Our Neolithic ancestors faced a constant battle to survive, but were fortunate in one respect. They weren’t exposed to the perennial temptation of supermarkets, snack bars, take away food outlets and well-stocked household larders, fridges and freezers. They were hunter gatherers. To survive they had to find a fresh supply of food every day by their own physical endeavours. One day they might capture a succulent wild boar and enjoy a surfeit of food. The next they might starve. Modern medical research suggests that this alternate pattern of feasting and fasting may be good for the human condition. Mormons make a practice of fasting for one day every month. This seems to improve their long-term health, according to a recent review of over five hundred elderly patients attending a medical centre at Salk Lake City, Utah, where roughly a quarter of the population are Mormons. The study revealed that subjects who fasted one day a month were thirty-nine per cent more likely to have a healthy heart than those who didn’t fast. The likely reason, the researchers suggested, was that the fast stimulated the production of insulin in the pancreas and so reduced the risk of diabetes which is a common precursor of heart disease.
Some health gurus advocate fasting for its detoxifying effects, claiming that it is ‘the body-cleanser supreme’. According to them the coated tongue and bad breath which often accompany periods of fasting are clear signs that the body is engaged in the process of eliminating waste products. This is a total misconception, for these symptoms arise whenever body fats are broken down, as sometimes happens when diabetics suffer a bout of hypoglycaemia. Most people do indeed feel better when they take a brief fast, not because their bodies are detoxified, but most probably because they derive benefit from the metabolic stimulus that the process provides. Sir Francis Chichester was an inspiration to the world’s golden oldies when he set the world speed record for a solo, round-the world sailing navigation at the remarkable age of sixty-six. To keep himself fit he regularly took a two day fast, during which he slaked his thirst by drinking only apple juice. Every time he did so he felt stronger, happier, and more full of energy. This he records in his book How to Keep Fit, in which he avers, ‘for me fasting is the most beneficial treatment I have ever received.’
Laboratory experiments show that the life span of mice is increased some forty per cent when they’re fed for two days and then starved on the following day. So far there’s no evidence that the same applies to humans, although many gerontologists believe that fasting could well be an aid to human longevity. Whether or not this is true, there’s no doubt that the occasional abstinence from food is an excellent aid to physical wellbeing and weight control. You can’t be fit and fat. Anyone who exceeds their ideal weight by just ten percent is twice as likely to have symptoms of chronic illness, such as tiredness, breathing difficulties and rheumatic aches and pains. If you’re obese, your chances of contracting fatal heart disease are doubled, you’re more likely to have a stroke, and you expose yourself to well over twice the risk of developing diabetes. When men of average build carry twenty pounds of excess flab, they’re forced to use fourteen per cent more energy to heave themselves from place to place. This makes them tired and creates a vicious circle, because the quicker they tire the less exercise they want to take, and the less exercise they take the fatter they become. People claim that they’re sick and tired of being overweight, when what they really mean is that they’re sick and tired through being overweight. Athletes run in the lightest possible footwear because they know that they can make a one per cent energy saving for every three-and-a-half ounces they pare from their shoes. Anyone who is overweight is carrying a load of trouble.
One simple way of tackling this problem is to take a one day fast every month, ideally on a free day when you can concentrate on the task in hand. Calorie restricted dieting doesn’t work for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the body automatically compensates for a reduction in energy intake. Tests show that the base metabolic rate of fasting subjects falls by as much as a fifth. This conserves energy, and means that less needs to be drawn from the fat stores, muscles and other bodily tissues. To compensate, and maximise your health gains, make sure you take plenty of physical exercise on your scheduled fast day. Take care too to drink plenty of water or fruit juices to avoid the risk of dehydration. Follow this regime for one day every month, and by the end of a year you’ll have lost several pounds in excess flab and enjoyed a fitness boost of the sort which helped Sir Francis Chichester gain an honoured place in the Guinness Book of Records.
Warning: This particular practice shouldn’t be adopted without consulting your doctor if you have any doubts about your general health or are suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure or coronary disease.