Fasting in Health


   Writing in Physical Culture (May, 1915), Mr. Carrington says: "If a well man starts going without food, he begins to starve (not fast). The nearer well you are the less you should fast." Mr. Macfadden takes a similar view, saying that fasting by healthy persons "represents more nearly cases of starvation than of fasting. A man can only fast with benefit when he is ill. If he is well, and goes without his food, he commences to starve at once; and the two processes are very different. Hence the physiological experts observed only cases of starvation, and not fasting cases at all. The therapeutic side of the question seems to have been missed by them entirely!"--Encyclopedia of Physical Culture, Vol. III.

   Mr. Macfadden is discussing Prof. Gano Benedict's voluminous work, The Influence of Inanition on Metabolism (A Carnegie Institute Report), which is devoted entirely to observations of fasting in so-called normal or healthy individuals. Nowhere in the massive volume does Prof. Benedict consider the value of fasting in sickness. His experimental fasts were of two to seven days duration, the subjects being young men in good health. Strange, is it not, that studying Benedict's reports, and finding nothing in them to indicate that the young men suffered in any way from starvation, Mr. Macfadden should stress the alleged fact that when a healthy man misses a few meals he begins to starve.

   Incorrect as this view is, it has been held by others. Jennings says: "Take a healthy child from food while its vital machinery is in full operation, and it will use up its own building material and fall to ruin in two or three weeks." He seems not to have been talking of the regular physical activities of the child when he said "with its vital machinery in full operation." He contrasts the activities of the healthy child with that of the sick one and speaks almost wholly of the activities of the internal organs. But he does give the healthy child two or three weeks of activity before it uses up all of its resources. It should be obvious that an adult would require a much longer period of abstinence to use up his resources.

   In Vitality, Fasting and Nutrition, Mr. Carrington takes a similar view. He emphasizes the fact that his observations of fasting have been confined to sick fasters and have not been made upon healthy fasters. He asks the question, would the effects of fasting be the same in the case of a sick man as in that of a healthy man? He says: "My answer to this is a decided No! The effects of fasting in such cases are very different." Indeed, he says that we should expect this a priori "since the effects of anything would doubtless be different in healthy and in diseased bodies." "I have just drawn a picture of the effects of starvation in the case of a well person," he says. But this "picture" is one that he had conjured up in his own mind and not one that he had seen as he confesses. Let us look at his "picture." He says: "Were a really healthy person to commence going without food and continue this for a number of days, we can easily picture the result in our imaginations--a starved and shrunken body; hollow, staring eyes; parched and shrunken skin; perhaps a wandering mind; emaciation; weakness; and a ravenous, uncontrollable appetite--these are a few of the many symptoms we can imagine as following upon this outrage upon nature. What the exact symptoms would be; how long life could be sustained under the circumstances; these are questions I am totally unable to answer--since I have never had the opportunity of observing the effects of starvation upon the healthy body."

   Note that this picture is a wholly imaginary one. Mr. Carrington could have known better at the time he wrote that pin-picture of starvation horror. He had just presented a short history of fasting through the ages in which he had recounted the long fasts undergone for religious purposes. He could have known that none of these symptoms were real. The fact is that the healthy man entombed in a mine by a cave-in or shipwrecked at sea, or a healthy animal forced by circumstances to do without food, goes without food as easily and with no more wandering of the mind, or parching and shrinking of the skin than occurs in the sick person abstaining from food. Prof. Levanzin's fast of 31 days undertaken at Carnegie Institute was taken while in good health. This fast was undergone after Mr. Carrington's book was written, but there were many long fasts prior to that date by healthy men and Mr. Carrington could have known of these.

   Mr. Macfadden's statements about fasting by the healthy were published after the famous experiments in Madison Square Garden, in which several athletes took part. After watching a large group of healthy men and women fast and engage in severe athletic contests, with no signs of starvation resulting, how was it possible for him to take the view he did? With some of the fasters losing no weight and one or two of them registering gains, how can it be said that the fasting healthy man will waste rapidly? We know very well that such is not the case.

   The healthy man, no more than the sick man, does not begin to starve as soon as he omits his first meal. He lives, as does the sick man, upon his stored reserves and begins to starve only after these are exhausted. Let us never forget that the body carries a store of food that may be called upon at any time that need arises.

   Fasting in disease is very different in many particulars from fasting in health, but fundamentally, fasting under the two sets of circumstances is the same process. The view of fasting by the healthy taken by Mr. Macfadden and Mr. Carrington is a very superficial one. A perfectly healthy man may derive no benefit from a fast, but that he is starving so long as he is living on his reserves is no more true of the healthy man than of the sick man. We may add the obvious fact that there is no such thing known to us as a perfectly healthy man, so that there may be no one who cannot derive benefit from a fast.

   So far as experiments made upon healthy animals and men have shown, there is the same hoarding or conserving of reserves and the same rigid control of autolysis in healthy animals and men as in diseased ones, when these fast. Tissues are lost in the same order. Loss of tissue in the healthy faster is proportioned to his activity, whereas, in the sick man or woman, there may be a rapid loss of weight in the early part of the fast, due to the inferior quality of the tissues. Indeed, there is often much more rapid loss of weight in the fasting sick man than in the fasting well man. Let us grant, then, that there is a certain difference between fasting by the well and fasting by the sick--this difference is certainly not fundamental.

   It will be recalled that there is great activity in those animals that fast during the mating season. Some of these fast for prolonged periods. Yet they know none of the signs of starvation that Mr. Carrington conjured up in his imagination as likely developments in the healthy faster. The fact is that his picture of "starvation" in the healthy faster is so like the picture presented by the regular physician in presenting his objections to fasting, as to arouse the suspicion that Mr. Carrington has subconsciously borrowed the description.