When I was a child it was the custom in my family and in my church to give something up for Lent. This was most often a food, such as candy or soft drinks. The couple of years that I gave up candy for Lent, the candy that I got in my basket on Easter Sunday morning tasted even sweeter, because I had not eaten candy for about six weeks. As a child I did not understand the spiritual implications of fasting, or that it also might have health implications as well.
Fasting as a Spiritual Discipline
Fasting is a part of the traditions of many religions including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. In the Christian faith, the purpose of fasting is to help increase affection for God. Special fast days were a part of the Jewish calendar. Jesus recognized those fast days and assumed the people would fast as stated in Matthew 6:17-18a: “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” Jesus also observed several periods of intense fasting including 40 days in the wilderness before he began his three years of public ministry.
Special days of fasting carried over into the early Christian church. By the third century the church had begun to establish Lent as a season for spiritual preparation and renewal prior to celebrating the resurrection on Easter Sunday. Lent included special emphasis on prayer, fasting and giving. Today the season of Lent is observed by many Christian denominations, including the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, as well as such Protestant denominations as Lutherans, Anglicans and Episcopalians, Methodists and some Presbyterians. Lent is a 46-day period (40 days excluding Sundays) beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on the Saturday before Easter. In 2017, Ash Wednesday is on March 1, and Easter Sunday is on April 16.
Certain days during Lent (often Fridays) are designated as fasting days, when only one main meal a day is to be eaten. This day is encouraged to be a day for additional prayer and the money saved by eating only one meal is to be given to the poor. Some church traditions include abstaining from eating meat on the fasting day and also abstaining from some other food such as wine, oil, butter, dairy or sugar during the entire season of Lent. My childhood practice of giving up candy reflects the practice of abstinence. I also remember that my elementary public school cafeteria often served fish on Fridays, especially during Lent, to reflect the Roman Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays.
In doing research for this article I reviewed information about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley believed that fasting should be an important part of every Christian’s life and he personally fasted on a weekly basis. He encouraged his followers to give their savings from not eating to the poor.
The book The Blue Zones highlighted the long- lived population in Ikaria, Greece. The residents there are Eastern Orthodox and practice fasting twice per week as part of their religious traditions. Because of this regular fasting it is estimated that their calorie intake is 20-30% less than the average person elsewhere and may be one of the factors for their longevity.
Fasting for Health
Recent nutrition research has looked at the health benefits of intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting can be defined as abstaining from food for one or more days, but it also includes fasting for shorter periods of time such as 12 to 16 hours. A relatively simple way to begin intermittent fasting is to stop eating at 7 or 8 p.m. at night and begin the next meal at 8 a.m., gradually lengthening the time to noon and only have two meals during the day, instead of three. When people fast in this way, they generally eat fewer calories and also increase their metabolic rate slightly, thus helping weight loss. Fasting helps the body increase insulin sensitivity and helps cellular detoxification. Intermittent fasting may also help cardiovascular health, brain health, prevent cancer and increase life span.
Intermittent fasting does not have to be done every day to reap health benefits. Studies have looked at alternative patterns such as fasting one or two days a week for 24 hours, eating normally for five days a week and only consuming 500 to 600 calories on two other non-consecutive days, or fasting for three to five days in a row several times a year. All of these various patterns seem to show health benefits for some people.
The practice of abstinence from certain foods for health reasons has also been shown to be beneficial. Those people with food allergies must permanently avoid their allergic foods. Many of my nutrition clients have abstained from certain foods for a period of time, such as when doing an elimination diet, to identify food sensitivities. Others have abstained from certain foods permanently when they found they had a gluten sensitivity or blood sugar problems. I have abstained from gluten for about nine years due to a sensitivity, and the health improvements have been dramatic.
As scientific investigations have been done, it is helpful to see how many studies have shown results that reinforce Biblical principles. Fasting and other forms of abstinence can give both spiritual and physical benefits. I encourage all readers, whether religious or not, to consider adopting a fasting or abstinence practice. For Christians, this current season of Lent is a perfect time to start.
Ginger Hudock is a holistic nutrition consultant in Aiken, SC. Her business, Nutrition with Ginger, helps clients discover the power of personalized, whole foods nutrition to prevent and heal from many chronic health concerns, especially food allergies and sensitivities. She is a graduate of the Nutrition Consultant Program at Hawthorn University and is also a Certified Gluten Practitioner. Prior to beginning her career in nutrition, Ginger was an educator and college administrator for thirty years, most recently as the Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance at USC Aiken. To sign up for nutrition consultation sessions or her newsletter and blog where she gives more nutrition news and recipes, visit Ginger’s website at www.NutritionwithGinger.net, or call 803-640-4381.