The Benefits of Fasting
As we are at the beginning of Ramadan and near the end of Lent I thought it would be interesting to look at the origin of these, plus the renewed interest in fasting for purported health benefits and what the latest science says.
This week for the podcast I took a deep dive into the History and Science of Fasting… and I’ve come back with the facts and conclusions I thought were the most interesting.
The interest in fasting is also because this week I was reading and cooking from two great new cookbooks and one of them, Nistisima by Georgina Hayden, is all about the food of Orthodox fasting periods.
The picture at the top of this page is of Helbeh, a Fenugreek Cake that I described here.
The other book, Your Daily Veg, by Joe Woodhouse is also appropriate for (most days of) Lenten eating and I highly recommend them both. These are books you will cook from again and again.
** I mentioned Mergulo butter again in this episode and promised I’d link to it here.
What I was snacking on while editing:
Delicious almond-stuffed dates covered with 100% Madagascan chocolate by Palm Chocolate (gift)
Valrhona praline bunnies – these were on the sweet side for the mood I was in today but the praline quality is 👌🏻 and I’m sure most people would love them. (Also a gift.)
Join me next week as I review a selection of Hot Cross Buns with Edd Kimber!
Not into listening or not able to? Read The Next Delicious Thing podcast transcript for Episode 8 on Fasting here.
On a podcast intended to be about delicious things, this week, I’m going to be talking to you about fasting. The history and the science of fasting. The reason that I’ve chosen to talk about fasting this week is because I’m also going to be telling you about two books that were released this month that need to be added to your bookshelves. And one of them is all about the recipes from Orthodox fasting.
Welcome to Episode 8 of The Next Delicious Thing. I’m Jennifer Earle. And each week I’ll be bringing you things that need to go to the top of your list to try next, alongside some food geekery.
Every week, I’ll do a shallow dive into some science history or other random facts about something that is connected to a delicious thing that I have tasted. And this week, it’s about fasting.
I’ve been cooking from both of these brand new cookbooks this week, because I’ve been quarantining at home. Nistisima, Georgina Hayden’s third book, all about the period of Orthodox fasting made me curious about whether there are actual benefits to fasting beyond the spiritual benefits. There certainly seems to be a lot of benefits according to most newspaper articles, so I thought I’d read some of the scientific papers and come back to you with whether or not it is something we should consider undertaking.
First, I want to tell you quickly why I think you should buy both of these books. As I said, one of them is this Nistisima by Georgina Hayden and the other is Your Daily Veg by Joe Woodhouse. I have cooked several recipes from each book. And I’ve also had the very good fortune of having both of them cook for me before. Yes, humblebrag but also hopefully confirmation that these are genuine and accurate recommendations. They both are so good at flavour. These are the kinds of recipes you’ll come back to again and again and they useful for midweek meals but also really so delicious that you can definitely serve them for special occasions as well.
What I love about Joe’s book is that it’s divided into chapters so that… all books are divided into chapters. It’s divided into chapters according to different types of vegetables. So you have a chapter on potatoes, carrots and beetroot, a chapter on onions and leeks, a chapter on tomatoes… If you’ve got an excess of any of these particular foods, you can go to the chapter and there’s a variety of recipes: lighter, more rich, more comforting, and they’ll have something in there that you can probably make with whatever you have in your pantry and fridge already.
I also love that there are lots of suggestions on what else you could use if you don’t have a particular ingredient. We were fighting over the last of the chilli, butter, almond broccoli. I did use the Mergulo butter for this as well. If you remember in Episode Six, I spoke about this brand new vegan butter. Turns out it works really well for cooking as well. It is amazing. I’m going to provide the link for this again at thenextdeliciousthing.com page about this particular episode.
Georgina’s book is divided into … beginning with an introduction on the history of fasting which I found really fascinating and I will just suggest that you buy it I’m going to give you some top lines in a minute. But then it starts with breaking bread which is breaking fast. And then you have salads, seasonal vegetables, pulses and grains, cakes, biscuits and puddings and sweet preserves and drinks. Taverna, Georgina’s second book, was the food of her homeland and what she realised when writing that was that so many of the recipes were connected, like so many of the foods that they eat are connected to the Orthodox calendar. And so she decided to investigate what other Orthodox communities cooked during fasting periods.
Typically, for Orthodox fasting, you cut out animal products, not necessarily every day of the week, so sometimes dairy and seafood are allowed. For this book, she has not included any recipes with dairy or with seafood. There’s some honey so if you’re looking for a vegan book, then she has actually provided substitutes to most of the recipes. So it is accessible for vegans and vegetarians. But it’s not just for those people, and not just for people who are fasting, they are really just interesting ways to use vegetables and grains and pulses, different flavours.
She’s called on a variety of people; she spoke to monks, she translated ancient texts with help. And the stories behind each of the recipes are really interesting. For some people, I feel like these will definitely be memories from home, recreating flavours that they grew up with. And then for other people – like me – it is just repertoire expanding.
If you saw on my Instagram, I was particularly intrigued by the Helbeh which is a Fenugreek cake, which you really have to try. It’s kind of a cross between a bread and a cake. Very cool.
Because of Nistisima, I decided this week I would do my little dive into the research behind fasting. Technically fasting is the absence of all food and drink, which is how some religions like Islam and Judaism consider it when it is part of their spiritual practices. Other religions, Catholicism and the Orthodox Church, for example, see fasting as the restriction of certain foods.
In Ramadan, which is happening now Muslims who have reached puberty and are not acutely or chronically ill, and not pregnant, menstruating breastfeeding, diabetic or elderly are required to fast between sunrise and sunset, though then they break fast with Iftar in the evenings, and so they are still consuming food throughout the month of Ramadan. Fasting for religious purposes is not just about what you’re giving up. It is also about what you make time for and what you’re gaining and giving.
For Jewish people there are six holy days where you should fast. In the Orthodox calendar, there are over 200 days which are considered fasting days, and so they are restrictive diets rather than completely abstaining from food.
For most religions, the reason for fasting is threefold. It is a spiritual practice, so it is time to focus on your connection with God. Fasting is also about purity. The idea is that you’re cleansing your body by abstaining from food for a period or from particular foods. The idea being that purity brings you closer to godliness, and you are better able to commune during prayer. The third religious purpose behind fasting is for people to experience hunger, and to be reminded what life is like for those with less with the intention being that it would evoke greater compassion.
Much fewer of us fast for religious or spiritual reasons now than we did 100 years ago. But there is this renewed interest in fasting because of the media surrounding the potential health benefits which purportedly range from weight loss, increased energy, better sleep, longevity. So I thought I would do a little bit of a dive into the scientific articles about fasting to see whether fasting is something we should be considering.
Various types of fasting were investigated in these articles: some a liquid fasting, so some soup and tea was consumed, but the calorie reduction was significant over a period of four to 21 days. In others, it was an alternative day fasting or 5:2-style fasting. And then there was intermittent eating, which is where the the food you consume within a day is restricted to a set number of hours and then the rest of the period, you do not eat anything at all. The overall conclusion of all of these studies is that fasting under supervision is relatively safe, which is kind of a pretty weak and lame conclusion.
There was health benefits noted. Most of these were connected to the weight loss that was caused by the fasting. So the control group, which consumed a similar amount of calories, during the same period, had similar benefits to their blood pressure, oxidative stress and insulin resistance. So it’s difficult to extract whether it was the fasting or just the weight loss that happened that caused the benefits.
However, the main conclusion from these studies that I feel like might have some application and promise is that in the studies of intermittent eating for those people who chose a window of eating during the day that started in the day, and so they stopped eating by early evening, and fasted overnight, they showed benefits to their blood pressure after five weeks that were similar to a control group who were taking blood pressure medication, with no other change to their activity. There were no other interventions in the group fasting either, so they were just told that they could eat whatever they liked, it was just that they had to restrict the eating to that same 10-12 hour period every day, which they chose at the beginning.
Incidentally, they found that they consumed about 300 fewer calories per day. And when they followed up with the group a year later, it was a practice that they were easily able to sustain and didn’t notice any difference in their pleasure or their hunger, which is really cool. The possible hypothesis for this – or my personal hypothesis – is that if you stop eating early in the evening, you’re less likely to eat the kind of snacks that you pull out in front of Netflix. So the ones that aren’t really adding much to your daily nutrition.
A few things to note before I leave you for this week: in the study I mentioned people were only restricting their eating window to 10-12 hours. So not as restrictive as some you might have heard of online or in the news. This pattern of eating and stopping in a 24 hour period is similar to that observed in the 7th Day Adventists who were studied for their health and longevity and form part of the fascinating blue zones research. There were multiple factors that attribute to healthy and longevity in the five communities included, it’s definitely worth a read if you haven’t already.
Also, I wanted to be clear calories are an outdated method of discussing food consumption with relation to the energy it provides overall and especially related to health. There’s also a lack of research comparing the effects of fasting between women and men – what little has been done shows fewer benefits and greater risks for women.
Potential negative effects of alternate day fasting were shown on some participants’ cholesterol.
And, most importantly : it’s important not to undertake any non-religious fast without discussing with a medical professional first.
And that’s it for this week. If you want to see what I’ve been snacking and read the transcript or get all of this sent to you via email head to thenextdeliciousthing.com
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Next week I’m going to be chatting with my friend Edd Kimber and we will be reviewing a selection of Hot Cross Buns. If you’re in London and you’d like the shortlist that we’re going to be tasting then send me a message, but otherwise I will see you next Wednesday for the Hot Cross Buns lowdown.
I hope you have a food filled and very happy Easter!