It’s been interesting to see how quickly the 5:2 diet has gained adherents and interest since the Horizon programme was screened in August 2012. Almost as though people had been waiting for something like this to come along…

Fasting isn’t a new idea, of course. There’s an interesting chart on the Beliefnet site which shows how many religions feature fasting of one type or another. The one that springs to most people’s minds is Ramadan, but the chart makes it clear that fasting is a part of many more religions than just Islam. In fact, the only one I’m aware of that actively discourages fasting is Sikhism. Which is odd, as one of my university friends was a Sikh and she was the first person I knew who did fast (at the time I thought it was a very strange thing to want to do!). The Beliefnet chart lists reasons for fasting in the various religions: atonement, purification, self-control and closeness to God seem to be the main ones.

In the First World we have often forgotten what it’s like to feel hungry: it is something to be avoided as much as possible and the idea that it’s good to have ‘three square meals a day’ is the norm. And yet in other parts of the globe there are people going hungry every day. Even in North America there are families relying on food banks in order to nourish themselves.

This map shows the daily average calorie intake for individuals in countries around the world (click on it to go to the nifty interactive version on the ChartsBin site). The numbers range from 3,770 calories per day in the USA to 1,590 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Eritrea.

Calorie intake per capita

Going hungry for one or two days a week does seem difficult for people who have never known real hunger. But fasting is clearly not a new-fangled idea. Different cultures have developed fasting rituals all over the world, with a wide range of justifications for the practice.

With modern medicine beginning to recognise that there may be physical benefits to fasting, it seems that this is an ancient technique which has found its way back into the mainstream at a time when many overweight and obese people are in desperate need of a way of relearning respect for that most basic of human sensations: hunger. Perhaps in the process we might gain some empathy for those who experience hunger every day.