In March 1973, researchers from the University Department of Medicine at the Royal Infirmary of Dundee, Scotland, published a paper that elaborated the story of 27-year-old Angus Barbieri, an obese man who successfully lost 276 pounds of weight – after fasting for 382 days.

“Prolonged fasting in this patient had no ill-effects,” wrote the authors of Barbieri’s medically supervised fast, which was, at the time, recorded as the longest fast in the 1971 Guinness Book of Records.

“Starvation therapy can be completely successful, as in the present instance,” they concluded.

Fasting: A practice from the ancient times

“From an evolutionary perspective, it’s pretty clear that our ancestors did not eat three meals a day plus snacks,” says Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging in Maryland.

The practice of fasting is not a new fad, instead, is an ancient practice utilised by many cultures for different purposes, founded by the belief that deprivation leads to transformation.

Gandhi, for example, was well known for his hunger strikes as a form of non-violent protest, starving himself for up to 21 days at a time.

Barbieri, on the other hand, fasted to transform his body and physical health.

Many others have since turned to fasting as an exercise to change their bodies, with a growing body of research suggesting that cycling periods of regular eating with fasting, a routine known as intermittent fasting, could potentially improve health.

With statistics revealing that obesity has become a global epidemic, the scientific interest in fasting has steadily increased, with over 5,500 research papers on fasting published in 2015 compared to the 934 published in 1980.

Benefits of fasting backed by science

Earlier this year, a Japanese cell biologist, Yoshinori Ohsumi, was awarded the Nobel prize in Physiology for his discovery of autophagy, a crucial process – which occurs during starvation, where cells destruct and reuse proteins and non essential components for energy, and is essential for the survival of cells and for cells to remain healthy.

Other studies have also revealed that periodic fasting improved levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) insulin resistance, ultimately resulting in lower risks of various diseases such as heart diseases, diabetes and even cancer.

Dr David Ludwig, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, posited that a benefit of fasting was the process of ketosis.

“There are extensive reports of children who had debilitating seizures who were cured on ketogenic diets,” he said.

“If it benefits the brain to prevent seizures, then maybe it benefits the brain in other ways.”

Is less really more?

No doubt, fasting is not a one-size-fits-all practice that is effective, or practical, for everyone.

In the extremity of Barbieri’s eight month fast, there is little delineation from starvation, although the doctors who supervised his voluntary weight reduction strictly monitored his blood glucose, plasma electrolytes and urine specimens, and ensured that he received daily vitamin and mineral supplements.

While Barbieri’s self-experiments serve as a huge testimony for the physiological potential of the human body, longer fasts pose dangerous health risks linked with hunger and malnutrition.

“You may not know how your body will respond to, say, low blood sugar," said Libby Mills, from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Beyond low glucose levels, which itself is harmful to health, extended fasting may lead to electrolyte imbalance that can result in cardiac arrhythmia and renal failure.

These are the similar hazards flagged in patients with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, where prolonged or extreme abstinence from food becomes an obsession that ultimately becomes detrimental to health.

According to Ludwig, the long-term effectiveness of fasting has yet to be well studied, and limiting intake of sugar and other processed carbohydrates may be a more practical approach.

Without supervision, a fast may trigger an eating disorder, as cautioned by the founder of the National Eating Disorders Association, Ilene Fishman, “Somebody who gets involved with fasting is going to end up moving into disordered eating [and] it’s going to become preoccupying.” MIMS

Read more:
Nobel Prize for medicine goes to Japanese gene researcher for autophagy work
Medical Mystery: Is it possible to survive without food?
Ability to control hunger tied to type of fat consumed


Note: Article first published on 19 November 2016.