A Return to Fasting

A Return to Fasting

America’s Independence Day is July 4th, and Mexico’s is September 16th. I know what you’re thinking. “Isn’t it Cinco de Mayo?” The fifth of May celebrates the Mexican Army’s victory over the French during the Battle of the Puebla; it’s not their Independence Day. Don’t worry, you can still party in May, but now you know the reason for the season. Between America’s Independence Day and Mexico’s, nuzzles India’s—August 15th. Once under the British Empire, India’s sovereignty was made official in 1947, largely due to the efforts of a humble and noble man: Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi inspired the immortal Martin Luther King, Jr. with his insistence on non-violence as a means of civil disobedience. Both are memorialized in Washington DC, barely two miles apart. After seeing the protests of today, you’d think that neither of these men ever existed.

Dr. King guided a group of protesters from Selma to Montgomery, under the protection of the National Guard, to do what citizens have the right to do—vote. They chanted “How long? Not long!” and Dr. King sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”—a masterful, beautiful, and patriotic song. On the other side of the world and decades earlier, Gandhi was fighting a battle of his own. His weapon of choice: the hunger strike. Gandhi held seventeen hunger strikes between 1913 and 1948, one of which lasted 21 days. The British press sought to suppress his efforts, refusing to show his emaciated body. Eventually, the censorship ceased, he conquered the hearts of the British people, and India won its freedom.

I don’t love social media. I remember when the internet was inchoate, limited to chat rooms and extremely slow downloads. I use social media mostly as an outlet to watch entertaining videos involving cats. The other day I was scrolling through Instagram and came across a post about Intermittent Fasting. It showed two photographs, side-by-side. One, a lean, muscular, and rugged looking fellow. The other, a man with a more relaxed physique, to put it politely. According to the post, the difference between the two men was Intermittent Fasting. The lauded benefits of Intermittent Fasting are numerous—some legitimate and others, absurd. There are 60,000 diet books available on Amazon, 1,000 of them on Intermittent Fasting.

I see nothing wrong with Intermittent Fasting, Intermittent Caloric Restriction, or any other terminology used to describe it. In primitive times, we used to call it “skipping breakfast.” We were lambasted for that, due to the indoctrination that “breakfast was the most important meal of the day.” If anything, Intermittent Fasting has punctured that myth. Fat loss is the most sought-after result of Intermittent Fasting. When researchers compared Intermittent Fasting to Continuous Energy Restriction—normal dieting—they didn’t find anything superior with either. The following was their conclusion after reviewing forty studies on the subject:

“Intermittent fasting thus represents a valid—albeit apparently not superior—option to continuous energy restriction for weight loss.”

Remember, 1,000 books on Amazon. That’s 999 too many, but I’m a free market guy. Intermittent Fasting isn’t the new frontier in fat-loss dieting. For many, it’s an attempt at a shortcut. Some will be audacious enough to use the term “hack” to describe what happens with Intermittent Fasting. Whether talking about computers or biology, hacking is not something to be celebrated. It’s not a hack or a shortcut, and won’t take you to an enchanting fantasyland of six-packs and bikini bodies. However, that doesn’t negate the merits of fasting, altogether.

Fasting has a rich history, spanning the entire globe. Prince Siddhartha—the Buddha—practiced it. Pythagoras—the triangle guy—fasted 40 days—allegedly. A thousand years earlier, in the Book of Leviticus, fasting is commanded on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On that day, Jewish people use fasting to reconcile with God in a deeply spiritual way. The word they use is Teshuva—repentance. I have a firm respect for Jewish tradition and don’t wish to dilute it in this conversation. And since I don’t want to divide my audience with serious theology, I will focus on Teshuva’s literal translation: “return.” But, a return to what?

If you transported someone from 500 BCE or even 1945 and brought them here; they would think they are in Heaven. Look around your office or home. You’re likely living better than any ancient King or Queen. Henry VIII had extravagant feasts, but you can have a greater one at any of the hotels in Las Vegas, for the price of a movie ticket. You can touch a button on your phone, and a total stranger will deliver food directly to you. This is especially strange because we were once told: “never take candy from strangers.” Today, I can essentially order candy from a stranger, giving them directions to my home. You could have Mexican food in the morning, Chinese for lunch, and Italian for dinner. In twelve hours, you would have eaten a cuisine that would have taken someone years of travel by sea to accomplish. I can ask a talking box, from my recliner, to play the symphonies from a man who lived 300 years ago. We’re lucky, so lucky in fact, that we’ve forgotten how lucky we are.

Fasting offers an opportunity to reflect and return to a healthy state of gratitude and reverence for the gifts in our lives. Yom Kippur commands a 24-hour fast. Muslims observing Ramadan fast from dawn until sunset. The newer, fitness-driven fasts last 16 hours. The length of your fast is irrelevant. Fasting is an act of discipline, a respite from physical fuel. It’s abstinence from our immediate gratifications. Fasting should compel us to examine our thoughts, our language, and our behavior, directed towards ourselves and others. What are our hang-ups? What are the things that seem to have control over us, like alcohol, sugar, or anger? Once the fast is broken—regardless of length—how will we conduct ourselves? Do we repeat the same toxic patterns or break our fasts, reborn?

You might be thinking, “I could never fast. I’d be pricklier than a cactus.” I would argue that we can achieve similar outcomes without fasting, completely. It’s called S-L-O-W-I-N-G D-O-W-N. I’ve sat next to people—fitness people—who stuff food in their mouth like Joey Chestnut, the Yokozuna of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest; a legitimate race-against-time, as if they’ve never eaten food before. I’ve witnessed people gunning down the freeway, with a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin in their mouth, trying to apply makeup or shave. This isn’t just a Gastroenterologist’s nightmare, but a sure-fire way of eating more calories and gaining weight. Studies routinely demonstrate reduced satiety—fullness—and increased consumption proportional to the rate of ingestion. I rarely mention studies in my work—so you know this is important.

When talking about consumption, we are not limited to food. In the 21st Century, we gorge on technology, social media, real-and-fake news. The modern age has not come with increased virtue but only advanced the means to destroy ourselves. Last century, the means were obvious: the atomic bomb. Today, it’s obesity and the latest disorder, “selfitis:” selfie addiction. I wish I made this up. You should consider a fast from social media and entertainment technology to coincide with your dietary fast. According to Gandhi, “If physical fasting is not accompanied by mental fasting, it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.”

Fasting is not a get-lean-quick scheme. It is rooted in spirituality and obedience. Our abundant life demands gratitude, thoughtfulness, and peace. Whether you fast for 12, 16 or 24 hours, or chew your food slowly, we are invited to return to a state of mind that allows for each. Don’t waste that opportunity. A proper mental and physical fast should end the way the Prophet Isaiah describes it, “You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” Now that’s a diet I can get behind.