Danger of Fasting:

The Sad Side of Fasting

By Dr. Ben Kim

A short while ago, we had a fellow with chronic asthma come to fast at our clinic. He ended up staying with us for a week, an experience that made me decide to write this article to discuss the sad side of fasting and the pursuit of dietary purity.

Upon taking a full history and giving this fellow - I'll call him John - a full physical evaluation, I learned that he had fasted several times before over the past decade.

John's first water-only fast more than ten years ago lasted for around 50 days because the doctor supervising his fast felt that successful treatment for his asthma required intensive detoxification and a prolonged period of pure rest.

Although he experienced some improvement with his asthma, it was bad enough by the following year for the doctor to recommend that he fast again, this time for a month.

This pattern of feeling better for a short period during and after each fast, only to have his asthma return and "require" another long fast became a routine pattern for him for more than ten years.

Through it all, John faithfully followed his doctor's advice to stick to a 100 percent raw, vegan diet. It was clear that John and the doctor believed that it was only a matter of time before fasting and a raw, vegan diet would completely cure his asthma.

After understanding John's medical history and completing a comprehensive physical evaluation, I told him that I believed he was severely malnourished. His teeth were visibly rotting, his hair was noticeably thin and brittle, his nails were covered with cracks and deep ridges, and he was extremely gaunt. I told John that I believed he was deficient in vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin A, zinc, iron, DHA and EPA, and finally, healthy protein and fat.

John was not happy with my assessment. In fact, he became pretty darn angry. Who was I to question what his previous doctor had prescribed for him for ten years? I was in my eighth year of practice while the other doctor had been supervising fasts for more than 50 years. How could I be arrogant enough to question the other doctor's approach? John scolded me for giving medical advice that I had "probably read in a book" and reprimanded me for not having more respect for older, more experienced doctors.

"Then why are you here and not fasting with the other doctor?" I asked, genuinely confused about why he had chosen to travel from the States to Canada to fast when the other doctor was in the States, available to supervise another long fast for John.

"He charges too much and does way too much blood work," was John's reply.

That's when I realized that what John wanted was for me to treat him in the exact same way that the other doctor did, minus the blood work, and at half the cost.

I told John that I felt that a long water fast was not in his best interest, and gave him some recommendations on whole food choices that would provide him with the nutrients that I felt he was deficient in. I also gave him several recommendations aimed at improving the strength of his immune system, which I felt should have been the primary focus in trying to help him recover from asthma.

John was unable to let go of his obsession with doing long water-only fasts and sticking to a strict, raw vegan diet. His rigid adherence to a 100 percent raw vegan diet was particularly amazing for me to observe given that he was eating huge amounts of raw tahini (ground sesame seeds) because he was constantly hungry and craving dietary fat. It just didn't occur to him that he may have been eating containers of tahini on a regular basis because his body was in need of nutrients that he wasn't getting enough of, particularly healthy fat and protein. You should know that he was eating tons of romaine lettuce, avocado, celery, broccoli, and other nutritious vegetables that informed vegans know to eat lots of.

Sadly, John is not alone in being obsessed with water fasting and dietary purity. During the past three years alone, I can think of at least a dozen people who have come through our clinic who have had very similar health histories and health problems.

Although I realize adults can make their own choices, I really believe that part of the blame in cases like John's must be placed on practitioners and gurus who lead people down such a path.

The big problem that I have with such practitioners and gurus is that they seem to be much more interested in fitting people into their programs and philosophies than they are in carefully considering how each individual responds to specific food and lifestyle choices. Somewhere along the line, the mission seems to become more important than caring for each individual.

I don't have a problem with a person choosing to be a strict vegan. I was a strict vegan for almost five years until I finally came to the realization that it wasn't working for me. If you are feeling strong and healthy on a strict vegan diet, even a strict, raw vegan diet, I'm happy for you. What I find troublesome is how some people become so focused on promoting the benefits of a strict vegan diet that they lose sight of how they and those they provide guidance to are really doing with their health. I don't care to spend my energy on debating why a strict vegan diet is or isn't the healthiest diet on earth. I prefer to spend my energy on trying to figure out how each person who comes to me for guidance can experience his or her best health.

Over the past several months, I have received dozens of e-mails from supporters of a strict vegan diet about a book called The China Study. Written by respected scientist, T. Colin Campbell and his son, Thomas Campbell, this book is being referred to by some people as conclusive evidence that any amount of dietary animal protein increases one's risk of cancer and other degenerative health conditions.

I had a chance to spend around two weeks with T. Colin Campbell, his son, and his wife during my time in northern California in early 2000. I found their family to be super kind and gentle. Still, I cannot cite The China Study as conclusive evidence that any amount of animal protein is bad for human health.

Why not?

As far as I know, this study did not take into account critical factors that determine the suitability of animal products for human consumption and health. How does human health respond to eating wild or organic, naturally raised animal products vs. factory farmed animal products? What effect do different cooking temperatures, cooking methods, and oils have on animal foods with respect to human health? Without searching for and considering the answers to these questions, how can we make such a bold conclusion that eating any amount of animal protein causes disease?

Personally, I have no doubt that eating factory farmed animal products is harmful to human health. I do believe, however, that for most people, regularly eating small amounts of clean animal foods like organic eggs and organic butter is necessary to be as healthy as possible. But please remember, what I believe shouldn't matter so much to you. What matters is how you feel. Please don't ever let anyone or any program become a more important guide for your health than what your own body tells you.

Dr. Ben KimImprove Your Health With Our Free E-mail Newsletter

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