Eat, fast and have eternal life…?

This coming Thursday (Aug 9th) is the ‘Vigil of St Laurence’ and as such is traditionally a “fast day”, as are most vigils (of apostles, solemnities etc). Regrettably fasting has become something of a neglected practice by most Christians and sadly most contemporary Catholics the practice of whose faith is traditionally closely connected with this occasional observance. However, scientific evidence seems to suggest that there is a benefit not just for one’s soul ref fasting…

Obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes are on an alarming increase in our contemporary society of fast living, junk and processed foods. An Horizon (BBC TV) investigator, Michael Mosley, last night presented a programme “Eat, fast and live longer” that extolled the virtue of a practice which has long been a part of Catholic tradition; fasting.

Mr Mosley has uncovered a growing body of scientific evidence that intermittent i.e. occasional fasting, whilst not staving off hunger almost certainly staves off the effects of aging – both physically and mentally. It would seem that a certain growth gene called IGF-1 is responsible for the increased risk and development particularly of diabetes and cancer in the ageing process. A few hundred people in the world have a natural mutation called “Laron Syndrome.” Very low levels of IGF-1 in their bodies means they are short, but it also seems to protect them against two common age-related diseases, cancer and diabetes.

Aside from anecdotal evidence of humans, scientific experiments and observations of animals seem to conclude that lower levels of IGF-1 may indeed prevent the acceleration of the ageing process and subsequent diseases. It is suggested that a low protein diet, combined with intermittent periods of fasting, lower IGF-1 levels and thus increase life expectancy. A mouse at the University of South Carolina, seems to enjoy a 40% increased life expectancy through experiments based on the theory that periods of famine alter the body from “growth mode” to “repair mode”. The evidence shows the development of new brain cells, restorative growth as opposed to decline.

Scientific observations of a fasting diet by the University of Illinois at Chicago seem to suggest lower developments in the risk of cardiovascular disease. Mr Mosley attempted a self-experiment, “I decided I couldn’t manage ADF [Alternate Day Fasting], it was just too impractical. Instead I did an easier version, the so-called 5:2 diet. As the name implies you eat normally 5 days a week, then two days a week you eat 500 calories if you are a woman, or 600 calories, if you are a man.”

Fasting was an expected discipline in both the Old and New Testament eras. For example, Moses fasted at least two recorded forty-day periods. Jesus fasted 40 days and reminded His followers to fast, “when you fast,” not if you fast! The purpose of fasting is as an aid to prayer and the remembrance of God’s provision for us. Such dieting has been a part of traditional Catholic life for centuries. I am sure many of us are aware of the custom during Lent of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays (our Orthodox brethren go even further). Certainly the longevity of some confessor Saints seems to suggest a correlation as well as the longer life expectancy say of monks in the medieval period compared with the average life expectancy for those outside the cloister.

Also telling was what Mr Mosley related about eating on his fast days; “I found that I could get through my fast days best if I had a light breakfast (scrambled eggs, thin slice of ham, lots of black tea, adding up to about 300 calories), lots of water and herbal tea during the day, then a light dinner (grilled fish with lots of vegetables) at night.” Minus the ham and the dairy products, this pretty well describes most traditional Catholics methods of fasting on Fridays!

“I stuck to this diet for 5 weeks, during which time I lost nearly a stone and my blood markers, like IGF-1, glucose and cholesterol, improved. If I can sustain that, it will greatly reduce my risk of contracting age-related diseases like cancer and diabetes.”

Conclusion? That a traditional Catholic lifestyle, that is, “all things in moderation” generally (e.g. low protein diet, balanced vegetable intake) and observing the periodic rules of fasting (intermittently) will not only bring improved health benefits but also longer and more productive life expectancy! Thus, if we think to “eat, fast and live longer” we might think to “eat, fast and have eternal life”… dual benefits!

Nota Bene: Current medical opinion is that the benefits of fasting are unproven and until there are more human studies it’s better to eat at least 2000 calories a day. If you really want to fast then you should do it in a proper clinic or under medical supervision, because there are many people, such as pregnant women or diabetics on medication, for whom it could be dangerous.

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