Food, Fasting and Famine

Explore the benefits of fasting for health and brain function. Discover how animals adapt to scarcity and how fasting may enhance well-being.

In 2014, we experienced the worst drought in decades and it is at times like this when nature switches off the urge to reproduce and turns its attention to survival. All animals exhibit adaptive responses to the lack of food. When deprived of nourishment, animals employ various mechanisms to reduce metabolism. This prolongs the period in which energy reserves can last. Science seems convinced that we still have these thrifty genes and that intermittent fasting may be both a smart and smartening way to live as it could increase health and strengthen brain functions. But it is one thing to say that fasting has benefit to spirit, mind and body but it's quite another matter making sense of starvation and suffering, and how suffering can lead to higher states of consciousness.


Thomas Budge asks the awkward questions you would like to ask, he pokes holes in rigid belief systems, and challenges the way the world taught us to think. His aim is to stimulate debate and encourage lateral thinking, so it's okay if this podcast occasionally makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

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Part 1

Yvonne and I recently spent a weekend in the Kruger National Park. The landscape became more and more arid the further we travelled north of the Sabi River. Gnarled dead thorn trees, bleached white by the relentless African Sun lay strewn across the red and dusty plains. There wasn't a green leaf to be found as far as the eye could see. It is a stark reminder of the devastating drought presently gripping Southern Africa. These awful climactic conditions are caused by El Niño, a band of warm ocean water that develops in the in the Pacific Ocean. If you imagine South America shaped rather like a lion's head looking out over the Atlantic towards Africa, its long mane flowing down through Peru and Chile, then El Niño would trail out behind the lion's head along the Equator, reaching as far East as the International Date Line. El Niño is the boy and La Niña is the girl, each designating alternating periods of warm and cold water in this region of the Pacific. What happens there affects our weather in the Southern African region and it has done so for thousands of years. This current cycle between 2014 and 2016 is one of the most severe on record. The mood in the car became sombre the further north we travelled and a helpless sadness settled in my heart as we drove past the skeletal remains of many an animal that had perished in the dry heat. It seemed as though nothing could survive here. But life has a certain tenacity of its own and some hardy specimens are surviving. It's a sobering reminder that evolution is driven by the natural law of the survival of the fittest. We came upon one lone bull elephant standing forlornly among the dead acacia trees, rocking back and forth as he nimbly broke away dry branches and chewed away at them for the meagre nourishment the might provide. It was really hard to wrap my mind around the plight of these animals, knowing that this is a repeating weather cycle that culled the weak and spared the strong.

At times like this, nature switches off the urge to reproduce and turns its attention to survival instead. All animals exhibit adaptive responses to the lack of food. When deprived of nourishment, animals employ various mechanisms to reduce metabolism, which prolongs the period in which energy reserves can last. Human survival during evolution was dependent on the procurement of food, which in turn was dependent on physical activity needed to find it. But the food supply was never consistent and science believes that the ancient hunter-gatherer had cycles of feast and famine, with intermittent periods of physical activity and rest. To ensure survival during periods of famine, certain genes evolved to regulate efficient intake and utilisation of fuel stores. In 1962, these genes were termed "thrifty genes." Our genetic make-up hasn't changed much over the past 10,000 years but our lifestyle has become far more sedentary in present society. Living with continuous food abundance and physical inactivity, we work against our genetic programming, which manifests as an array of serious illnesses, like obesity and diabetes.

In E. B White's beloved novel Charlotte's Web, an old sheep advises the gluttonous rat Templeton that he would live longer if he ate less. "Who wants to live forever?" Templeton sneers. "I get untold satisfaction from the pleasures of the feast."

There are many different kinds of fasting. Some are performed as spiritual practices over a few days. Longer-term fasts usually restrict eating during daylight hours. Fasting is practiced in Christianity. In Islam, fasting is one of its Five Pillars along with declaration of faith, prayer, charity, and pilgrimage. Ramadan is one month long, during which no food is taken during daylight hours. Traditional Judaism has six fasting days during the year when no eating or drinking occurs from sunset to the following sunset. The "eight precepts" of Buddhism contain prohibitions against various activities, including eating before sunrise or after noon and are followed by the truly devout while other Buddhists fast only on specific occasions. The Hindu term "vrata" is a religious practice with certain obligations, one of which can be complete or partial fasting. During a vrata period, one must remain clean, be celibate, speak truth, practice forbearance, be vegetarian, and perform rituals. Fasting is extremely common among Jains while Sikhs don't believe there is any spiritual merit in fasting and do it solely for health purposes.

Religions have long maintained that fasting is good for the soul, but its bodily benefits were not widely recognised until the early 1900s, when doctors began recommending it to treat various disorders — such as diabetes, obesity and epilepsy.

Dr Joe Leech, an Australian Licensed Dietitian suggests there are some amazing health benefits from intermittent fasting.

Related research on calorie restriction took off in the 1930s, after Cornell University nutritionist Clive McCay discovered that rats subjected to stringent daily dieting from an early age lived longer and were less likely to develop cancer and other diseases as they aged, compared with animals that ate at will. Mark Mattson, head of the National Institute on Aging's neuroscience laboratory, thinks that intermittent fasting acts in part as a form of mild stress that continually revs up cellular defences against molecular damage. Listen as he presents some of these concepts at a TED talk.

Still, from an evolutionary perspective, three meals a day is a strange modern invention. Volatility in our ancient ancestors' food supplies most likely brought on frequent fasting — not to mention malnutrition and starvation. Yet Mattson believes that such evolutionary pressures selected for genes that strengthened brain areas involved in learning and memory, which increased the odds of finding food and surviving. If he is right, intermittent fasting may be both a smart and smartening way to live.


Part 2

We have been looking at the benefits of fasting on mind, body and spirit but we cannot ignore the detrimental effects of suffering that comes from starvation and other hardships in life. Oxfam says that South Africa is considered a 'food-secure' nation, producing enough calories to adequately feed every one of its 53 million people. However, the reality is that one in four people currently suffers hunger on a regular basis and more than half of the population live in such precarious circumstances that they are at risk of going hungry. With unemployment levels at 25 percent nationally and over 15 million people receiving social grants, people do not have enough money to buy food.

It is understandable how hungry, unemployed youth in South Africa turn to crime to hustle for survival. To date, the range of government policies created to address food security and provide drinking water to communities in drought-stricken areas have been poorly implemented, uncoordinated and unaccountable to people who suffer.

In 1943, 10 years before I was born, Abraham Maslow stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs, and that some needs take precedence over others. Long before one can claim self-actualisation, by fully realising one's personal potential as a human being and obtaining self-fulfilment through personal growth and by means of peak experiences, one must first satisfy a variety of other needs. Amongst the most primitive of our needs is our biological need for air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex and sleep. Only after these needs are met, can we seek to satisfy our need for safety — this entails protection from elements, security, law and order, stability and freedom from fear. It's like climbing up a few stairs. Only after we meet our need for safety, can we move upwards to meet our need for love and belongingness — this includes friendship, intimacy, love and affection: in the workplace, from family, friends and romantic relationships. Stepping up from here we go on to seek fulfilment of our need for esteem — these are found through achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect and getting respect from others. By standing on the top step, we reach self-actualisation. So, how can we possibly expect a person struggling to meet his or her most primitive needs on the bottom steps have any elevated sense of stability, respect for law and order or even self-realisation when this person is without food and water?

For some, it may take an entire lifetime to move from one step to the next. For many, they remain on the same step throughout their entire lives. Maslow's hierarchy of needs applies equally to groups as it does to individuals. It could be said that the LGBTI community might be stuck on the step marked "esteem", especially when it comes to independence, status and getting respect from others. Here in South Africa, the group of impoverished individuals is stuck somewhere on the bottom two steps of needing to satisfy their biological needs as well as their need for safety.

There are a few things I yearn to do and one of them is to dress in some ragged clothes and stand begging at a major intersection to get a feel of what it must be like. I intuitively believe that most people driving through that intersection would tend to look the other way. Even at if I tried to engage with them in conversation, I feel that I would soon simply become invisible. Why? Because people really don't know what to do when confronted with the plight of another. It is far too dangerous to open your heart because compassion becomes a bottomless pit. If you allow your heart to rule, you'd be bringing the person to live with you at home. With so much suffering around us we are either going to suffer from compassion fatigue or become thick-skinned like Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis 16th, Queen of France and Archduchess of Austria, who when learning of the bread shortages that were occurring in Paris at the time, is traditionally believed to have joked, "Let them eat cake!"

But the struggle to meet even our most basic of needs is not confined to those with poor education or limited skill. There is also a lot of suffering for those who try to find their place in a world that is geared differently. The economy is driven by supply and demand. It is an economic model that determines commodity prices in a market. When there is a glut of anything, prices drop. The converse is true when a product or commodity is in short supply — prices increase. Many years ago, an entrepreneurial fellow from Zimbabwe began to sell animal sculptures made of galvanised wire and glass beads. His art fetched significant prices until a number of copycat traders popped up at traffic intersections across the city of Johannesburg. Suddenly there was a glut of this type of art and the prices plummeted. Another force acting alongside supply and demand is one of productivity. It is an average measure of the efficiency of production. It is in other words, the ratio of output per unit of input. To maximise profit, one needs to increase production efficiency. However, key in all of this is the consumer who, out of real or imagined need creates the vacuum of demand which others satisfy through the supply of their services and goods. But herein lies an awful conundrum: what happens to you if your production is not needed — if there isn't a consumer who needs your services or goods?

Capitalism is the social system which now exists in all countries of the world. Under this system, the means for producing and distributing goods are owned by a small minority of people — known as the capitalist class. The majority of people must sell their ability to work in return for a wage or salary — they are referred to as the working class. The capitalists live off the profits they obtain from exploiting the working class whilst reinvesting some of their profits for the further accumulation of wealth. This class division is the essential feature of capitalism. In capitalism, the motive for producing goods and services is to sell them for a profit, not to satisfy people's needs. It is suggested that the class division and profit motive of capitalism is at the root of most of the world's problems today, from starvation to war, to alienation and crime. Their lives fill with suffering. Peter O'Toole in the movie, the Man of la Mancha speaks so eloquently about suffering in this soliloquy:

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Through my therapy work I know of many people who really struggle to survive. These are not lazy individuals nor a they unskilled. They just can't seem to make ends meet because what they have to offer is not necessarily what others want to buy. Most of them have incredibly creative talents but what they produce is not what is needed. This leaves them destitute and demotivated. They are like the lone bull elephant eating dry twigs, trying to find enough nourishment to survive. These men and women are stripped of meaning and purpose in life. When questioned about God and suffering, Stephen Fry put it this way:

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I have had my fair share of suffering, having spent time in prison as a conscientious objector during the apartheid regime. Two years of solitary confinement, including weeks of isolation in dark cells, naked, deprived of all human contact, light and sound. But I once had a very lucid dream in which I was a movie editor. A runner came in with a full length feature film in an aluminium canister. The urgent request from the movie's director was that I should quickly go through it before it is screened to a group of cinema critics. I quickly threaded the celluloid strip through the machine sprockets and began to view it. To my horror, it was the entire movie of my life. It documented everything that I had done, including all mortifyingly embarrassing moments too. I cringed that I was glad that it was I then had a chance to edit this story because now I had the chance to remove all the things I didn't want others to know about. I quickly spliced pieces out, leaving a heap of discarded scenes on the floor. When I was done, I stretched back in my chair and played the movie from the start but to my utter horror, the entire thing was a only 6 minutes long. I didn't know what to do. None of the piece is lying on the floor belonged in the movie yet the movie was incomplete without them. Anxiety got the better of me and I began to panic until a great idea popped into my mind: I quickly needed to find a narrator who could explain what wisdom was derived from each scene as it was played. Once this had been done, each discarded piece was put back in its place. With the exception of the voice-over narration, the movie had always been complete. I then knew that had I been given a chance to live my life over, I would be very hard-pressed to erase any of my past experiences because each one shaped who I am today. I can vouch that while life has its ups and downs, and some of the downs can be truly awful, suffering itself is only a state of mind as it is a choice about the way we think of the things that happen in life.

Victor Frankl wrote about his experiences as an inmate in the German concentration camps. His experiences led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones. But each of these experiences gave him reason to continue living. Frankl became one of the key figures in existential therapy and a prominent source of inspiration for humanistic psychologists. Here is Jerry, a patient of Dr Frankl, speaking about a life-changing event he had to conquer:

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Jerry had written a voice-over narrative that changed the storyline of suffering into one of dignity as suggested in a poem written by Bob Randolph, read by a fellow by the name of Michael who was once himself a homeless person:

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But I think the last word about the transformation of suffering into purpose and meaning in a South African context belongs to one man, Nelson Mandela who managed to lead a Rainbow Nation after having been incarcerated for nearly 3 decades. Former TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel recounts this in a short YouTube documentary:

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