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Fasting can teach us to do without in a world of overconsumption

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A series of global tragedies led sixty-year-old John Oakes to stop eating for seven days. This is a decision that would ultimately transform his life and become the subject of his latest book, “The Fast.”

On his journey to learn more about the history of fasting, Oakes discovered that some of history’s biggest figures employed the fast for spiritual or political reasons. They include Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus, Cesar Chavez, and the suffragist Eroseanna Robinson.

Elements of self-starvation can be found in all major religions and in instances of political protests throughout history. Oakes writes that fasting is anti-authoritarian. It’s more than just refraining from eating food; it involves doing without in the broadest sense.

Fasting requires assessment and reassessment, a decision to ingest and refrain from ingesting. It’s a demand to be seen and to be heard, he writes.

It can also serve as a reset for those struggling with chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative disorders. The act of not eating for hours or days triggers a series of biological reactions within the body that can alleviate symptoms of disease and put the body in ketosis.

But fasting can also be a tool to disguise eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, which is essentially fasting without end.

So, how do we fast in a way that’s respectful to our bodies? What can we learn from history’s fasters? Has fasting helped you achieve your health goals?


John Oakes is publisher of The Evergreen Review. He is editor at large for OR Books, which he cofounded in 2009. His new book is "The Fast: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Promise of Doing Without."

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call 833-877-8255 or email thesource@tpr.org.

This interview will air on Wednesday, February 21, 2024.

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