The surprising benefits of fasting

Judith Wills / 11 May 2015

Recent headlines about some of the benefits of fasting surprise diet and wellbeing blogger Judith Wills.

I used to think that I know more or less everything there is to know about diet, weight loss, healthy eating and their many and various links. That I knew what was the right way to eat and lose weight, the right way to eat and keep the weight off. The right way to stay healthy via food and exercise. And the right way to help beat diseases through a sensible lifestyle.

After this past week, I hold my hands up and say - I'm just not sure anymore. Not totally sure about any of it, to be honest.

I've based my 'know it all' boasting on the fact that I always keep very up to date with all the latest research studies, trials and overviews on these tricky subjects (which, though I say it myself, a great many dieticians/nutritionist/doctors do not). I came to diet and health via journalism and an editorship, and research and keeping up to date is our lifeblood and our badge of honour, and that's why I think what I write is usually just as valid, if not more so, than the musings of any health professional with a list of letters after their name.

Through all the twists and turns and arguments and developments which make up research in my field, there were few things that were constant. But one mantra has stood out more or less constantly through the past 4 decades, and that has been: “If you want to lose weight, keep it off and be healthy - then do it slowly, and do it sensibly. No mad, crash diets, please.” I thought that this, if nothing else, would never change.

Indeed, in very recent weeks on this blog I've no doubt repeated that mantra, and took a pop only the other day at celebs who promote very low calorie restricted ways of eating.

But several things this week have made me wonder if there is ever going to be a consensus of opinion backed up by long-lasting research that shows us what really, truly is the right way to eat and behave for the best health and longevity benefits.

This week my long held impartial views on the non-benefits of eating very little - i.e. less than 800 calories a day, or going for long periods on a fast - have been held up and found wanting, and I can do nothing but admit it.

First it appears that reguarly having a low blood sugar level (a consequence of fasting) can drastically reduce the chance of getting breast and other hormone-related cancers.*

Second, I've been updating myself on research into diabetes by a leading UK Professor** who, for the past several years has conducted - and is still conducting - various studies which seem to prove that the condition can be drastically improved or reversed by severe dieting, and he's also found that the weight lost by participating patients mostly stays off.

And finally, not a scientific trial, but a remarkable result for one woman - Jenni Russell, who is a much-respected prize-winning media columnist, editor and TV producer. Faced with a lifelong auto-immune condition and a heap of drugs every day to help her function, in desperation she decided to try fasting, which, she had read, forces the bone marrow to create stem cells which can eventually replace a faulty immune system with a normal one. After several fasts of up to four days, she now finds her life and her condition transformed and she is drug free.

I cannot argue with these results.

I still think that what I say to you is just as valid, if not more so, than the opinions of many media health professionals. But what I also say to you is this: Yes, the newest research may, in a few years, or a few months - or even, in a few weeks, at the rate we're progressing, become obsolete. But for now - I'll shut up about the dangers of very low calorie dieting and fasting. They may just be exactly what you need.

* American Assocation for Cancer Research.
** Prof Roy Taylor, Mewcastle Magnetic Resonance Centre; backed by Diabetes UK.

Ate last night:

Crusted rack of lamb to serve 2

I bought some racks of lamb at Aldi (literally half the price of anywhere else) and defrosted a rack for Husband and I over the last bank holiday. They were already more or less trimmed but I used a sharp knife to remove even more of the skin and membrane until I had no more than a few mm of fat on the back of the rack. Here's the recipe, an amalgamation of four I have saved from various magazines and papers over the past couple of years, though I'd say it's about 65% Gordon Ramsay. It really tasted great, it's easy, and is quite reasonably healthy.

  • 1 rack of lamb (usually 7 cutlets), well trimmed
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 slices stale white bread, crusts removed and crumbed
  • 1 tbsp finely grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped mint
  • 2 tsp each finely chopped fresh rosemary and picked fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 large cloves garlic, well crushed then finely chopped
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard

1. Put a third of the olive oil in a non-stick frying pan, spread it around the pan with a pastry brush and heat until very hot. Add the lamb, fat side down, and brown for 1-2 minutes. Remove to a rack over a baking tray in the oven, preheated to 190C. Bake, centre oven, for 8 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, cheese, herbs, garlic and seasoning, then sprinkle over the remaining oil and mix together well with a fork.

3. When the lamb is out of the oven, brush the skin side evenly with the mustard and then press the crumb crust over the cutlets to coat.

4. Return the rack to the oven for around 12-15 minutes or until the crust is golden and the lamb still pink but not raw! Leave to rest for a few minutes then either give 3-4 cutlets in a piece to on each plate or cut the cutlets through with a very sharp knife, as you prefer. Serve with vegetables of your choice.


* The rack goes very, very well with a garlicky white bean and olive oil puree rather than mashed or other potato, though that goes well, too. At this time of year, steamed asparagus is another great choice.

* I also served a gravy made simply by stirring lamb stock with red wine over heat until reduce by around 60%.

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