Two years ago, on a shiatsu training course, I was recommended a book on diet and it would not be an exaggeration to say that it has changed my life. The book was called Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter.
I won’t go into all of the author’s arguments here – the book is a fascinating read and well worth a few hours of your time – but I want to look at one practice he recommends and my experience of having tried it, fasting. Before you read any further, I will say that although fasting is a healthy practice which has been used by many cultures throughout history, it is not to be attempted if you have any kind of doubt about your relationship with food or have a diagnosed eating disorder and, if you do, please consult your physician before attempting to fast.
Food is one of my passions and I am seldom happier then when I am cooking. However, my relationship with food has not always been healthy and gradually as the years have gone by, I have found less and less time for the gym and yet my calorie intake has probably stayed quite close to that of when I was a 17-year- old rugby forward.
As part of his dietary protocol, Dr. Perlmutter recommends regular fasting as a way of boosting the body’s natural healing forces. The theory is that for much of our evolutionary history, humankind has lived the life of a hunter gatherer. Our diets were usually high fat, high protein, low carb and low sugar affairs and frequently we went for days on end without eating at all. Evolution, being a wonderful and inventive parent, enabled us to adapt to this state of affairs. Our brain requires a regular supply of fuel to function at full capacity and if it doesn’t receive it from the food we eat, it begins to create new sources of glucose from amino acids taken from protein, primarily the muscle in our body. The benefit of this process is that our brain continues to function, but the downside is we start depleting our muscle mass and that is not exactly a helpful situation for a starving hunter gatherer. Luckily, the body developed an alternative method for sourcing the fuel it needs to power the brain. After about three days without food, the liver begins to create ketones – a specialised fat that is profoundly neuro-protective – out of body fat thus maintaining cognitive function in times of food scarcity. Put simply, fasting for a few days is good for the brain.
Dr. Perlmutter’s book suggests fasting for 24 hours before adopting the principles of the Grain Brain diet and so I decided to try fasting when I was working on a production in the West End, London’s “Theatre Land”. I chose a Monday as I would be working in the evening and so wouldn’t be on the same routine as my wife and be tempted by whatever she was planning for dinner.
Hmm. I seldom go 24 hours without my 3 squares a day and wondered if I could really manage a whole day without eating? Meals are a way of punctuating the day and give it a routine. I wake up thinking what I will eat that day and look forward to preparing the day’s meals. What would I do with myself?
May the fast be with you
I was surprised at how easy it was. I did get hungry a few times, but knowing I would resume eating the next day made it easier to control the instinct to ‘fill the gap’ and the hunger soon faded. By the time the 24 hours were up, I was pleased to feel a little bit lighter and definitely felt more alert. I will admit  ‘broke’ my fast the next morning, thoroughly, with a massive frittata loaded with eggs, spinach, goats cheese and homemade chorizo (click here for my good friend Louise Tucker’s excellent blog on that subject!)
By the end of the run of the play, several of the cast were remarking on how much weight I had lost and how much better I looked. And I felt great: lighter, more energetic and a more positive mood most of the time.
The next time, I chose to fast for three days. Dr Perlmutter recommends fasting for a period of three days four times a year, usually at the turn of the season. The first two days were fine, but on the third day, I woke up, walked to the living room and felt a strange, dizzy spell and then a wave of nausea and I had to sit down for a few minutes, I was ok for the rest of the day, but I felt hungry more often and was relieved when I could finally have a meal.
Since then I have fasted for three days four times a year and it has become part of my routine. Most of all, it has taught me how conditioned I had become to thinking that hunger was A Bad Thing. How often as soon as there was a slight twinge of hunger had I made myself some toast or, if out and about, nipped into a coffee shop for a cappuccino and a slice of something “to keep my blood sugar levels up”. May be it was a hangover from those austerity years after the war, or maybe it’s just what mothers do, but my mum had always pressed food on us at every moment. Hunger was bad and feeling full was synonymous with security, love, being comforted. Now I am armed with a different kind of knowledge. Hunger isn’t as threatening and skipping a meal won’t kill me.
There are times of the year, such as Christmas, when you have to accept that sugar and carbs are going to feature in what you eat and I would hate to be a Calvinist about food, it is one of life’s great sensual pleasures. But fasting has helped me gain greater insight into my relationship with food and helped me onto a healthier path. Developing a healthy relationship with food is important to living a healthy life, and perhaps like love, a little absence might make us appreciate it all the more.