Food Science Minis: Anxiety Around Eating and Fasting as Medicine

Last year, I read nephrologist Dr. Jason Fung’s The Obesity Code, which was eye-opening for me. It made me realize that something I sometimes did naturally or inadvertently — skipping meals or snacks — was actually a benefiting weight loss. It clicked for me, because in the periods I’d inadvertently fasted — either from being overly busy with work or, unfortunately, due to anxiety, I lost the most weight and felt best while doing so.

That book presented the best scientific explanation of how weight gain and loss work in understandable layman’s language that I’ve come across. Since more consciously adapting concepts and applying things I learned from that book around the ideas of intermittent fasting, I’ve been able to better maintain my weight without stressing about it (I don’t want to sound like an infomercial and I’m a firm believer in everyone discovering what methodology works best for them and their own biology, so please don’t take this as preaching, only my experience).

The weirdest part was that I felt like I already knew it. There does seem to be something to what the body knows to do for itself. So I was excited to see journalist Steve Hendricks’ new book The Oldest Cure in the World: Adventures in the Art and Science of Fasting.

Hendricks looks comprehensively at how fasting has been used for centuries, less to control weight, but more to improve health, including as a targeted cure for many illnesses. My immediate reaction to this was skepticism, but Hendricks is an adept science communicator, able to explain the processes behind the cellular repair that takes place during periods of fasting and thus can actually treat.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of clinical research into fasting as a cure, despite the impressive claims for healing that get attributed to it. Hendricks explains it’s because clinical trials are sponsored by drug companies, who obviously don’t stand to benefit from fasting. No one does. It’s free. And there he identifies the reason why fasting has been neglected or overlooked for so long. It’s deceptively simple, and promoting it as a cure has zero financial benefit. If anything, many stand to lose a lot of money if fasting were more heavily adopted.

Granted, there are wildly expensive fasting clinics and retreats — Hendricks describes, in perhaps too-much detail, his own experiences at two: a pricey one in Bavaria and a more simplistic one in California, but it was fascinating to see how this experience plays out in a more clinical, controlled setting.

I admit a lot of this triggered a reaction in me that it’s just too easy — too good to be true. According to Hendricks’ research, it’s been shown to have benefits for any condition it’s been applied to, save a handful — it can’t cure cancer but it has shrunken tumors, and it can’t stop or reverse aging but it can allegedly slow it.

This is hopeful and incredibly thought-provoking. It made me think of how animals instinctively stop eating when they’re ill, and many human illnesses trigger that tendency too. I’m far from a naturopath, but it would be foolish to discount any of the body’s own remarkable healing techniques (Bill Bryson’s The Body contains some amazing insights into this area too).

Hendricks is thorough, covering the history of fasting and its various proponents through the ages, dating back to its earliest record in human history, its popularity with the Greek fathers of modern medicine, Christian saints, and its iterations in nineteenth-century America, what Hendricks identifies as the start of “the modern era of therapeutic fasting”.

I did find myself less interested in some of these historical aspects: it can be a somewhat confusing, non-linear history and gets pretty in the weeds while bouncing between narrative threads, which made it difficult for me to stay invested. Where it shines is in its second half, as Hendricks breaks down the biological and cellular processes that are affected by fasting and looks at modern cases of its application, as well as his own experiences, plus more of the science behind various types of fasting and how and what they accomplish, including how illnesses are improved. He also analyzes the difficulty of mainstream acceptance, whether due to people’s knee-jerk reaction to not eating or the lack of support without sufficient profit.

It was sometimes information overload, because although I’m already on board with fasting, I felt confused about the optimal methodology and which little details or adjustments might actually be more harmful than helpful when it comes to things like interfering with circadian rhythms, blood sugar, etc.

But it’s promising and something I’ll refer back to often. I hope it could help more people consider fasting – there is such a wealth of evidence – both scientific, despite the barriers to its clinical testing, and anecdotal – about what it can do, and it’s far beyond weight loss or management.

published September 6, 2022 by Abrams. Used or new @SecondSale.com

In Anxious Eaters: Why We Fall for Fad Diets, nutritional anthropologist Janet Chrzan and psychology professor Kima Cargill tackle the science behind why fad diets are so appealing, getting excitedly and hopefully taken up over and over again by lifelong dieters in any new form, despite a shared history of their simply not working.

The idea behind their work and research is fascinating and something that I hadn’t deeply considered before: fad diets are so popular because they fulfill basic social and psychological needs. Conversely, these same needs also tend to be why these diets fail.

Eating as a communal activity is a big topic here, as the difficulties of dining out or with others when you have a number of dietary restrictions is difficult and sucks the joy out of an occasion. There’s an endless loop of social anxieties that affect both why we want to try these diets when we see others doing so and why they end up failing.

Although parts of this were wonderfully readable, much of it felt academic. It wasn’t necessarily dry’ per se, it was more that the tone could feel somewhat textbook-y. But I think this would be a very helpful read for anyone who finds themselves stuck in the loop of fad diets, bouncing from one to another without the results that they want. It clearly explains exactly what psychological mechanisms affect this behavior and with an understanding of them, it’s possible to break this frustrating cycle, as well as reduce the anxiety around certain foods and mealtimes.

published August 30, 2022 by Columbia University Press. Used or new @SecondSale.com

I received copies of both books from their respective publishers for unbiased review.

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7 thoughts on “Food Science Minis: Anxiety Around Eating and Fasting as Medicine

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  1. I read Fast, Feast, Repeat awhile ago and started on a fasting regime. My husband was very worried about the regimen and made me go to a nutritionist. She said that fasting is not good for older people and recommended the tried and true Mediterranean diet. I ended my fasting after six weeks and went on a more Mediterranean based diet. It has been working for me.

    I just wanted to share what I experienced. By the way, I didn’t mind fasting and might someday go back on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What I learned here was how many different methods of fasting there are. So if one is more extreme or isn’t making you feel good, there are ways to tweak it and adjust that may have more benefits for you in future, if you felt like it was something you’d like to return to. You might like to read this one!

      I think based on what I remember from other books I’ve read, the Mediterranean diet is the one that most physicians can agree on as having the most overall health benefits. And luckily it’s such good food!!

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  2. Wow! The book on fasting sounds really interesting. I have to admit that my immediate reaction is skepticism, but it seems like the author presented some supporting science that I’d like to check out. I know I’ve heard that some people believe that by avoiding sugar you can starve a tumor and I thought that was just urban legend; perhaps there was something to it after all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mine was too, and I still maintain some skepticism when there’s a lack of clinical trial data. The book opens with a pretty stunning anecdote of a woman whose tumor did in fact shrink and it’s attributed to fasting, so I was concerned this would be only anecdotal evidence. But he focuses a lot on the biological mechanisms of cell repair that takes place during a fasting state, which was really intriguing. I would love to hear your take on it if you read it since you bring such a better understanding of the science to this kind of material than I do!

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