Not eating is a tactical strike against the fast-food racketeers. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: Intermittent fasting can do things to your head

It’s Tuesday afternoon and I feel like going to synagogue. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get there – I mean, I can’t see myself praying, let alone acclaiming the scrolls – but it just seems like the right thing to do. Why? Because I’m fasting today and the last time I can remember going without food for 24 hours was when, in a sad little effort to fit in at school, I observed Yom Kippur.

You’ll forgive me if I wander digressively in this week’s column, won’t you? Lack of nourishment can do things to your head . . . Anyway, I always hated going to synagogue – almost as much as I loathed church. As a demi-Jew, I didn’t really fit in at my north London grammar, where roughly a third of the boys in my class were recent Hindu or Muslim immigrants, a third Jewish and a third Anglo-Catholic flotsam. My dad took us to church on the high days – and occasionally Sundays – but my Jewish mother wasn’t about to oblige; her Semitism extended as far as a salt-beef sandwich from Bloom’s in Golders Green and no further.

It was left to my Jewish friends to chivvy me along to shul. I was amused by the way the men talked right through the service and in such a toothsomely stereotypical fashion about the price of smoked salmon or property but I hated having to wear the paper kippa given to visiting males, the heft of which was undetectable on my bouffant early-Seventies hairdo. I kept having to reach up to check it was still there – although whether I feared social censure or the judgement of He who must not be named eludes me now.

It hadn’t occurred to me from that day to this to go wilfully without food. Why starve voluntarily when so many people – and increasing numbers right here in Blighty – simply don’t have any choice?

Then, last week, I was visiting my friend Farouk, whom I’ve known since school (he was part of the recent immigrant fraction, obviously) and who was recovering from a painful and traumatic back operation. He was fasting and started telling me all about how it promotes longevity by limiting the production of IGF1 (“insulin-like growth factor 1”), which is manufactured in excess quantities by older livers. Apparently there’s some tribe in Ecuador whose members have congenitally low levels of IGF1; they cane it all they want – drinking viciously strong aguardiente and smoking hand-rolled cigars the size of babies’ forearms – and still live to be 100. There’s a way to manufacture this desirable state of affairs: simply fast intermittently. Farouk recommended 24 hours a week or 72 in a month (in a single block) but the interweb seems to think five days’ normal eating and two of under 500 calories will do the trick.

I would have dismissed Farouk as a crank, were it not that he’s a consultant-level doctor and he’d read a heap of papers on the subject. Besides, he spoke to my condition: I’ve long maintained that the middle-aged don’t need to eat anything much at all, which is why most of the older people you see are wandering around wearing whole-body fat suits and why 12 per cent of the population of the People’s Republic of China has that popular disease, type 2 diabetes. I’m not about to advocate fasting as a way of “getting in touch” with sufferers of “innutrition” (see Real Meals passim for an explanation of this nauseating WHO euphemism). I tend to Thomas Hobbes’s view that charity exists almost solely to relieve its donors of the burden of their compassion.

However, I can heartily recommend not eating for this reason: it’s a brilliant tactical strike against the multinational fast-food racketeers and the monopolistic supermarkets. Just reflect on this – for every meal you don’t eat, you’ve taken a healthy bite out of their profits. Then there’s the rebellion against vapid conformity to the go-round of meals imposed on you by late capitalism; as Raoul Vaneigem so percipiently writes in The Revolution of Everyday Life: “The organisation of work and the organisation of leisure are the blades of the castrating shears whose job is to improve the race of fawning dogs.”

And what are mealtimes, if not the very organised intervals between those organisations? Yes, the eater is perforce a clockwatcher, always with an eye on the next time he can chow down; while the faster – paradoxically – is free from all earthly accounts of this nature. Maybe that’s why I feel like going to synagogue, even though, technically speaking, it’s only a couple of hours since I’ve been without my normal diet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.