Jeanette Winterson: How I learned the transformative effect of extended fasting | Health

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Fasting is a superpower. And it’s free.

If everyone with weight issues or weight-related health issues learned how to fast, the profits made by the diet industry and big pharma would shrink as rapidly as the nation’s waistline.

According to the government’s own Obesity Profile, close on 64% of adults in England are overweight or obese.

We know this is caused by eating too much unhealthy, processed food, and by moving around too little. Modern lifestyles are bad for humans.

The food and pharma industries are no help here. Overweight? Try another diet. Pre-diabetic? Take metformin. High blood pressure? It’s a brave doctor who will tell you to lose the pounds. Easier to prescribe inhibitors or blockers. In fact, unless there are other factors involved, weight loss is a fantastic way to lower blood pressure. The only side-effect is that you will have more energy.

I learned to fast the easy way at the Buchinger Wilhelmi clinic in Überlingen, Germany. I went there for two weeks, didn’t eat for 10 days, and came away astonished at the body’s capacity for healing and self-regulation. I have been going back to the clinic every year for the last 12 years. It’s my annual holiday. I go alone and rejuvenate in body and soul.

Yes, I pay for this, and it costs a few thousand pounds a year. When I am there, I swim, take long walks, read, sleep, use the gym every morning, and go to concerts or talks in the evenings. The clinic is peaceful and beautiful, set on Lake Constance, overlooking the Swiss Alps, with extensive facilities and leisure treatments, but crucially, it is run by medical doctors. On arrival, each resident has a session with a doctor, followed by blood tests. No snake oil, no new-age hokum, no untested regimes. Once the bloods are back, the doctor will discuss your profile with you and recommend a way forward, during and after the fast. Fasting lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, modifies insulin resistance, clears diseased tissue, reduces inflammatory conditions, is brilliant for arthritis and gut health, brightens the skin, and leaves you feeling younger by years. How much would pay for that in capsule form?

It’s not quite true to say that no nutrition is involved at Buchinger Wilhelmi. Mid-morning, guests enjoy 200ml of fresh vegetable juice, and early evening, the same amount of freshly prepared consommé; total daily intake of 200 calories. This is more of a ritual effect than a physical necessity. People like to come together.

The thing about a longer-term fast is that it takes about three days for the body to switch its metabolic pathway. That’s when the body starts eating from the inside instead of waiting for fuel from the outside. It starts to break down fat stores and to consume waste tissue. Truly, we are incredible.

The third day is often one of physical chills and mental misery. I feel hungry and sad – but I have learned that it will pass – and it does. On the morning of day four I wake up cheerful, with abundant energy, and feel no hunger pangs again – so much so that six days later I regret having to break the fast and gently refuel.

When I discussed this with my German doctor, she told me that our ancestors had to generate enough physical and mental energy to seek food in times of shortage. Weeping and wailing in a blanket would ensure that you soon became food for another species. The proven and measurable release of endorphins into the system is the body’s way of keeping us going. It’s a natural high.

I recommend extended fasting to anyone, so long as that first experience is done under medical supervision. Not least because breaking the fast, slowly and correctly, is crucial. When you understand the process, and your own body, it is possible to fast by yourself for more than a day or two. Think of the initial outlay as an investment in your immediate and long-term health.

On a weekly basis I like a simple 24-hour fast. It’s an excellent way of giving the digestive system a rest. For weight control, its advantage over the 5:2 diet is that you don’t have to count calories – there are none.

I make a seasonal, low-protein, non-carby soup, such as spinach, or tomato, or watercress, or broccoli. I eat it around 6pm, have an early night, and that’s it until 6pm the following day. Then I generally have the same soup followed by a small piece of grilled chicken, or a bit of salmon, and a mixed salad. No alcohol either night. I still drink my cafetière of black coffee in the morning. The day flies by, and once you get used to it, I doubt you will even notice a few hours without eating.

I call fasting a superpower because it calms the hysteria around food. Grown humans do not need to eat all the time. We certainly don’t need the endless stream of ultra-processed garbage marketed as food. I never eat plane food – including to Australia. I put my body into tick-over mode and eat 27 hours later. If I am hungry, and travelling in the UK, I feel no compulsion to eat what’s on offer at railway stations or fast-food outlets. I see it for what it is; self-harm.

I am glad that the prime minister respects the benefits of regular fasting. I wish his government had the appetite to regulate the food industry, its profits bloated on the backs, or rather the fronts, of our bodies. Even so, and I eat good food cooked fresh every day, I am convinced that fasting is part of a healthy life for everyone.