A Virtue of Vigour – 9: Straining the Stomach

I don’t know if this is still common, but I remember seeing the “food pyramid” posted around schools, hospitals and on various items in supermarkets such as cereal. This gave recommended servings from the different food groups. As I understand it, this has been replaced by something else. The recommended servings I thought ridiculous even as a child and I’d be willing to bet that anyone who followed it religiously would end up quite fat after a few months. 

Even though people might not follow such schemes precisely, the thinking behind it remains. The idea that you must eat three meals a day. That you must eat breakfast, lunch and dinner and you must eat a certain amount from different food groups remains.

Now ideally, you really do need to eat fruit, vegetables, grains and you certainly need protein though you don’t necessarily need to eat meat to get it. This is all true but the idea that you need to eat a certain amount of this every day and that you do need to eat at certain times of day, is not true and not at all a danger to your health.

To put it even more simply, if it is lunchtime and you are not hungry – you don’t need to eat. It doesn’t hurt not to eat at all unless you go without food for a long time. With the nature of the world, I should put in a quick disclaimer here that none of what follows is encouraging you to throw up food or starve yourself for your weight. This is not healthy and I am not recommending you develop eating disorders. I am just simply pointing out something that everyone really already knows – that missing a meal and even meals doesn’t hurt.

What I’m really talking about here is fasting.

I think most people have been so busy with something that they didn’t have time or maybe even forgot to eat lunch. And I don’t think anyone who has experienced this suffered any having missed it. But there are still people in the world who practice this as a discipline. Some people may have no breakfast and not eat until lunchtime. Religious people of various faiths will often deprive themselves for most of the day if not one or two. These people don’t starve for doing so.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointing out in his book, Antifragile that primal hunters wouldn’t get breakfast until they caught it. And despite not having ate, they still had energy and will enough to exert themselves far more than we moderns have to in order to get it. Another idea he shares is relates to what we’ve already covered. That when we exercise the body we stress it in order to make it stronger. We do the same with the mind when we work to understand something new like a second language or a mathematical problem. That the same principle might apply to the stomach seems to have escaped health professionals.

As a practicing Catholic, I maintain a very strict fast during Lent which means I only have one full meal a day. This is not exactly pleasant and it isn’t mean to be but during this period I remain healthy and lose weight. For one Lent, I had two days with two full fasts which means no food at all. These were for religious and not health related but they did have that as a side benefit.

The ancients seemed to understand the benefits of fasting and often the necessity due to the scarcity of certain foods in and out of season. That stressing the body by exerting yourself and restricting energy intake should make sense. I have even see a study showing that the body goes into autophagy (self-eating) after a period without food that can actually have a cleansing effect. You don’t have to take my word for it though as this is way outside my expertise.

So something you can do quite easily, and something that will benefit you is is to get out of the habit of eating. You should definitely eat, and certainly eat enough to sustain yourself. But you don’t need to eat because it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. You don’t need to have a certain specified amount at each meal and it certainly doesn’t hurt to miss meals. If you are looking to lose weight, one of the best ways is to practice reducing the amount of food you eat as well as what you eat.

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