Fasting – the latest in health news from Japan

Fasting – the latest in health news from Japan

“Because food is constantly available to us, through refrigeration and instant convenience, we have no disciplinary restraints on our appetites and snacking is ubiquitous”, writes Mary Kenny

Like a lot of women (and many men), I’m an episodic dieter. There’s always an ongoing battle of ‘fighting the flab’, as the late Sir Terry Wogan put it, and like many ongoing battles, some I win, some I lose. The scales are sometimes satisfactorily down: other times dismayingly up again. But like all battles of discipline, it must go on.

A cousin of mine has had much success with something called ‘The Fast Diet’ – where you fast for two days a week (that is, consuming only about 500 calories). But the benefits of fasting go far beyond mere weight maintenance, as the research work of the Japanese cell biologist, Yoshinori Ohsumi, has disclosed.

Full fasts

Professor Ohsumi, a Nobel prize-winner, has shown that the human body thrives on periods of 12, 16, 18 or 24-hour full fasts (water only). These fasting times act as a ‘spring-cleaning’ of the body, boosting the immune system as the body cells, feeling starved, begin to burn up the diseased or damaged proteins floating around our anatomies. (This Ohsumi calls ‘autophagy’.)

In times gone by, either because of religious practice or through the natural cycles of harvests and lean seasons, the human species always practiced periods of fasting. But now, because food is constantly available to us, through refrigeration and instant convenience, we have no disciplinary restraints on our appetites and snacking is ubiquitous.

Immune system

Fasting helps the immune system and the brain as well. More fasting, according to Yoshinori Ohsumi’s research, could reduce cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and strokes.

Everyone is recommended a 12-hour fast on a regular basis – no food after 7pm until after 7am the next morning.

Catholics once observed a regular Holy Communion fast of about 10-12 hours, until it was abolished. Once again, traditional religious practices were often in harmony with general health. The Japanese study has convinced me that, even leave aside diets, periods of fasting are natural, and cleansing, for body, mind – and spirit.


Eccentricity and protests votes

The French don’t just passively abstain from voting when none of their electoral candidates appeal: they engage in the pro-active procedure of “civic abstention” – that is, visiting the voting booth, and depositing either a blank piece of paper, or a ballot paper on which they write their comments.

Some of these comments from the French voting public about the state of the nation are ‘essay-length’ in size, it seems. How I’d love to see the archive which contains these papers!


Last Sunday, more than four million French voters engaged in this exercise in civic abstention – going to the polls, and writing whatever they liked on the ballot paper, but choosing neither candidate. By any measure, it’s a very impressive number of civic abstentions.

My late husband, who sometimes endorsed the anarchist car-sticker saying – “Don’t vote – it only encourages them” – used to have his own ‘write-in’ candidate during elections. This was Prince Norodom Sihanok of Cambodia, who was a royalist-socialist-republican-traditionalist and, apparently, an altogether good egg.

Democracy would be all the poorer if it didn’t allow for protest, essay-like comments on ballot papers, and eccentricity.


Safety more important than ownership

As I have no expertise in hospital administration, I do not know how the ownership or management of the new National Maternity Hospital should be organised. I just think it should be the best, safest and cleanest location for mothers and babies.

But Katharine Zappone’s notion that the State is always the best guarantor of excellence may be challenged by British concerns about the number of blunders – and fatalities – in maternity care in the British National Health Service.

It is reported that maternity staff make more than 1,400 mistakes a week in NHS hospitals – and that midwives and nurses have recorded 305,019 errors in the last three years. It is suspected that the real number could be higher than the recorded number.

Between 2013 and 2016, some 259 women and babies died due to “avoidable or unexpected” circumstances, according to figures obtained by the BBC under Freedom of Information legislation. In one hospital in Shropshire, there were at least seven avoidable deaths.

And the NHS has paid out millions in compensation over infants born with brain damage – which can occur when the baby is deprived of oxygen during the birth process, often arising from failure to monitor foetal distress.

It’s true that more complications have also arisen in maternity care due to older mothers and more obese women giving birth. But the Royal College of Obstetricians and Midwives has stated that it’s an “urgent priority” that maternity services be made safer for women and their babies.

That surely is the point. In Ireland, too, more mothers are older and overweight, and bringing them safely through is more important than who owns a piece of land on which a building is constructed.

First things first.