Having lost weight and discovered the advantages of feeling hungry, George Pitcher is grateful to Dr Michael Mosley for popularising the ancient spiritual practice of fasting. Just don’t be smug about it, he says


The TV presenter’s remains were found in a rocky area on the Greek island of Symi on Sunday. An initial post-mortem examination on the body concluded he died of natural causes

I have the late Dr Michael Mosley to thank for making me less of the man I am today. A decade ago, after 20 years of what we were pleased to call “business lunches”, I had ballooned into a self-satisfied whale.

I was persuaded to go on Mosley’s 5:2 Diet, which consists of consuming a maximum of 500 calories on two separate days of the week and largely eating what you like (within reason) for the other five. I gradually lost four stone, which overdid things a bit and people said I looked ill, or “like a geography teacher on a field day”. So I regained a stone and stabilised with a 6:1 maintenance diet.

I’m aware that last paragraph makes me a contender for world’s most boring dinner-party guest, so let me get, I hope, to a more engaging point. Mosley called it the Fast Diet. In some of my old jobs, which were basically talking nonsense for large sums of money (and lunches), I would have called that terrible branding.

It sounds like fast as in quick, like one of those useless crash diets. It actually means fast as in intermittent fasting, which religious communities would know as abstinence and self-denial. Historically, in monkish communities and the like, weight loss wasn’t a priority. Fasting was about penitence, separation from the worldly to feel closer to God as well as mental and physical preparation for a great religious festival.

It has always been a spiritual exercise. And I’m here to tell you it works with Mosley’s diet too. Yes, there’s the body-and-mind nexus. At a routine medical, a nurse took my blood sample twice because she couldn’t see how I could have had the cholesterol levels of a vegan extreme marathon runner (well, sort of), given my confessed flaneur lifestyle. So you feel better, not just lighter.

For many, of faith or not, the spirituality of fasting can sound a bit woo-woo, a bit hermit-like, or a bit too ascetic. But it can be put a bit more bluntly. It is, simply, good for one to feel hungry for a couple of days a week.

This is not remotely about solidarity with the hungry of the world. On a fast day, I can look forward to a full English breakfast in the morning if I so wish. It’s also not about false piety. I have heard someone intone solemnly: “I live simply, so that others may simply live.” That’s enough to make you feel sick even on an empty stomach.

But it does enhance the pleasure and appreciation of food (and wine) on the other five days of the week, whether you believe it’s a gift of God’s harvest or not. It also concentrates the mind – there’s a mental acuity attached to fasting. The chronology of the Nazarene’s 40-day fast in the wilderness between his baptism and the start of his ministry is no accident.

Mosley’s Fast Diet should make no apology for drawing on such ancient heritage. Fasting was rigorously practised in Judaism, as prescribed in the Hebrew Bible. It’s been known to be good for us for a very long time.

Fasting was a regular practice for the apostles as recorded in the Book of Acts. And there’s a very sweet resonance with Mosley’s 5:2 in the Didache, the short early Christian rulebook from (probably) the first century AD. It mentions two regular weekly fast days of Wednesday and Friday. Anyone choosing those days for their 5:2 may like to know they’re in that tradition.

The spiritual danger is in fasting practices becoming false idols. Fasting laws are honoured more in the breach throughout the gospels, with the Jesus movement unlawfully plucking grain to eat on the Jewish Sabbath, and the parable of the Pharisee who is condemned for his hypocrisy for swanning it over a miserable publican because he “fasts twice a week.” I most certainly don’t do my 5:2 when I’m on holiday, which is ironic given the etymology of that word.

The enemy of fasting is evidently smugness. It’s relatively easy to fast if you work predominantly from home. Less easy if you’re flat out, burning energy at work (though I managed it in a high pressure job in Canary Wharf – in fact it was vital).

Ultimately it’s an aid to prayer. As it happens, Mosley came from a long line of missionaries, but he admitted: “The closest I get to religion is incorporating fasting in my diet.”

I’d just like to say that I think that’s very close indeed. God rest him.