The history of fasting
Author: Naudia Lou
Since time immemorial, fasting has been as an integral part of human life as eating. This historically natural rhythm of eating and not eating is also known as feasting and famine. Famine is simply the period where no food could be procured. Homo sapiens is a species that hunted and scavenged for food, ate it when it was available, and evolved to efficiently store extra calories as body fat. This body fat was used as a source of energy during periods when no food was found.
In short, our ancient ancestors regularly experienced times of famine and yet survived. Evolutionary pressures ensured that those who survived were not only good at finding food but also good at surviving periods where no food could be found. While many of us live in a world of plenty, we are the descendants of a species that evolved to survive regular periods of famine.
Humanity solves the problem of famine
After humanity discovered how to deal with the problem of food scarcity through farming, animal husbandry, and preservation, famine all but disappeared from high and middle-income countries. Fortunately for many of us today, these times of famine no longer exist. Rather, excessive food and excessive eating are causing the majority of health problems in the world today. In fact, 1.9 billion adults were overweight or obese while 462 million are underweight in 2019, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). For the first time in history, the number of people who are confronted with problems caused by eating too much is outnumbering those who are faced with having not enough to eat.
“Nutrition is the main cause of death and disease in the world,” said leading food health expert Dr. Francesco Branca in a 2019 WHO article.
The benefits of fasting for health
With the overabundance of food available today, many people choose to intentionally abstain from food – this is called fasting. Fasting for health has a multitude of profound benefits both for the body and the mind. Just to name a few: fasting improves blood sugar control, fasting expedites weight loss by increasing metabolism, fasting reduces inflammation and improves brain function. Fasting also activates intensive detoxification processes that do not occur when we eat.
On a cellular level, fasting activates the sirtuins genes that increase longevity and decrease the incidence of carcinogenesis. In 2016, Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research on how fasting actives autophagy. This is a process that slows down the aging process and helps with cell renewal. Just when fasting was looking like a lost art, all these benefits are being rediscovered through inter-related fields of research such as biology, gerontology, psychiatry, and diet and nutrition.
Fasting is practiced in every major religion
While fasting for health is slowly receiving recognition in the scientific community, the benefits of fasting have been long acknowledged and practiced by followers of every major religion. In fact, the practice of some type of fasting is present in every major religion. For example, Lent is a period of 40 days in Christianity where Christians replicate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert by fasting from food and festivities.
Ramadan is the month of fasting, prayer, and reflection, and commemorates Muhammad’s first revelation for the followers of Islam. In Hinduism, Ekadashi is the most commonly observed fast, and is observed twice a month, on the eleventh day of each ascending and descending moon. During Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally observe with a day-long fast and intensive prayer. Similarly, Buddhist monks fast during intensive periods of mediation and those seeking to partake in a shamanic journey with ayahuasca, a Peruvian tradition, are advised to water fast for a period leading up to the ceremony.
Reviving the practice of fasting
Unfortunately, outside of religion, the practice of fasting has all but disappeared in high and middle-income countries. A typical day for many people consists of eating too much, too often, with little or no break in between. There has been widespread adoption of three meals per day, snacks in between meals, and eating a sugary dessert after a large meal. Also, it seems that many people have adopted the belief that keeping blood sugar levels persistently high at all times is a good idea – an idea popularized amongst professional athletes in the 1980s. Sadly, these misguided eating habits are taking a toll on global health. It is of course a fortunate thing that a large portion of humanity is no longer faced with the threat of starvation. People living in high and middle-income countries are also not primarily dying from infectious diseases (i.e. HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and influenza).
Instead, according to the WHO, close to 80 percent of deaths in wealthier countries are due to preventable diseases or the diseases of civilization (i.e., diseases caused by lifestyle aspects such as inactivity, stress, and food choices). This problem is not only confined to wealthier countries. Even in poorer Asian countries where famine still exists, the rate of obesity is increasing at an alarming rate. Overeating has become such a global disaster, that according to historian Yuval Noah Harari, more people are dying from complications due to eating too much than from all warfare across the globe in the year 2020. Taking this into account, perhaps fasting for health would be a viable solution.
Aging does not mean disease
While statistics above do indeed paint a bleak picture for the future health of humanity, they also present an opportunity. To save lives, prevent disease, and reduce unnecessary suffering. I believe that people in many western countries falsely attribute health decline to the inevitable process of aging. While bodies do naturally change over time, the rate at which preventable diseases are occurring can’t only be due to natural aging. I remember a nature documentary that said,
there is no old fox that can’t find food, an old lion that can’t hunt and an old rabbit that can’t run away in nature, and still be alive.
This statement made me really think about how our assumptions are wrong. Old age does not entail increasing suffering and disease and we can do something to stop it. As long as our ancestors were alive, they had to keep moving. To find food, shelter, and safety even as they aged. Perhaps it isn’t the diseases we associate with the inevitability of aging that are killing older people. Rather it is the sedentary lifestyle, stress, and food choices that are causing the disease.
Evidence of this can be found in the so-called Blue Zones. These are regions of the world where an unusually high number of long-lived people are found. The elderly in Blue Zones not only live longer but are at the same time healthy and mobile long into advanced age. While the diets of the people who live in Blue Zones vary, there is a consistency. It is that they don’t consume too many calories, they get plenty of exercise, and live in tight-knit communities. Also they lead low-stress lives. Some people living in Blue Zones, such as the Seventh-day Adventist who live in California, also fast for health regularly.
Fasting for health could be the answer
The key then in reducing mortality in the developed world will be in improving lifestyle choices and eating habits. Change, as they say, may be simple, but it is seldom easy – particularly when it comes to food. Left to our own devices, very few of us would choose to abstain from food. Or patiently and dispassionately wait while our bodies burn through our glucose reserves and eventually switches to burning our own body fat for fuel.
In fact, humanity exists today because, at least in part, we ate everything in sight and our bodies were good at storing extra calories as fat. We are the descendants of opportunistic eaters who are faced with the dilemma of having that opportunity all the time. Constantly available food is problematic when we consider the fact that we don’t only eat because we are hungry. We also eat when we are bored, when we are sad, when we celebrate. Sometimes simply because we are in the presence of other people who are eating.
On top of all this, large food companies are exploiting our senses and primal urges to get us to crave and eat more food. Every wonder why you can’t stop at eating just one potato chip? You don’t suffer for a lack of willpower. That bag of chips was specifically designed to make you want to not stop until you finish it.
My personal experience with fasting for health
Personally, I have found that fasting for health has helped me not only regain control of my health but also of my mental well-being. Fasting and intermittent fasting have allowed me to reset my relationship with food. It has helped me realize that I’m not a slave to my hunger or to my food cravings. In his book Fast This Way, Dave Asprey says:
“…there is a fundamental difference between hunger and craving. Hunger is a biological message that comes from your body and it is something that you can control. A craving is a psychological need and it is something that tries to control you.”
I completely agree with Asprey. At the same time, I realized that fasting has helped me gain control over my health. It allows my willpower to prevail over my food cravings. There are so many types of fasting available today, it seems plausible that everyone who is looking to fasting for health can find one. That being said, if you want to explore fasting, consider educating yourself first. And speak to your doctor before you start any fasting protocol.
About the author:
My name is Naudia Lou and I’m a neuroscientist turned content creator, blogger, and yoga teacher. I love exploring the topics of health, nutrition, training, and psychology. I’m an avid rock climber, freediver, and traveler in my pastime so expect occasional forays into those topics too!