Sunday 9 September 2012

One History Girl's Diet

black coffee is allowed
by Caroline Lawrence

One of the few drawbacks of being a writer is that you lead a sedentary life only a few feet from the refrigerator. This can produce a vicious cycle of procrastination, comfort-eating, weight-gain and self-recrimination. What’s a History Girl to do?

I think I might have found the answer: fasting. 

(Disclaimer: I am a kidslit author, not a doctor. Don’t try anything I suggest below without speaking to a doctor first!)

When I was younger, I used to fast once or twice a month but stopped when doctors said it would ‘slow down your metabolism’. Now the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way, as pendula do!

A few months ago I read an article in Harper’s Magazine called Starving Your Way to Vigor. Steve Hendricks went on a twenty day fast and found that after a few days he lost the desire to eat and could even cook for his family. Two years on, he has kept his weight down and his health good, through short fasts and gentle exercise. 

Starving Your Way to Vigor
Then last month I caught the BBC Horizon documentary called Eat, Fast & Live Longer. In this fascinating documentary, Michael Mosley went in search of a regime which would not only extend his life, but enhance its quality. After trying various methods of cutting calorie intake, he discovered that by fasting for two days out of the week - a method called the 5:2 diet - he could eat what he liked, lose weight and improve his insulin levels. 

This diet appealed to me at once, because I find it easier to totally abstain from something than to do it in moderation. (The ancient Greek maxim Μηδὲν ἄγαν  – nothing to excess – means nothing to me. I do everything to excess.) So I decided to revive my practice of fasting. Essentially, you choose two non-consecutive days to fast or eat very little. 

Throughout history, man has fasted either through necessity (i.e. paucity of food), religious practice or an awareness that fasting is good for health. 

Romans occasionally fasted
For example, in Roman times Celsus advised a fast of one or two days for almost every ailment, especially for those in good health who felt they might be coming down with something. Many people deceive themselves, he writes, by trying to get rid of the symptoms by exercise or a bath or an enema or by drinking wine (!), but abstinence by itself is a remedy without any risk. De Medicina book 3

In the Wild West, piligrims, pioneers and prisoners of the Civil War were often thin to the point of being skeletal. So it must have seemed foolishness to fast. But in 1880 a certain Dr. Henry Tanner amazed the world by hiring a lecture hall in New York and embarking upon a forty day fast to prove it could be done. By the end of his stint he had received thousands of spectators, hundreds of gifts of food, and several offers of marriage. I think that the Dr. Tanners and those others who go forty days without eating do it by resolutely keeping out the desire to eat, in the beginning, and that after a few hours the desire is discouraged and comes no more, wrote Mark Twain. 

The UK in 2012 is one of the few places and times where most of us have none of these factors influencing us. Food is abundant. Only a small percent of us fast for religious reasons, and even then it is rarely for over 24 hours. Until recently, doctors have been telling us not to fast. Meanwhile, obesity and the accompanying health problems are on the rise. In poor countries people die of starvation, in rich countries people die of overeating. 

For my biweekly fast I have a few cups of black coffee or tea and lots of fizzy water and don't eat anything from about 10.00pm until breakfast 36 hours later. I’ve only been doing it for a few weeks, but I’m loving my 5:2 regime. During that time I have noticed at least ten benefits: 

treats allowed on non-fast-days
1. There is gradual weight loss.
2. Fasting discourages absent-minded browsing on eating days.
3. Fasting cultivates self-discipline.
4. It increases my gratitude for food I usually take for granted.
5. Fasting heightens my spiritual awareness.
6. It replicates the primitive hunter-gatherer feast & fast mode of living.
7. It means treats are allowed on non-fast days!
8. More sociable as I no longer give the "I don't eat such-and-such" excuse at dinner parties
9. For me it's easier to have nothing at all rather than just a little. 
10. Not thinking about food allows me to focus completely on the task in hand, i.e. writing!

That is in addition to all the health benefits I should be reaping. When cells are not in growth mode they are in repair mode. Fasting lowers bad cholesterol and IGF1. Fasting can reverse the effects of certain ailments. Recent studies have even shown that fasting one or two days a week might also help protect against brain diseases such as Alzheimer's & Parkinson's. 

If I weren’t just a kidslit author with no authority or expertise, I’d encourage you all to try it, too. As Michael Mosley says, "Fasting is the first thing I have come across that ... could radically transform the nation's health."

Caroline Lawrence has written over 25 history-mystery books for children and is trying to stay fit and healthy so she can write lots more. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

Good luck with this. Maybe you should consider getting a day job, part time at least, which would keep you away from the fridge and let you eat three normal meals a day. A day job in a school would have the added benefit of bringing you into regular contact with your readers.;-)

Ms. said...

This is great!
Thanks for sharing it, and just never mind the naysayers. It's ancient information, and proven without the help (Ha!) of the medical gate keepers. Yogis have known it for centuries. The practice is common and beneficial.

H.M. Castor said...

I admire this hugely, Caroline! If it were me, though, I have a strong suspicion that on those fast days, rather than not thinking about food, I'd think about it ALL the time...

Caroline Lawrence said...

There are techniques for not thinking about food, Harriet!

1. Imagine clicking the X of a pop-up window showing food to "close" it (Visual)
2. Say "I'm not hungry." out loud (Aural)
3. Snap a rubber band around your wrist every time you have a craving or sense hunger (Kinesthetic)

Now you really think I'm crazy, don't you? ;-)

JO said...

It was a fascinating programme - and I'm also giving it a go, though am flexible when I'm away, or need to do something energetic! On a 'fast day' he eats 600 calories a day - which, for me, is a light breakfast and then fish or equivalent for supper, and no wine! But it's interesting how my body is better at telling me when I've eaten enough - making it easy to say no to that extra cake on eating days!

adele said...

This is fascinating but I have one question: are you cooking for your husband? If I were away from home, it might be just possible but I would find it hard to cook supper and provide lunch and so on, without feeling ...well, I don't quite know what I'd be feeling. Might give it a go sometime. But you're is all over the media. Good luck with it. You never look to me as though you need to lose any weight whatsoever! Some of those yogi and gurus are to my mind TOO THIN. And though Mrs Vanderbilt said you could NEVER be too thin, I don't know if I actually agree with that. I think you definitely can...

Caroline Lawrence said...

I admit it's hard to do when you have a husband/family to cook for but it CAN be done. Luckily my husband Richard is the cook and he is tolerant of my foibles!

Also, with my body type I will NEVER be too thin! ;-)

michelle lovric said...

Caroline, you are so enviably svelte - it never occurred to me that you needed to reduce. But the other effects of your regime seem very beneficial.

Nuns who fasted rigorously found that it gave them both insomnia and increased energy, strangely: one 'Holy Annorexic' recorded staying up all night to clean her convent from top to bottom.

Essie Fox said...

I wonder where you live Caroline...because if you find yourself not needing to sleep and in need of a little housework, you are more than welcome to come in and clean my house - like the nun in the convent.

Essie Fox said...

PS i don't think I could manage a total fast, but 600 calories for two days a week doesn't sound too bad at all.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for kind offers of work! ;-)

It's not just about keeping off the extra pounds but about self-discipline and well-being. As Michael Mosley says in the Horizon documentary, "Fasting is about staying healthy as long as we can."

Saviour Pirotta said...

Very interesting post, Caroline. I lost five stones a few years ago by fasting four days a week. I wouldn't recommend a four day fast a week to anyone but it worked for me. I even cured mysel of Type 2 diabetes. After the first day, my mind used to clear and I found writing much easier too.

Anonymous said...

Nice interesting article, one which does more than recycle the info from the Horizon doc.

Just one comment though - there's no reason that the fasting days can't be consecutive; in fact that's what they did in the scientific trials (mainly rats, admittedly).

Personally I split the days because I found it a little harder going doing 2 days in a row, plus I find that I naturally have a decreased appetite the day after a fast day, so spliting the days gives me this benefit twice a week instead of once! Probably worth experimenting to see what works for you though...

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for your comments, Saviour. Fascinating.

Anonymous yes I agree you CAN have the two days together but I find it easier to split them up. Best to experiment to find what suits you best, as you suggest.

Kit Berry said...

My husband and I are both following the 5:2 eat/fast regime and feel so much healthier for it. We're also losing weight steadily and slowly, and are far more aware of what we're eating nowadays. We eat around 500 calories on our fasting days, which works best for us. Thanks for putting the regime into historical context, Caroline!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, Liz! The ascetic in me also likes a bit of not alway letting my bodily appetites be the boss, like the hermits and anchorites of old. I might blog about them soon, too!

Suzie Grogan@keatsbabe said...

I'm going to give this a try! Like you - abstinence is easier than moderation for me and I really respect Michael Mosley. And the Romans...