Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

Day 3: Fasting and Feasting Cycles

You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Stop Snacking like one.

The Standard American Diet, with snacks in between meals, puts us in a constant feeding state. Grazing is a great way to fatten a cow for the slaughter, but not so great if you’re trying to maintain a healthy, robust physique.

You can contrast the constant grazing pattern of eating that we see in cows with the fasting and feasting cycles observed in Sacred Scripture. In Ecclesiastes, we read that “there’s a time for everything” — a time for eating and drinking, and a time for fasting as well.

This pattern is mirrored in our bodies, which tend to operate in either an anabolic (i.e., “building up”) or a catabolic (i.e., “breaking down”) mode. We have a hard time building up and breaking down tissue at the same time. In the extreme, if we’re constantly eating without ever giving our bodies a break to digest the energy that we already have stored, we end up with metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity.

The short-term hormonal changes from snacking and grazing create longer-term imbalances like increased abdominal fat, elevated blood sugar, and the Big One: insulin resistance. Insulin resistance lies at the root of most metabolic syndromes, and it is basically an adaptive response whereby fat cells proliferate when they’re being asked to absorb too much of the slack from excessive caloric consumption. Sugar is a particular culprit, because it can spike insulin to unhealthy levels even in relative moderation. The modern habits of snacking throughout the day on processed, sugary foods keep our insulin levels at persistently high levels, and we see the effects on our waistlines and in the mortality statistics for COVID in people with comorbidities.

“Rebuild My Church”

St. Francis, the medieval mystic, received a vision in which God instructed him, “Go and rebuild my church, which as you see is falling down.” He was called to literally go and rebuild the church brick by brick, but also by calling men and women to a new order — the Franciscans.

Today, the church (conceived of as the Mystical Body of Christ) is in disrepair once again. Fasting, I believe, is God’s chosen instrument to rebuild his church. The key to repairing our bodies lies first and foremost in fixing our hormones, and that begins with restoring nature’s cycles of fasting and feasting. It’s not about brutalizing ourselves into shape with diets. It’s about rediscovering the ancient rhythms of eating.

Adalbert De Vögue was troubled by the insistence that monks of his order, eat breakfast in the community. He wrote:

“Breakfast has imposed itself everywhere, and the monks have docilely followed the present-day tendency to reinforce it. As far as the monks are concerned, it must be admitted they have not been able to maintain the ancient discipline, that conformism with which they have yielded sooner or later to the general tendency is one of the clearest signs of the deep weakness of Western monasticism in the modern period.”

This is a prime instance of the salt — the essence of spirituality — losing its saltiness. Part of what made the monasteries and Western monasticism great under the era of St. Benedict (and in the revival under people like St. Francis) was adherence to ascetical practice. Their actions and their emphasis on the spiritual over the physical (the “psyche” or soul over the “sarx” or flesh) matched their words. St. Francis didn’t merely follow a fasting rule — he went beyond that in adopting of extreme voluntary poverty.

Correcting the Appestat

We don’t need to go to the extremes of the early Franciscans’ asceticism to begin to repair the Body of Christ. We can start by fixing our own personal “appestats” — the inner thermostat of energy balance which regulates things like hunger, energy storage, and fat burning — through fasting. Normally, a healthy appestat keeps our weight in check, but our appestats have been badly thrown out of whack by the mismatch between the human’s “natural” environment and the modern world.

For example, we cultivate plants, fruits and grains, that are far richer in sugar and starches than the ancestral heirloom varieties. Sweeteners like sugar and honey, which are scarce in nature, are produced in abundance. Genetically-modified fruit is much bigger and juicier.

Ancient apples versus modern cultivars

We can buy bags of shelled, roasted nuts without having to pick them, crack the shells and then prepare them in a way that makes them edible.

Gas stations entice us with hyper-palatable candy bars, engineered with the perfect ratios of sugar, fat, salt, and additives to be maximally addictive and minimally satiating.

Finally, we are surrounded by artificial blue light from our screens and televisions at all hours of the day, disrupting our natural circadian rhythm.

Although it helps to have at least a cursory understanding of hormones, we don’t need to identify all of the precise factors in our modern environment that are conspiring to make us fat, sick, and lazy.

Regardless of the cause of obesity in our particular case, fasting represents a solution to all of them, it addresses them all simultaneously. It helps to reset three hormones: insulin, ghrelin, and leptin sometimes considered the fullness whole hormone.

In the next lesson, I will be explaining the role of insulin as the master regulator of body fat and energy storage.

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