up many of my favourite foods depressed me, it was the second part that worried me. I had never fasted, and the thought of doing without food, the love of my life (don’t tell my wife), scared me silly. Fasting seemed alien and impossible. Could I do it? 

Books at Trinity Library

Even a cursory study shows fasting is an ancient practice, and it is a part of most religions. If it were harmful, surely we would have heard by now.

I am writing these words on Friday. This particular Friday is the Friday before Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, the holiest day of the year for the Jewish faith. Observant Jews spend the day fasting and in prayer, repenting and atoning, and their 24 hour fast, from sundown to sundown, is strict – no food or water. As a child growing up in New York, my fasting friends amazed me with their fortitude. Half Irish/half German people like myself had no such fasting tradition, and we weren’t able for it, or so I thought.

In Hebrew, Friday is יוׄם שִׁשִּׁי which means ‘the sixth day,’ or the last day before the Sabbath. The English word ‘Friday’ comes from ‘Frigga’ or ‘Freya’ – the Germanic/Norse goddess of married love. Christians traditionally fasted on Friday, a practice still observed by some (my wife’s devout mother fasted from Thursday evening to Saturday morning each week – a 36 hour fast). Fasting on Friday is also half-remembered by other Christians who eat only fish.

King Henry VIII, known for his appetites and his girth, brought in the Reformation so he could divorce. A secondary benefit for the king was the ability to eat anything (and as much as he wanted) on Fridays, for Martin Luther wasn’t keen on fasting:

‘…with this fasting we serve the pope and the papists— and the fishermen.’

Martin Luther, Candlemas Sermon on Luke 2:33-40

An Irish (and German) Tradition

Here in Ireland, ‘Friday’ is ‘Dé hAoine,’ pronounced ‘day heena.’ Growing up in New York, I didn’t know that ‘Dé hAoine’ means ‘the fast.’ That’s not all. ‘Dé Céadaoin’ (Wednesday) means ‘the day of the first fast’ and ‘Déardaoin’ (Thursday) means ‘the day between the fasts.’ As far as I know, Ireland has the only days of the week that reference fasting. So much for Irish people having no fasting tradition. I find the two days of fasting per week interesting, especially now that Dr. Michael Mosely’s 5:2 diet has become popular.

Ancient Irish Scales
Ancient Irish Scales

Germans were more severe – they had a tradition of fasting for 40 days before Christmas that eventually shrank and became Advent. ‘Martinstag’ or ‘St. Martin’s Day,’ in honour of St. Martin of Tours, preceded the Christmas fast. The saint was a Roman soldier who cut his cloak to share with a beggar in a snowstorm. He may have also liked goose, for Germans stuffed themselves with that fowl before the privations began. In case you are wondering, the fast at Christmas was in addition to the 40 days fasting during Lent. So much for the German people having no fasting tradition!  

Wisdom in a Widely Practiced Tradition

Across the world, fasting is more usual than unusual. Observant Coptic Christians fast for 200 days of the year. Muslims fast during Ramadan for daylight hours, and fasting is one of the five pillars of the faith. Buddhist monks abstain from food before daybreak and after lunch, which makes them an early adopter of intermittent fasting. Hinduism has regular fasting periods for various festivals and lunar phases.

I found fasting difficult to start and eased into it, simply not eating between supper and a late breakfast. Knowing that more than a billion Muslims can manage Ramadan, that Jews get through Yom Kippur each year, that some Christians still fast for up to 200 days of the year, and that Buddhists manage intermittent fasting just fine made my little struggles seem insignificant. I was also well aware that most of the struggle was mental. After I managed a fourteen hour fast, a fourteen hour fast soon didn’t seem so difficult. The same was true when I stretched it to sixteen.

Eventually, emboldened, I fasted for a full day (supper to supper the next day). 24 hours is a magic number, for it takes 24 hours for insulin to drain completely from the body, and insulin is the hormone responsible for fat. With insulin low, the body can use the sugar stored in the cells, and it starts burning fat. Sure enough, my excess weight melted away, and my next blood test confirmed my diabetes was in full remission.

Since I started fasting, I feel more clear headed, and I sleep better. I have saved quite a bit of time and money from all the meals I didn’t eat. My cravings no longer dictate my behaviour. In fact, it’s a relief to feel that now I can choose when to eat and when to skip a meal or two. It’s liberating. Best of all, fasting has reawakened my senses. Smells are more powerful, and food tastes so much better that sometimes I stop and marvel. As a foodie, I’ll say ‘Amen’ to that.

Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast.”

― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Disclaimers: 1. I am a patient, not a doctor or medical professional, and I do not write medical advice. 2. Anyone with health issues, and all those on medication, should consult their doctors before embarking on a fasting regime. 3. Eating disorders are serious illnesses that require medical supervision, and I didn’t write this for those suffering the same. 4. Many people are going hungry around the world, especially at the moment, and there is nothing acceptable societally about involuntary fasting. I’m writing about voluntary fasting. 

Join our Facebook support group here