Fasting, not a recommended practice

Sarah Khalil’s article (“Fasting, a recommended practice,” Sept. 9, 2009) lauding the benefits of ritualistic starvation was so full of logical fallacies, deception and outright falsehoods that I almost feel bad for what I’m about to do to it. Then I remember that she’s putting the health of my fellow students in jeopardy for the sake of an archaic belief system that seems to derive its doctrine from a book of fairy tales. What else would you call a story where the protagonist soars through the heavens on a winged horse?

Some sense of responsibility is shown by the author when she stresses that only healthy people should participate in fasting. This is your first clue that like other activities that those with illnesses or who are pregnant are cautioned against attempting (bungee jumping, pharmaceuticals, etc.), there are inherent health risks associated with fasting. This is especially true of the specific type of fasting promoted in the article where participants consume “no food or no drink of any sort, not even water.” Nowadays, the majority of fasting advocates recognize the life-threatening health risks associated with going even a relatively short period of time without drinking anything and recommend drinking juice during a fast to maintain adequate blood sugar levels and hydration. The symptoms of reduced blood sugar and dehydration often include irritability, nausea, light-headedness, dizziness, headaches and blackouts. Basically, take drinking and remove all fun: that’s fasting.

It is incontestably illogical to say that the body needs to take a break from digesting food. Your digestive tract is a highly specialized and refined tool for turning food into the nutrients that your body needs to function. When you feel hungry, your body is telling you to eat. If you defy that urge, your body begins to eat itself and break down bodily tissues. This is quite different from the “healing” that Khalil asserts occurs when you voluntarily starve yourself.

The word “toxin” has been and continues to be flagrantly bandied about in alternative medicine health claims. Sure, the word sounds scary. But the question you should ask yourself is, which toxins are they referring to? Specific toxins are often neither mentioned nor measured in pseudo-scientific literature. Even if the toxins were to be identified, there is no documented scientific evidence that these toxins actually accumulate in our bodies. Notwithstanding the dearth of hard evidence, let’s assume that many of the foods we eat do contain certain harmful chemicals. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to avoid foods which are known to contain those substances (MSG, hydrogenated oils, preservatives, etc.) rather than avoiding food altogether? Moderation and healthy choices are key, not deprivation.

Although I couldn’t find the exact study from Cell magazine that is cited in the original article, it appears that the only studies done on the effects of fasting on longevity were performed on mice and fruit flies. Notice Khalil’s careful wording. Instead of saying “fasting” she uses the terms “caloric restriction and alterations in metabolism.” She also never mentions the word “human.” Fasting involves periods of starvation followed by periods of gluttony. This does not necessarily result in a net reduction of the number of calories consumed on a weekly basis. If the results of the study are applicable to humans, which they may not be, all it is saying is that if you eat less (caloric restriction) and exercise more (altering metabolism) you will live longer. What a revelation!

Instead of, as the author suggests, fasting in a metaphorical bubble to open your own eyes about suffering due to starvation, why not participate in an event like the 30 Hour Famine? It can help one gain a sense of what it is like for the millions of malnourished people across the globe and as an added benefit, this event serves as a fundraiser and actually does something to alleviate world hunger.

Khalil uses two blatant logical fallacies in a last ditch attempt to bolster her claims that fasting is “a very important thing to include in one’s life.” She first asserts that because millions believe that fasting has benefits then it must be true that fasting has benefits. This is called an appeal to popularity. The fact that many people have favourable emotions toward fasting is no substitute for scientific proof of the purported benefits. It was once common to believe that the earth was flat and that demonic possession was the sole cause of mental illness. The second fallacy occurs when the author suggests that because fasting has been performed for thousands of years it must be a legitimate practice. This is an appeal to tradition. Would she also say that human slavery, which has been practiced even longer than ceremonial self-inflicted malnutrition, is a legitimate custom?

The single most erroneous passage of the article is where Khalil asks, “We spend our lives eating, so why not give our body a break once in a while in order for it to refresh itself?” Replace the word “eating” with the word “breathing” and the absurdity of this sentence will become glaringly obvious. Khalil has elegantly demonstrated how “pure common sense” is often pure nonsense.

Robert McGregor is a law student at the University of Manitoba.emphasized text