The quick answer:  Though we eat for health, fasting helps.


I must start with an apology.  Our blog schedule calls for a Healthy Change post each Monday, and a follow-up post on Thursday.  We do that most of the time but September is a little complicated, so thank you for your patience. 

Modern Medicine

We were in Washington DC this past weekend.  My seat companion on the flight back was a young woman from Lebanon with a charming French accent, just out of med school and starting a residency in internal medicine.  “Aha,” I thought, “a perfect victim for a nutrition discussion—a stomach doctor who grew up eating traditional food.”  Not so much it turned out; she’s a city girl (Beirut) who eats the modern diet, plus the demands of a doctor’s education leave zero time for cooking nutritious food.  Bottom line:  Doctors not only lack serious nutrition training, there’s not even time to practice it.

We talked briefly about the business of medicine.  The big money is made doing procedures like cardiac angiograms, by-pass surgery, prostate butchery, joint replacements, or even breast implants.  Doctors who only see patients must work hard to support their practice, seeing 30 or more each day. The quickest way to get a patient out of the office so the doctor can move on to the next: write a prescription. 

Economic pressures have shaped modern medicine; it’s a consequence of our free market society.  Drug companies now spend billions marketing drugs—especially the ones you take the rest of your life—directly to the public.  How many times have you heard this advice in a TV ad: “Ask your doctor if ____________ is right for you.”  There ought to be a law against it.

Which leads to this thought: Much has been learned and then forgotten in the history of medicine.  Some things are best forgotten but others are worthy of remembrance.  Barbers no longer offer bloodletting but the modern practice of donating blood is beneficial to the donor as well as the recipient.   Here’s another practice that’s not only beneficial but practically free:  fasting. 


In the way that the Harvard School of Public Health dominates the study of nutrition (without really leading), the New York Times has staked out a claim on reporting nutrition.  I confess to having issues with the NYT but on this subject, they're the best.  Last April, Tara Parker-Pope wrote a provocative article “Regular Fasting May Boost Heart Health”.  She cited a recent study showing people who fasted regularly (monthly) had a 58% lower risk of heart disease.  No drug currently marketed has such impact! 

A second study by the same people asked 30 patients to make a food fast (water allowed) for 24 hours and researchers followed various metabolic markers.  Benefits included a 20x surge in men (13x in women) of the human growth hormone (HGH), which protects muscle tissue during fasting by triggering burning of fat stores.  This subject deserves more study, but fasting appears beneficial to health.

What is it with the Mormons?

The people in the above studies live in Utah and are Mormon—Mormons fast for 24 hours, typically two meals, each month and give the money saved to the poor.  Have you noticed how Mormons are in the news right now?  Two of the leading Republican presidential candidates are Mormon.  Most every TV reality show includes a Mormon, even though the LDS are just 3% of the US population.  There’s a TV show, Big Love, about polygamy (though real Mormons haven’t practiced this for over a century, it still fascinates).  A hot Broadway play titled Book of Mormon follows two young missionaries in Africa.  Mormons are like the Amish: their unique life fascinates people but there’s also a certain stepping away by some.  According to a recent poll, 1/3 of Americans hold a negative view of Mormons.  Perhaps we’re just too different.

Though the scriptures that guide this blog are mainly biblical, they also include the Word of Wisdom, a Mormon scripture.  This blog isn’t written for Mormons, who're good at avoiding tobacco and alcohol but do poorly at following the prescriptions of their Word of Wisdom.  It’s for anyone and everyone who wants to improve their health and replace the modern diet with a healthier diet—one derived from the sum of science, food tradition, and scriptural wisdom.  Frankly, to my best knowledge, if you believe this to be a wise approach, this is the only blog available.

Here’s the good part: if you’re not Mormon, you can get all their diet and lifestyle wisdom without going to all those meetings and paying tithing.  And you don’t have to do one of those missions, though I must acknowledge that my years tromping about Central America were both the hardest and most transformational period of my youth. 

Therapeutic Fasting

On my recent plane trip I reread the book, Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program for Conquering Disease, by Dr. Joel Fuhrman with foreword by Dr. Neal D. Barnard, president of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine.  Here are a few points:

  • Fuhrman provides research that fasting combined with a plant-based natural diet is more protective of certain chronic diseases than current practices.
  • Therapeutic fasting might last from 1-3 weeks, must be done under the supervision of a doctor, requires adequate water, and is stopped before stored nutrients and vitamins are exhausted, which signals the beginning of starvation.  Fasting isn’t starving; it’s a rest for the G.I. tract but also for the immune system.
  • The chronic diseases Fuhrman and others treat with fasting and whole diets include overweight and diabetes; vascular disease, including heart disease; autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis; and many others.  In Fuhrman’s view, it’s foolish to suffer from these diseases and not discuss fasting with a qualified doctor.
  • The natural diet Fuhrman advocates (when not fasting) is similar to the diet of our Healthy Changes, except he’s even more restrictive of meat and dairy.
  • Fuhrman reminds how during the World Wars, protracted scarcity of sugar, meat and natural fats forced people to eat more plant foods and there was a drop in mortality from natural causes in the most affected countries, in stark contrast to the mayhem of war raging about them.

Healthy Change

After I read Dr. Fuhrman’s book the first time I went on a three-day water-only fast.  Three days is the longest time Fuhrman suggests fasting without medical supervision and he reminds of the importance of drinking water while fasting.  Here are three things I learned from my fast:

  1. It’s true what they say, that your hunger diminishes as the fast progresses.  I also thought it was easier to fast if you had been eating a healthy diet (remembering past fasts).
  2. Much of our eating, especially snacking, is done out of boredom rather than hunger.  I kept wandering into the kitchen looking for a snack and realized that I was actually looking for a break, for variety. 
  3. There’s a mental benefit to fasting—you’re less distracted by petty issues and see the big picture more clearly.   Fuhrman says people giving up addictions, like smoking, do it more easily if fasting is included.

One other thing—after a fast, good food is more appealing and junk food more repulsive.  As noted, the LDS fast together as preparation for the first Sunday of each month, giving the money saved from the meals skipped to a fund for the poor.  It’s a temporal practice but with a spiritual purpose, and the guidance for this Healthy Change:

Please comment
on your experience with fasting, and the benefits thereof.

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    If one properly follows the rules of fasting and eating after this, then he or she will never be getting sick even with the small diseases. And with this thing one can also forget about the specialist advice. But the major thing is following them properly and you can live long. ...
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Reader Comments (16)

Thank you for the great information in this post! It is in my patriarchal blessing that I should follow the Word of Wisdom, which made me think more about my diet than drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and hot drinks. That is why I have been on a quest to change my diet. This blog has been a God-send. In the last week of August as I was praying for guidance (and strength to stick with it) in my journey to health, I felt the impression that fasting was important. Of course, I am Mormon, but I haven't fasted monthly in a long time due to pregnancy and breastfeeding. Now that I am done with that, it has been hard to remember to do so each month. This month I remembered before I ate! I found it difficult, but definitely could tell it was mostly boredom that was making me want food. I didn't feel all that hungry as the day went on. I made a goal to fast regularly (and not forget) and maybe even fast a little more often. It is good to see some science to back up what I felt I should do!

September 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Any thoughts on juice fasting? I've been reading up on how to get my skin clear naturally and that was recommended (with a short water fast afterwards). I don't have a juicer and wasn't sure about attempting a water fast. Very timely article though for what I've been researching lately!

September 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Hi Skip,

This isn't the right place to post this, but I saw a write up on these mini-nutrition videos and thought you might be interested in looking it over for a future post: http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/whats-the-story-of-your-food-155851

As for fasting, I've never done it more than 24 hours and all I could think about was eating!! But, I certainly didn't starve either. I'll have to try to open my mind to the idea, I suppose . . .

September 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Fisher

I read somewhere that fasting resets the metabolism. I believe it, especially with having had thyroid problems, I am grateful for the chance to give my gut a jumpstart. It seems to curb my appetite for the next few days after too.
It's amazing how much more time you have when you're not preparing or eating food. I also like the mental focus I get from fasting.

Hey, I spent last week in Laguna Beach. What a great place to enjoy the benefits of fresh air, sunshine, and water! The beach is definitely a healing place.

September 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

Your blog, as well as this post in particular, is inspired. I have within the last 6 months or so, really tried to focus on the Word of Wisdom as revealed in scripture, and I absolutely love the things God has placed in my path to help me understand it better. There are so many more do's than dont's that have been given to us- and if we allow these things into our lives, we will be able to be stoic, and epicurean.
Thank you again for sharing.

September 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Carter

I love your blog! I know there are many who do "cleansing diets" where they don't eat anything but grapefruit for two weeks, or drink only vinegar, or other strange things like that to try and reset themselves and rid themselves of toxins, etc. But fasting is what will do that (I even hear Dr. Oz say so!)--and it doesn't last as long and doesn't taste as bad!

September 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrittany

I really love your blog. It's one of the highlights of my week. I thought it was interesting what you said about your conversation with the young doctor. I work in the Emergency Room as a physician scribe which means that I spend 10 hours a day following an ER doctor around and doing their charts for them. Granted, this is the ER which is like the "fast food" option for health care in many cases, but I've been so surprised to see how the doctors view diet and their own health. Very few doctors take a lunch break. And when they do it's usually 10 minutes tops to swallow whatever they can. They are so busy, running around all day, and generally do not take the time to sit and eat a healthy meal. It's usually a very unhealthy meal, eaten in front of their computer screen while they run through their patients labs. I was talking to one of the physicians the other day about the lifestyle of a doctor and they said that the average US male physician has the life expectancy of 57 years. I find that very sad. I'm grateful for the time I've spent in the ER because I've learned a lot about how I want to live my own life, to prevent many of the diseases that plague our society. It's been a very eye opening experience in many ways to me.

As for fasting, I've heard and read a lot of good things about fasting and I really want to try a full day fast. I'm nervous, but I agree that we need to give our digestive systems a break every once in a while. That's for the great information.

September 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMeg

Meg, thanks for sharing. I hadn't heard about the 57 year longevity for doctors. The people we look to for health guidance are among the worst examples of how to live. Society needs to find people who live well, who walk the talk, and hold them up as examples. Best to you.

September 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Skip, you write a fabulous blog. Thank you for your efforts to improve health in your readers.

We have eaten 'clean' since our nearly six year old joined the eating set. The food choices we wanted for our children became how we ate as well, naturally. We eat a plant-based diet with fresh fish 2-3 times per month; no processed foods - we prepare all breads, crackers, treats with natural sweeteners. The girls have also never had cow's milk (other than in our homemade yogurt), as we opted for fresh goat's milk (delivered to our home in glass bottles at 5 am each day) and now homemade soy and nut milks (we recently relocated countries, though still in East Asia, and the goat milk is not available for delivery here).

On Tuesday evenings, for over three years now, we choose to eat a 'social consciousness dinner' of a bowl of grain and water. We discuss the poor and disenfranchised with a globe on the table and a put five bucks into a can. Later we donate the monies to a local charity the girls help select, or like this evening, take food to distribute to the homeless at the nearby train station.

I mentioned your blog topic to my husband in passing a few moments ago, which spurred a great discussion. He is ready to sign up to fast. He's done fasts in the past, but only for hunger awareness charity events, and now he is ready to further improve his health in this way. I am sure I will get on board, but am a bit nervous for 24 hours sans food....

Thanks for your enlightenment. Truly.

September 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDee Dee

Thanks for this post. The practice of fasting is something that greatly interests me. I am Catholic and our church asks us to fast two times during the year, for Ash Wednesday, and for Good Friday; although, in today's world, where people are accustomed to eating so much food, "fasting" means eating only one meal on each of these days. I decided this year to fast for 24 hours for penance, it drew me away from my selfish "needs" and allowed me to see the bigger picture. I thought about how grateful I am to know that I will reliably have three good meals a day, and the people in our country and abroad who could not depend on that fact. Our ancestors went through periods of feast and famine, so I think our bodies adapted to this fact. The modern diet for the most part allows us to constantly feast, most likely, leaving our bodies confused. I am under a lot of stress right now, which I know would make fasting more difficult, but once things are calmer, it is something I would love to do again.

September 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine

I love the self control that returns when I fast. I feel like I am actually in charge a little bit more, instead of my stomach taking over! I really enjoyed hearing about this book as I have always fasted but never really knew the physical benefits. I thought there must be some but it's neat to have the research backed facts to motivate me further!

September 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJackie

Completely and utterly fascinating!!!
Thank you so much for this article.

September 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertiff

First I want to say how much I love reading your blog. It's so easy to get caught up the craziness of kids and work and forget to eat well. So, it's a weekly reminder to eat well.

I've tried fasting before without much success, but reading the science behind it, makes me want to try it again.

Over the summer the NYT had an article titled "when-fatty-feasts-are-driven-by-automatic-pilot". It's amazing to think that what you eat can take over what you think. I was reminded of this article when reading the comments of fasting. Everyone seems to say they have a clear brain for eating well.

The article specifically talks about eating fatty foods like potato chips In the study they reported that "in rats given fatty foods, the body immediately began to release natural marijuanalike chemicals in the gut that kept them craving more." A typically western response, this discovery has them discussing a diet drug to block the reaction to the brain.

I just find it fascinating that more than your mind is telling you what to eat. So not eating is a reset for the brain.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I really enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing. I was however a little taken back by your statement that "real" mormons haven't practiced polygamy for a long time. I realize that what you meant was that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have not practiced this in some time, but I find the labeling of "real" mormons to be somewhat troublesome. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints we find it within our rights to claim the title of Christians, even though many other Christian denominations would say that we are not "real" Christians since we don't believe in all the same doctrines that they do, have added scriptures, temples and believe in eternal marriage, etc. We share a lot of doctrinal believes, church history and added scripture with those denominations who practice polygamy and I guess I just find it kind of hypocritical to feel the need to claim the name mormon and define who is a "real" mormon and who is not. The name mormon could apply to many different denominations who believe in The Book of Mormon to be another testament of Christ, just as the the term Christian could apply to many different denominations who believe that Christ is their Savior.

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal

Crystal, nice to hear from you. How can I defend my use of the word "real"? I once wrote a book about the founding of Laguna Beach, a town best known as an art colony, called "Zion by the Sea". The history had been lost, but in the beginning, in the 1870s, the town started as a gathering place for another group of "Mormons", the Reorganized LDS Church (RLDS). The Thurstons were the first family to settle and they weren't RLDS; they were from the Cache Valley of Utah and the wife was the daughter of a Mormon apostle, Erastus Snow. So early Laguna had two groups of Mormons, each thinking they were "real".

An infant son of the Thurstons, Joseph S. Thurston, wrote a memoir at the end of his life. He recounted how one Saturday a month all the families would gather for some much needed socializing. A homemade one-string fiddle would be produced and the kids would play while the parents danced. Well, the RLDS didn't believe in dancing so when they came other entertainment was invented. For example, the children would play the game called "post office". You may remember from your childhood that "post office" is a kissing gameā€”if you get a letter it's a signal for a kiss.

At the end of his life Joe Thurston, no doubt with fond memories of his first kisses, could only wonder how "it was never explained to us why kissing was okay but dancing wasn't." This story makes me smile. Perhaps you will too. When two sides of an issue smile, that's progress.

September 23, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Thank you for the posts. Excellent blog. My business partner had, for many years, dealt with acid reflux. He took a well known daily medication to help this condition. The acid reflux was progressing to the point where he was faced with the decision to take an even more powerful medication. His doctor suggested that he try fasting (water only) for 7 days. The objective, according to his doctor, was to reset his digestive system (which may terminate his acid reflux). Long story short: he fasted for 7 days and has not had acid reflux since (2+ years). Interestingly, as each day progressed it became easier for him to refrain from food.

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

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