Just in time for Lent, The New York Times posts a persuasive article by personal health columnist Jane E. Brody on the benefits of intermittent fasting. She focused on research by Mark P. Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging, and his colleague, Rafael de Cabo. It seems like a win-win proposition, achieving a more svelte self while fulfilling Lent’s counsel to fast during this holy season.
The researchers found benefits of intermittent fasting on “a wide range of chronic disorders, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative brain diseases.” Their review of both animal and human studies found improvements in a variety of health indicators and a reversal or slowing of the aging and disease processes.
They said people trying to lose weight should strive for 16 calorie-free hours. My daughter Rose, an account executive in health insurance, told me she stops eating at 7 p.m., and does not eat again for 14 hours.
“It takes 10 to 12 hours to use the calories in the liver before a metabolic shift occurs to using stored fat,” Mattson told Brody. “After meals, glucose is used for energy, but fat is stored in fat tissue, but during fasts, once glucose is depleted, fat is broken down and used for energy.”
We Americans should need no persuasion about the health benefits; the National Center for Health Statistics estimates that in 2015-2016 in the U.S., 39.8% of adults 20 and over were obese. Another 31.8% were overweight. By 2030, projections show that one in two of us will be obese and one in four will be severely obese. Overindulgence could well describe this age, not just in food but also alcohol, drugs and hallucinogens.
At the same time, 37 million Americans struggle with hunger, including 11 million children and 5.5 million people 60 and older, a number that has more than doubled since 2001.
Upon reflection, it seems that for our fasting to be of spiritual benefit, we must, to use an analogy from rocketry, burn out the stage of our self-concern before we can ignite the stage of our concern for others. Only then can those of us who eat too much help feed those who are hungry. Indeed, that transition must occur, for as Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 25) tells us, only the elect will hear on the last day: “I was hungry and you gave me to food.”
We live at a time when we have a pill for everything. And to supplement all that, we have drugs, licit and illicit, to help us deal with our anxieties, depression and a host of other maladies. If we can’t sleep, we take a pill. If we are depressed, there is a medication for us. One goes to the doctor and, more often than not, comes home with new prescriptions.
Yet, I marvel that the rituals and practices that have come down to us from the faith of our ancestors often have the remedies we need, without the side effects of drugs.
Because I often wake up at night and sometimes can’t go back to sleep, I once asked my mother what she did when that happened to her. She said: “I pray the rosary.” I tried it, and it worked then and does now, many decades later. Similarly, the cure for many of our anxieties lie in meditation, solitude, prayer and stillness.
Henry David Thoreau wrote about his reveries: “For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine. … I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.”