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The fine line between fasting and dieting

The skinny look can only be chic in a society where food is abundant

If you are one of those radio listeners who find the BBC’s Today programme boring, there is always Nick Ferrari’s LBC phone-in show in the morning. It is raw, abrasive at times, but addictive.

“Get it off your chest and on the radio,” says Ferrari, a former tabloid journalist. So confident is he that people will be queuing up to ring in that he doesn’t even bother to read out the phone number.

LBC’s non-stop phone-in programmes open a window, in living Technicolor, on the crazy divisions in the world today. Typical of the sort of news that really winds listeners up was a recent ban on eggs in advertisements on the London Underground, for health reasons – a ridiculous exercise while knife-crime figures soar.

The investigative writer Joanna Blythman (author of excellent books on the food industry such as Swallow This) came on. She calmly pointed out that eggs are uniquely rich in nutrients and it is folly to demonise natural foods like meat, cheese and the like while pushing consumers inexorably towards highly processed substances that make spurious claims to be healthier.

After Blythman, a spokeswoman came on to give the alternative view – that eggs are full of cholesterol and to be avoided. I think she might have been a vegan, but whichever dietary discipline she adhered to, you could hear all the passion of a fundamentalist in her voice.

And that’s what matters, or so it seems. Forget objective science, facts, evidence. There’s my truth and there’s your truth, and one person’s truth – the more passionately clung to the better – is as good as another’s.

Which brings me to fasting during Lent. Where does fasting end and dieting begin?

We all know the problem that dieting is supposed to address. In Britain, The Times reports, many people are so fat that funeral directors need hoists that can lift 30-stone bodies, coffins that look like “small bungalows”, and super-sized mortuary fridges.

As Bee Wilson explains in her new book The Way We Eat Now, never before has so much energy-dense, low-nutrient food been available. Most alarming is how fruit has been engineered to be uniformly sugary, where the flavours used to be complex. Marks and Spencer sell grapes designed to taste like sweets.

According to the World Health Organization, more than half of the British diet consists of food categorised as “ultra-processed”. Even in the home of the Mediterranean diet – Spain, Italy, Crete – their children are now among the fattest in Europe, gorging on sugary drinks and packaged food instead of fish and olive oil.

At the other extreme, you have the ultra-thin: starved catwalk models with legs like matchsticks, their thin-ness accentuated sometimes with oversized boots; or rich women whose muscly arms betray hours spent lifting weights to avoid the dreaded “bingo wings”.

The skinny look can only be chic in a society where food is so abundant. Decadent Westerners turn our noses up at natural food, and waste staggering amounts. Meanwhile, many in the world still do not have enough to eat, though Bee Wilson points out that countries in sub-Saharan Africa actually consume a more wholesome diet than is found in richer countries.

True fasting can become muddled with faddish food avoidance, but it should be something much more challenging – a form of prayer, a tool of self-control, a means to focus the mind on the divine.

In my own case, if I’m not careful, scrupulosity intervenes – a sort of spiritual obsessive-compulsive disorder. I have a tendency to obsess over minor infractions, a bit like the Pharisees and the scribes who ask Jesus why his disciples do not wash their hands in the prescribed fashion.

I’m sure the human psyche magnetises us to rules and regulations. There is a craving deep in our natures to hand over control, so that following the precepts of the law becomes an end in itself.

Too often a spiritual discipline – like fasting in Lent – becomes institutionalised, and a source of pride and distraction.

To try to prevent this, and to anchor myself, I turn to Ecclesiastes. The word means “preacher” and by tradition the author is Solomon in old age. He is impatient with extreme ascetic spirituality, but embraces simple God-given pleasures: “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour.”

Make use of your life, he says with shocking, clear-eyed realism, while you still have health: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.”

Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph