I’m working with a fever today because there are no sick days in journalism, which started a discussion in the office about whether you’re supposed to feed a fever or starve it. “It seems weird you’d be told not to eat to treat any illness,” one member of our staff said, which reminded me of Steve Hendricks’s seminal March 2012 Harper’s cover story “Starving Your Way to Vigor.” In it (only available to magazine subscribers, which all of you should be), he argues that the dangers of fasting have been overblown by the medical community and its benefits undersold: that fasting is useful in treating many illnesses, but that it’s an existential threat to a healthcare system driven by drug sales and medical bills—it requires not only that you buy nothing, but also that you literally do nothing. “A consumerist pattern was emerging: starvation, a remedy that cost nothing—indeed, cost less than nothing, since the starver stopped purchasing food—was abandoned whenever a costly cure was developed,” Hendricks writes. But renewed interest in fasting has led to studies that show it to be remarkably effective, for example, in combating the pernicious side effects of chemotherapy and in reducing seizures in patients with severe epilepsy.
I’m sympathetic to the idea of not eating. I received a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes when I was 26, meaning my body could no longer metabolize food without injections of a synthetic hormone. I have to stick myself with a needle three or four times a day—every time I eat and then before bed—if I want to ingest food. Eating starts to feel like an unwanted addiction, food a villain in your daily routine. What if this whole three-meals-a-day thing, I began to wonder, were a trick played on us by our brains, wired to seek out nourishment desperately every few hours, developed through millennia of evolution and a food scarcity that’s no longer relevant to financially secure 21st-century Americans? After all, eating has negative health effects even on those without chronic ailments; it’s specifically responsible for obesity. (And Hendricks reports that some studies have shown that, in some lower mammals, fasting can slow or prevent cancer.)
The benefits of fasting don’t even require weeks-long abnegation. A 1982 experiment by the National Institute for Aging found that mice that fasted every other day from weaning to death lived 83 percent longer. “In the 78 years of the typical American life, 83 percent comes to 65 years,” Hendricks writes. “The rats had lived, in effect, 143 years.” (However, mice that began fasting in middle age showed no gains. The reasons are unclear.) In fact, just eating less can provide health benefits. “Since the 1930s, scientists have known that lab animals on high-nutrition, restricted-calorie diets live longer lives,” according to PBS, possibly because “eating too much damages the cells and causes them to become old before their time.” The same applies to humans, CBS reported: those with lower body temperatures, lower insulin levels, and steady levels of a certain steroid hormone live longer.
All of this has helped fasting to become the latest trend diet, the Daily News reports. The 5:2 diet has you restrict your calorie-intake to 500-600 a day twice a week while otherwise eating as you would. The 4:3 diet has you fasting every other day. Proponents of both say they help you lose weight, as well as reduce appetite. I can testify to the latter: I long ago stopped eating breakfast, despite the arguments of the “most important meal of the day” crowd, and I never find myself hungry for breakfast. I don’t break my fast until late in the afternoon, followed a few hours later by dinner that’s usually more a result of conditioning than an actual need for food. (I’ve tried to eat like someone observing Ramadan—one large-ish meal a day in the evening—but I’ve found it leaves me sluggish. Better to eat midday, at least for me!)
It can be dangerous to abstain from eating and shouldn’t be entered into lightly; anyone really interested in pursuing it should do serious research and, if possible, speak to a sympathetic professional. But for a country as inactive and overfed as our own, the takeaway should be that we eat way more than we need to, not because we have to in order to survive, but because we’ve trained ourselves to believe it to be so. If you stop eating so much, you’ll realize you never needed to in the first place.
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