Eating disorder trigger warning: This isn’t about being quick – it’s about not eating. And I don’t mean not eating for part of the day as in a Ramadan fast, or ‘intermittent fasting.’ I mean not eating anything at all for an extended period.
Fasting, has been reported to have many health benefits. It has been touted by people marked down as ‘quacks’ for a long time. Recently people with some pretty serious research behind them such as Dr Valter Longo have been getting in on the act. There appear to be benefits in not only type 2 but also type 1 diabetes, various forms of heart disease and even cancer are being listed. Not to mention the elephant in the room with many of these: obesity.
Dr Longo has developed a thing called the ‘fasting mimicking diet’ but he readily admits that actual fasting is better. The problem is that people are so brainwashed to think that they have to eat that he had to develop a packaged diet. This has the handy side effect that it can be prescribed by a doctor, and of course charged for. No disrespect to Dr Longo: where else is he going to get research funding? If there is no product or pill at the end of it there is little or no funding for it.
There is increasing evidence that periods without eating not not only give our digestive system a chance to rest and re-set, but that some housekeeping functions in our body only kick in during the fasted state, or when transitioning back to feeding after an extended fast.
I don’t, so far as I know, have an issue with heart disease, or diabetes. My BMI is typically 23.5 which puts me in the ‘normal’ range. That’s considerably lower than the average man of my age in my part of the world which is a worrying 28.8 according to the most recent national health surveys for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Even so, having read so much about the benefits I was interested to experiment.
By chance I didn’t make lunch to take with me when I was stewarding at ArtSpring Gallery and I was so busy doing the finances for the month whilst I was there that I ended up skipping it. I was feeling a little congested in the evening and decided I would also skip dinner and have an early night. The next morning I thought that I might fast for the day and see how that went. Then I checked my diary and realised that this was a good opportunity to do a fast of five days.
As it happens I was away on a conference the next three days. Whilst the food at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham is excellent it was really no problem to skip it. I would just make a cup of black tea and sit in the beautiful garden room, reading or watching the autumn colours in the garden.
On Sunday the Birmingham half marathon had closed some streets around Birmingham New Street station and I had to run for a solid five minutes to make my train. On the way back through London I went over to Pink Jukebox at the Bishopsgate Institute and danced for two and a half hours. Clearly plenty of energy was available to do that despite it being day five of fasting.
I had picked up a passing comment in an interview given by Dr Longo that autophagy (The process of the body consuming older cells and unnecessary growths, research into which was the subject of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.) really kicks in after five days and that he recommends seven days if that is the goal. I therefore decided to extend a further two days.
At the end of seven days I was emotionally ready to eat. My body seemed perfectly happy to continue but it seemed unwise to just keep extending the period in an unplanned way. I started with a light breakfast of yoghurt with a few raspberries and nuts sprinkled on the top. The taste was amazing and afterwards I felt as though I had eaten a full Christmas dinner.
A potential pitfall, which can be a serious issue after a long term fast is that running on glucose requires phosphorous in the cells and during a fast this can be depleted. Whilst this is not generally an issue with the length of fast I had done I wanted to give my body a chance to recover phosphorous levels before hitting it with a lot of carbohydrates. Phosphorous is mainly found in meat, dairy and nuts.
I chose to stick with low carbohydrate vegetarian food for a few days and to try to incorporate fermented foods in each meal. My theory being that this would encourage the proliferation of the desirable bacteria in my gut as it started to re-activate. Lunch on the first day was soup and in the evening a green salad with nuts and avocado.
Ketones are molecules produced by the body when breaking down body fat. They are the power source for the body in the absence of glucose. Any excess is excreted in the urine and there are dip tests available to check for their concentration. I tracked this throughout the fasting and re-feeding process and I aimed to delay the return to running on glucose fore a few days whilst my body adjusted to eating again.
What did I consume?
Primarily tap water and tea (either green or black) without milk. Sometimes I would add a dessert spoon of cider vinegar per (UK) pint of water, which gave it a refreshing taste. After suffering cramps in my feet at night I decided to include some salts. I made a 50/50 mix of sea salt and lo-salt (which is mostly potassium chloride) and put about half a teaspoon in water morning and evening.
So am I healed of whatever ailed me? Well nothing much was ailing me. I did have a bit of a problem with post-nasal drip left over from a cold in early summer. My doctor got me to take a steroid nasal spray for a month to reset that and it worked whilst I was using it but it was making a return. During the fast I would have occasional sudden nose runs of clear fluid. Since eating again the constant throat clearing does seem to have cleared up.
The main thing though was to experience at first hand that the human body has systems which enable us to work perfectly well without a continuous source of food. Even someone like me with a ‘normal’ range BMI is carrying resources that will last for weeks. Once these mechanisms kick in it’s like starting up the emergency generator: life goes on as normal.
Fast Response: conclusions
I think that the human body is capable of surviving and thriving on a variety of diets. Even diets which are at apparently opposite ends of the nutritional spectrum can support a healthy human. The natural human diet is likely to have been highly seasonal, with periods of eating mostly plants and other periods of eating some or even mostly animal foodstuffs. The most unnatural foods are the highly processed products which sadly fill most of the shelves in our supermarkets. Particularly refined sugar in both foods and drinks.
Periods without food are also completely natural and it is possible that the body uses these periods to spring clean systems, effect some repairs use up some out-of-date supplies before re-stocking with fresh. I the modern Western world, where for most of us the food supply is unseasonal and continuous, fasting from time to time is probably wise. And it turns out that it really isn’t hard at all. The human body is truly amazing.
PS: I kept some stats during the fast and re-feeding and they will be the subject of a future post.