Living life in the fast lane

Lunch is for wimps: many of us relish giving things up occasionally.

No sooner has the smugness of the dry-January brigade worn off than we're confronted with another opportunity for self-indulgent misery. Traditionally, while the whole nation stuffs itself silly with pancakes, it's only the Christians among us who give anything up for the following
40 days. In recent years, however, the discipline of abstention has become increasingly popular among even the most irreligious of my acquaintance.

Having forsaken Facebook for Lent, I have no idea how they are getting on with their vegetarianism, raw-food diets or chocolate fasts, but nevertheless I find it intriguing that the ancient tradition of self-denial retains any kind of attraction today.

Elective deprivation has a long and distinguished pedigree: Socrates threw his weight behind self-starvation as the only hope for morality in the face of the licentious plenty of ancient Greece, and early Christians were also enthusiastic about the idea. (A little too enthusiastic: St Jerome got into a spot of bother when he wrote in praise of a 12-year-old girl who "performed fasting for refreshment; hunger was her recreation". Such was the eagerness of Roman women to emulate this bride of Christ that one young widow eventually refreshed herself to death.)

Fasting was to become something of a female speciality. The medieval church was in thrall to the likes of St Catherine of Siena, who survived (although not for long) on a daily diet of a handful of herbs, and St Veronica, who allowed herself five orange pips on Friday, in honour of the five wounds of Christ. Although the popularity of such extreme regimes waned after the Reformation, these "miraculous maids" popped up at regular intervals until the 19th century, when their God-given talent was rebranded as anorexia nervosa.

But fasting isn't just a Christian hobby: it features in every major religion, even Buddhism, despite the Buddha's explicit rejection of hunger as a route to inner peace. Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Maha Shivaratri - all put great emphasis on the discipline of abstinence. Many Protestant churches have revived the tradition in recent years, with 20,000 evangelicals claiming to have completed a 40-day fast in South Korea alone.

Such self-control can get out of control - the historian Andrew Jotischky recounts the story of an Egyptian desert hermit who received an unexpected visit from a fellow monk. He offered his guest some food but just as the lentils were about to boil, whipped them off the heat, saying that to see the fire cooking the lentils ought to be sustenance enough. (No doubt the rest of the evening was a real scream, too.)

Diet squad

Not all fasters are content to reap their reward in the next life. Evidence that animals on a low-calorie diet tend to live longer than their better-fed counterparts has inspired groups such as the Calorie Restriction Society to put their trust in extreme regimes to deliver "slower ageing and an extended lifespan" the first time around. The society's 7,000 members adhere to a strict diet coming in at between 10 and 40 per cent below the officially recommended daily calorie allowance - so no chocolate eggs for them, this Easter or any other.

Happily, I count not a single calorie-restrictor among my friends. So why do so many of us relish giving things up, if not for religious or health reasons? Is it the challenge; the idea of falling in love with whatever it is all over again - or the chance to take a break from the 21st-century
feast of choice? Whatever our motivation, a little hunger, as Cervantes observed, is often the best sauce.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex