Mission Remission
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Mission Remission

Losing Weight

Why You Shouldn’t Fear Fasting

What Religion and Tradition Can Teach Us

‘Instead of using medicine, better fast today.’

— Plutarch

I love food, and I love eating. The two are intertwined and have marked some of the best moments of my life. Especially good meals have brought me close to tears. Well executed restaurant dishes abroad live in my memory long after the other details of a trip fade. Tastes and textures stop time and remain vivid for me. The delicate crunch of a Parisian caramelised lace tuile, the refreshing burn of Kachri Ki cucumber relish in Rajasthan, the crust of a perfect New York pizza giving way between my teeth, tuna sashimi in the Tokyo fish market, and juice from a perfectly ripe persimmon running down my chin in Venice. Heaven.

Food and eating made me, for I am a food professional. Cooking earned me a living, and food made me fat, for I never surrendered when faced with a prodigious plate. Well brought up, I never left food behind or turned down the offer of food. In shops, I succumbed to tasty looking chocolates, pastries, and other sweet treats. 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, and for this I am grateful. 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 back in a healthy range.

There were two parts to Dr. Fung’s advice. The first was to stop putting sugar in my body by adopting a low carb diet, for starches convert to sugar. It meant 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?

Even Cursory Study Shows That Billions Have Fasted with No Harm and Probably Much Benefit

Fasting is an ancient practice, and it is a part of most religions. If it was 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 mother fasted from Thursday evening to Saturday morning each week). Fasting on Friday is also half-remembered by other Christians who eat only fish. Few do so in England anymore. 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 it:

‘…our foolish fasting, thought up by men, thinks it is doing something worthwhile if it does not eat meat or eggs, or butter, or milk for several days. It is not at all directed toward the chastisement of the body and of sin, that is, toward serving God; rather 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 prescient, especially now that Dr. Michael Mosely’s 5:2 diet has become popular.

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 Quadragesima Sancti Martini 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 thought fasting was impossible, but my father liked to remind me that ‘can’t’ has the word ‘can’ in it. A variation is that ‘impossible has the word ‘possible’ in it.

Sure, I found it difficult to start and eased into it, simply not eating between supper and a late breakfast. Then, emboldened, I expanded it to a full day. 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. My father was right. It WAS possible. My excess weight melted away, and my blood tests confirmed my diabetes was in full remission.

Best of all, fasting reawakened my senses. It made food taste better and eating more pleasurable. As a food lover, I 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.

Originally published at http://remission.ie on September 25, 2020.

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A publication about health and hope from a patient’s perspective. Submissions welcome.

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K. Fionn M.

K. Fionn M.

Ordinary man. Eater of food. Writer at times. Ireland.

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