When Feasting Really Works: April – the Month of Feast and Fast

feasting

After a week that included Easter, April Fool’s Day and the start of British Summertime, it seems fitting that the Anglo-Saxons considered April to be the month of feasting. At least this is to believed if we go by the Labours of the Months calendar (a picture depicting April is at the top  of the page). Spring, the feast of the god Oestre and then Easter meant that there certainly was plenty to celebrate. The folks would have fasted before the feasting in April. Food was starting to become plentiful with the promise of the summer bounty not far away. Party on.

Throughout history there have been times of enforced fasting, when famines and food shortages  meant that people had very little or no food at all. But this was not the case during Anglo-Saxon times. There were so few people in England then that there was enough food for everyone, even in the winter. The people then salted meat and dried fruits and grain to see them through the barren winter months. Also, famines and bad harvests were relatively rare. So  why did Anglo-Saxon folk fast so much?

People today fast for religious reasons, such as Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims, who fast to be closer to God, for atonement or to exercise self discipline. It is also a reminder of how lucky they are to have food when there are so many poor and starving people in the world. In the early days of Christianity people fasted on Fridays because of the crucifixion,  which was later changed to not eating meat on Fridays. It also connected them to Moses, David and Jesus, who fasted too. Now fasting mostly takes place during the period of Lent, but only for the very devout. Most people I know choose to give up alcohol or chocolate ‘for Lent’. Traditionally, Christians fasted during holy days. There were an awful lot of them, too, but the feast days made up for that!

Many people who do not fast are often concerned with the health benefits of fasting. They are concerned about the well-being of their fasting friends, particularly if they are children. It is thought that fasting occurred even before Christianity in England, so were there any benefits to abstaining from food? There must be something in it, surely, as it has lasted such a long time.

Several studies have been carried out on this very topic. The idea of famine and survival is a popular one in that the human body has adapted to be able to cope with famine. The latest study from the National Institute on Ageing  based in Baltimore, found that one or two days of fasting a week protected the brain from such illnesses as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. They argue that periods of starvation promote neural growth, which aids the memory when searching for food. The study was reported in the Guardian newspaper last September, read more here.

Perhaps the best reason why fasting was such a successful technique is given by Professor Mark Mattson, head of the institute’s laboratory of neurosciences. He said: “We have found that from a psychological point of view…you can put up with having hardly any food for a day if you know that for the next five you can eat what you want.”

The Anglo-Saxons had it nailed. Another reason to dump that Dark Ages tag.

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