x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Eating, fasting and eating fast: restraint is not so easy

During Ramadan, the most important time to practise restraint isn¿t during the day when the table is bare, but rather at day¿s end, when the table isn¿t.

"Kobayashi strikes again!" is not an unusual way for my friends to mock my legendary speed-eating habit. The nickname I earned long ago - and still wear with a thinly veiled combination of pride and sheepish contrition - is a reference to Takeru Kobayashi, also known as "The Tsunami", the Japanese competitive eater who holds four Guinness Records for speed eating.

The disunion of moderation, in all its wholesome and sensible goodness, into duelling themes of feast and famine, is an ancient, universal and uniquely human narrative to which most of us can relate. Ramadan is intended as an opportunity for a little spiritual spring-cleaning, the paring-down of excess, the renewed investment in the immaterial and a humble examination of those things we take for granted. In fact, fasting is only one part of what Ramadan represents. I'll even venture to say that fasting is about a lot more than abstaining from food, drink and other corporeal pleasures from daybreak until sunset.

Ever try to go grocery shopping when hungry? Good sense has a way of making room to accommodate impulsiveness. Dining when ravenous is a similar sort of thing. It is so easy to shift the meaning of the fast to the back burner to make room for another pot or pan. The most important time to practise restraint isn't during the day when the table is bare, but rather at day's end, when the table isn't. When I was growing up and we broke our fasts at iftar, my parents would remind us to pace ourselves. In spite of their shared strength and values, my poor folks had a challenge on their hands from the start with a speed eater like me, and it took a lot of gentle coaching by gastro-intestinally distressful example to get me to acknowledge how badly I felt after stuffing myself.

Observation (and paralytic insecurity) tell me I'm not alone, and that others have difficulty practising restraint when the inner dinner bell sounds. It's easy to be tempted into evenings of excess, and though I wish I could say that my special strain of imprudence is specific to Ramadan, it isn't.

Historically, I have made the mistake of waiting too long until it's time to eat, and then eating too quickly once there's food in front of me. This has happened so many times that I have to wonder how differently I'd have behaved in certain situations if I hadn't been famished and preoccupied with the details of my next meal.

Something has happened to me with age, and I hate admitting it. The curse of acid reflux was the true end of my age of innocence. My uncle is a man of great integrity and impeccable taste, but he's also the product of a generation that cultivated a few particularly strong and poorly founded beliefs about food: margarine is better for you than butter; filet mignon is the only cut of beef worth a fig and beautiful, super-fresh perfectly grilled or fried seafood is best suffocated by the nuclear acidity of lemon juice. Last month, during an annual visit with family that involved a lot of my uncle's cooking - which is the kind of stodgy, surf-and-turf themed, clubby and masculine cookery that challenges the digestion of a delicate flower like me - I refused to let it slow me down until finally, I had to. My gut said "uncle", and I had to stop wolfing down dinner. This was something I hadn't considered doing since an Ayurvedic doctor and dietary guru I saw eight years ago prescribed a diet that included a daily dessert of one tablespoon each of sesame seeds and raisins, meditatively chewed 50 times to form a paste. Digestion begins in the mouth with the enzymes in saliva, and chewing food for a long time breaks it down. The only thing I love more than complaining about a problem is solving it.

I think the diet guru was on to something, and there's no doubt about it: I've seen walking examples of the adverse effects of eating fast - and it is not a pretty sight. In the nature versus nurture debate, I think it's well established that the human body is part genetics and part behaviour. It takes 20 minutes for the stomach to register the feeling of fullness, but a fast eater can do a lot of damage in 20 minutes. And just because I have a 30-year habit of doing things I'm not supposed to do, doesn't mean I'd recommend it to anyone else.