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Fasting: An Ancient Truth?

As written by Dr David Ashcroft for the Aberfeldy Church Magazine.

I didn’t give up anything for Lent this year, and I guess many others didn’t either, having given up enough already during Lockdown. But in May I was chatting to a colleague who was observing Ramadan, and I asked what the fast signified to him. He replied it was a time for self-discipline, to deny oneself worldly pleasures, but also an opportunity for ‘a reset’: a time to reflect on who we are and what we want to be.

There’s a tradition of fasting in many faiths, from the Jewish Yom Kippur to Jesus’ 40 days and nights. In about 500BCE Confucius said ‘Hari hachi bun me’ meaning: leave the table with ‘Belly 80% full’. They follow this advice on the island of Okinawa in Japan, one of the reasons they have the highest concentration of centenarians in the world.

On the Greek Island of Ikaria the Orthodox Church has up to 200 days of fasting annually; islanders live a long healthy life with very low rates of dementia, eating a Mediterranean diet with little meat. Could the explanation for these long healthy lives be superior genetics? It doesn’t appear so, as generations who emigrate to the USA adopt their new country’s life expectancy.

California’s 7th Day Adventists are surrounded by the same fast-food temptations as other Americans, but still manage to live 10 years longer. They live by Genesis 1:29 “Then God said, I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” Adventists advocate a plant-based whole food diet, with water as their main drink.

It’s taken a while for science to catch up with religious wisdom, but in the 1930’s it was discovered that lab rats on alternate-day feeding live up to 80% longer than their daily-fed friends. So what? Well, we share 95% of our genes with these rodents, and much of our medical knowledge and treatments are thanks to them. A 2019 paper in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine summarized the compelling evidence for the benefits of intermittent fasting on health, aging, and disease.

There is great interest in this research in medical circles now, as improvements in life expectancy have stalled. Our Healthy Life Expectancy has shrunk back in the past few years to a disappointing 69 years. One of the main causes is that 65% of the population is overweight/obese, and that has created a rising tide of Type 2 Diabetes. The truth is that what we eat, and when we eat it, has a massive effect on our metabolism and health.

Residents of Ikaria, Okinawa, and the Californian Adventists are in an exclusive club. They are located in ‘Blue Zones’, areas which are home to some of the oldest and healthiest people in the world. But you’re unlikely to find anyone in these areas dieting or going to the gym. They simply live in an environment where eating mostly vegetables is the norm, and walking is the main mode of transport. They are also places where people have spiritual beliefs and social cohesion.

When we’re young we don’t dwell much on how or when we will die, but in middle-age life suddenly seems short. We might believe that our health is down to luck or fate, and sometimes that is sadly true, but in Scotland most of us will die of cardiovascular disease, cancer, or dementia. The good news is that these can all be ameliorated, delayed, or avoided altogether. And you don’t have to take my word for it – there is extensive research confirming the importance of what we eat and drink, how much we weigh, how active we are, and how connected we are to our communities.

The Adventists believe that good physical and mental health is conducive to spiritual vitality. Many of us are coming out of Lockdown feeling tired and unfit. Maybe you’re at a crossroads in your life and you think it’s time for that ‘reset’, as my Islamic friend put it? Let’s move together as a community by following the Blue Zone example. Perhaps if enough of us take us the challenge we can make this the Healthiest Town in our own little Blue Zone!

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