The start of Lent on Wednesday is the signal for many to give up anything from chocolate cake to cigarettes. But does this sort of sacrifice have any benefit? Maxine Frith looks at the history of fasting, while 10 experts give their views

The early Christians shunned meat and fish for six weeks a year, Liz Hurley limits herself to one meal a day and some of the biggest bestsellers are detox diet books. It seems that throughout history, self-denial has been an undeniably fashionable virtue.

The early Christians shunned meat and fish for six weeks a year, Liz Hurley limits herself to one meal a day and some of the biggest bestsellers are detox diet books. It seems that throughout history, self-denial has been an undeniably fashionable virtue.

On Ash Wednesday this week, millions of Christians - and non-believers - around the world will give up chocolate, smoking, alcohol or a host of other vices for the 40 days of Lent.

They will join - albeit for different reaasons - an estimated two million Britons already following a stringent diet and exercise regime. According to research from the Virgin Money credit card yesterday, would-be dieters have already shelled out £78m in 2005 in an attempt to shed their Christmas flab.

Being on the wagon may improve the state of your liver, forgoing fatty foods will help your figure, and not smoking for Lent may make you feel virtuous. But doubts remain about the benefits of such self-sacrifice. Most research shows that people who try to follow diets such as Atkins often end up putting all the weight back on within weeks of ending their period of self denial.

Lent comes from the old English word lencten, meaning spring, and was used to describe the lengthening of the days after the long winter nights. The Christian tradition of fasting before religious festivals was borrowed from Judaism: John the Baptist was a particular adherent, insisting that candidates for baptism went without any food for a time before the ceremony.

By the seventh century, the Christian church had developed the rule of a 40-day fast from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, in remembrance of Christ's time in the wilderness. Observers of the fast were allowed one meal a day, although meat, fish and eggs were forbidden - a kind of reverse-Atkins diet for early Christians. The period was also a time for people who had been thrown out of the church to perform acts of penitence in the hope of being welcomed back to the fold on Easter Sunday.

Although Lent is much more strictly observed in the Catholic church, the Salvation Army has held an annual Self-Denial Week ever since 1886, when a hard-up follower called John Carleton announced that he had no ready cash to give to the cause, but instead planned to go without his daily pudding for a year in order to save and donate 50 shillings. The first self-denial week raised around £4,000; it now generates millions each year for the Army's work.

Two years ago, Prince Charles gave up lunch for Lent, a move which caused a few problems when, just days after beginning his sacrifice, he had to attend a midday function promoting British beef to European business chiefs.

Oscar Wilde, not known for his self-restraint, once wrote: "Self denial is the shining sore on the leprous body of Christianity." But the playwright George Bernard Shaw took a more pragmatic, if equally curmudgeonly approach. He said that, though an atheist, he thought Lent an excellent occasion for "giving up reading other people's books".

Virginia Ironside, Agony aunt

"Just as you need to exercise physical muscles, you have psychic muscles that need to be exercised. Self-denial puts you in charge of your thoughts and feelings and not at the mercy of them and this is useful when you're feeling low or obsessing about something. To have the power to stop thinking about that which upsets you is an advantage. It is no good just denying yourself things. You need turn them on and off, which is strength of mind. It's something I'm very bad at. You must try to activate some control over your heart and mind. The exercise of self-denial can result in benefiting you in other areas. I won't be giving anything up for Lent; I think it's rubbish."

Roger Scruton, Philosopher

"Yes, as long as it's controlled. All religions have periods of fasting and privation, especially Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and there must be reasons. It reminds you of your own fragility and dependence, a higher being, and gives you control over your appetites, something we all need. It is also expressing your gratitude for the good things in life because you are making them into something extra. Drink is relevant and more complex things such as sex that involve rearranging one's personal life as well. Self-denial, if you mean the general concept, the moral idea, is important. All our desires have the tendency to take control of our personality if not disciplined."

Stephen Russell, 'The Barefoot Doctor'

"It depends what you intend to deny yourself. Because there are some things we do that are so bad the only way around them is not to do them. My way is to focus attention on building the positive aspects of your life (exercise, nutrition, sleep and being kind and loving to those around you and to yourself, of course). It is better to think positively about your life as opposed to focusing on dropping the negative aspects. Whatever you focus your attention on will grow, so to focus on positive aspects is better than focusing on what is bad for you. Unless it is an extreme case or addiction in which case you should take an expedient measure to deny yourself."

John McCririck, Racing tipster

"I think it is a good thing. You shouldn't give in to all your desires. Give in to most, but not all. As long as you don't harm other people. If you are harming yourself it's your own fault, whether you eat, drink or gamble too much. With drug addiction it's worse, because these people harm themselves and others are harmed by them, the victims of crime who are mugged, attacked and sometimes killed by addicts stealing money to fund their habit. Self-denial would help ease the crime which causes other innocent people to suffer. I don't deny myself much but over-indulgence has its consequences. I'm killing myself over-eating, but I drink Diet Coke and I take Canderel instead of sugar and I don't eat desserts. So you do try up to a point."

Geshe Tashi, Tibetan Buddhist monk

"Self-denial, as a concept, does not really exist within Buddhism. This is much more within the Christian religious tradition. We use the term selflessness. The Buddha taught us there was no eternal inner being, but the mind and the body should be viewed as one, and to achieve a kind of enlightenment, we have to focus on changing our internal lives. In some ways, Buddhists are showing a form of devotion, in that we try to stay away from material possessions. Material possessions may bring some comfort in terms of our physical well-being, but in the long-term they bring us nothing but misery. There are some traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and also in Japanese Shintoism, where the path to enlightenment can take an extreme form. Starvation is one method of achieving this, in some traditions, but the Buddha taught us specifically to take the middle path and find a balance in our physical and spiritual life. Starvation is not helpful in the development of the mental life, in the same way excessive luxury also prevents enlightenment. This idea of starvation to achieve enlightenment is often misunderstood and forms no part of mainstream Buddhist life. If we practised self-denial (in the Christian sense), we would be unable to experience the cessation of suffering because there would be no self to witness it."

Dr Janet Treasure, Eating Disorder Unit, Kings College London

"Self-denial provokes feelings of euphoria and excitement. It seems to involve a sense of elevating yourself above others, because you are doing something not everyone will be able to manage. There is evidence to suggest that, in childhood, obsessive devotion to order will make you more prone to later eating disorders. Anorexia is an ultimate expression of taking control over yourself, self-denial as self-control. Withdrawal of nutrition causes weight loss, bloating of the stomach, dizziness and vivid hallucinations. For some reason, studies show men are more stoic than women when food is withdrawn, although this isn't the case when talking directly about anorexics. Women consistently responded more to images of food.

Rt Rev Stephen Sykes, Head of Theology, Durham University

"We say you can deny yourself only if you love yourself. The most extreme example of self-denial without self-love is possibly the Manicheans, the sect in the early church who took self-denial to its most extreme. They believed the body itself was a vehicle sin and the flesh itself a negative, hence the phrase "the sins of the flesh". The modern church rejected this because we view the body and soul as God's creation and therefore inherently good. Self-denial, with self-love, puts you in touch with what matters most to Christians. It focuses the mind on what one believes: the work and love of Jesus. There has been a sense of self-denial coming back into the Church of England. I will be observing Lent, but I won't say what I am giving up. People tend to want to know if you managed it."

Iqbal Sacranie, Muslim Association of Britain

"In Islam, we have the fast of Ramadan. Abstinence from food is not the objective, it is the means. The objective, the Koran tells us, is to become more conscious of our God. Islam teaches that everything should be done in moderation [and] a balance must be held between living our lives in the here and now and keeping in mind our ultimate goal which is the hereafter. We believe fasting was prescribed by prophets other than Mohamed and Christ went through 40 days of fasting. So it's not new to Islam; it is a teaching of all prophets, including Mohamed."

Catherine Pepinster, Editor, 'The Tablet'

"I think self-denial is a good thing because, in the West, many of us enjoy a high standard of living. We are encouraged to indulge all the time and we live in a culture of 'get what you want instantly' through easy loans and credit cards. It's all about the instant fix and I think it's a good thing to sometimes deny one's self in order to remember those who don't have that opportunity and to get a sense of what it's like to live a more difficult life. Abstinence also gives one a better sense of priority. Indulgence and instant gratification should not be one's priority in life and self-denial is important. Lent is a time of abstinence and a time of alms in preparation for the feast of Easter. This year I will be depriving myself of alcohol and will therefore be helping my waistline and my wallet as well as my soul."

Phillip Hodson, Psychologist

"I think that some element of restraint and discipline is a virtue. As the saying goes: 'To feast you must famine and to famine you must feast.' However, with Ramadan and Lent I think Muslims and Christians are having too much of a good thing, for two reasons. First, you need to have the balance on a daily basis and not just at certain times of the year and second, having a delicious dinner, enjoying good rum and having a good orgasm are all part of our nature. God invented belching and the sense of repletion and pleasure in doing a piece of hard work. He invented homosexuality and heterosexuality. These are all God's gifts to the human race and the idea we should atone for who we are has always struck me as ludicrous."

Interviews by Elisa Bray, Julian Hofmann and Tom Pettifor

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