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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.