Religious Fasting Spiritual and Physical Benefits
Religious fasting is the traditional practise of abstaining from eating food for an extended period of time. It is said that fasting for religious reasons can make one feel more spiritual and connected to God. There are many different religions that take part in regular fasting. Certain Christian groups fast each week, along with Muslim people and those of the Jewish faith.
The idea of a fasting diet may seem like a modern fad to many in the Western world, however in other continents fasting has been part of daily life for centuries.
The Fast Diet
The Fast Diet is a book that was recently released by Dr Michael Mosley. The book offers advice and tips for maintaining an intermittent fasting diet to aid weight loss. Intermittent fasting is also known as the 5:2 diet. This involves restricting calorie intake for 2 non-consecutive days per week. On these “fasting” days you must eat less than 500 calories. However, on the other 5 days you may eat as you wish. Due to the overwhelming success of the Fast Diet book, an informative and handy book of Fast Diet recipes has now been published. The recipes allow you keep below 500 calories without getting too bored of the calorie restrictive dishes. This fasting approach to weight loss has gained the attention of many fans and we have covered the topic in full here in our The Fast Diet post.
Although religious fasting does have weight loss benefits, this is not the reason why many take part in fasting as part of their culture or religion.
In this blog we will cover why people fast for religious reasons, and both the spiritual and physical benefits of religious fasting.
Religious Fasting Definition
According to wikipedia, the act of fasting is described as:
[the] primarily an act of willing abstention from all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. An absolute fast is normally defined as abstinence from all food and liquid for a defined period, usually a single day (24 hours), or several days. Other fasts may be only partially restrictive, limiting particular foods or substance. The fast may also be intermittent in nature.
In terms of religious fasting, this usually takes place intermittently.
Fasting is mentioned several times within the bible. Religious fasting is part of everyday life for a number of Christian communities. Catholics for example take part in partial fasts that deny them certain food types, this generally takes place during Lent and lasts 40 days.
In Classical Pentecostal churches, religious fasting is more common. Many people of the Pentecostal faith take part in weekly fasts. It is said that fasting helps to cleanse the soul and bring a calm mind. This in turn brings one closer to God and can help strengthen your empathy and understanding of the greater spiritual meaning of life.
Mormon Fast Sunday
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints take part in a total fast of food and drink. This usually takes place on the first Sunday of each month. During this fasting period, members will miss two consecutive meals, missing 24 hours of food.
Fasting for spiritual reasons is a very important part of Hinduism. There are different fasts that are observed by each member of the faith, and it is a personal choice which they take part in.
Often people of the Hindu faith will choose to fast on the day of the week that corresponds with their favourite deity. For example, those that worship Shiva will fast on a Monday. Whereas members who follow Vishnu will instead fast on a Thursday.
Islam and Fasting
Fasting is one of the most crucial aspects of the Islamic faith. Fasting is considered the fourth of the “Five Pillars of Islam”. The Five Pillars of Islam are similar to the “10 Commandments” of Christian faith. The Five Pillars of Islam are 5 basic acts that must be followed and create the foundation of Muslim life.
The most notable period of fasting is known as Ramadan – the holy month. During Ramandan followers of the faith should not eat nor drink from dawn until sunset.
Judaism and Fasting
Religious fasting for Jews involves not eating any food or consuming any drink, even water. Orthodox Jews usually fast for 6 days a year. The most important and well-known day of fasting for those of Jewish faith is Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, also known as Day of Atonement, every Jew must fast entirely. The afternoon before Yom Kippur sees Jews take part in a large and festive feast in lieu of the upcoming fast.
Spiritual Benefits of Fasting
Although each religion takes a different approach to fasting, they all have one thing in common – prayer. Prayer and spiritual strength are the primary reasons why people of all faiths take part in fasting. There are other physical benefits of fasting which we will cover later in this post, however this is not the intention of religious fasting.
Spiritual Fasting and Prayer
Many members of each different fasting faith will argue that fasting has no importance without the inclusion of prayer. As interviewed on the Radio 4 broadcast on the subject of religious fasting, Pastor Grace Komolafe talks about the spiritual benefits of fasting:
“Fasting is so beneficial for us, every Christian, so that, that will keep us calm. It will actually detox us because we need to be detoxed, not only from all the toxin but from unbelief. When you fast, you discover that on your spirit is just lifted up. You know, you understand the word of God more. You have more revelation of the word of God. Fasting should be put back on the menu of the church because it is our inheritance. In fact, fasting is an instrument of humbling.”
The Physical Benefits of Fasting
The number one benefit that tempts people into a fasting diet regime is the prospect of weight loss. Studies have shown that intermittent fasting can help decrease central weight loss far better than other diets.
Fasting Diet and Weight Loss
Mark Mattson, Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University has done numerous research into the study of fasting diets.
A recent study involved monitoring the weight loss of 100 women via three different methods of diet. A third would eat normally, a third would have a low calorie diet and the final third would take part in intermittent fasting. The results from this study were astoundingly in favour of the intermittent or 5:2 style of fasting.
[the women] were on the diets for six months, and what we found is that as expected, both energy restricted groups lost weight. But we found that the group on a diet that we’re calling the 5:2 diet, the women, they lost more belly fat and their glucose regulation was improved, so that they were able to maintain lower blood glucose levels.
Fasting Diet Health Benefits
Often loosing a few pounds can essentially increase the health of someone who is overweight. However, fasting diets can also offer more health benefits than just weight loss.
As mentioned previously by Professor Mark Mattson, fasting diet studies showed that not only can they help you to loose weight, but fasting can also lower blood glucose levels and help blood pressure levels.
Mark Mattson goes on to explain the overall health benefits of fasting:
Intermittent fasting will improve glucose regulation and therefore, protect against diabetes. And the reason that happens is that, when you go without food for an extended time period, say 12 to 24 hours, your muscle cells and your liver cells will undergo changes that make them better able to remove glucose from the blood, so that when you do eat, the glucose is rapidly removed and taken up by the cells where it’s needed and used. Another clear fact, that we’ve documented in our animal studies, is that intermittent fasting will lower blood pressure and reduce resting heart rate and enhance ability of heart to respond to stress.
Fasting and Eating Disorders
Although the act of depriving your body of food can have positive spiritual and physical effects, it can also cause harm if the practise is abused.
Going through cycles of starvation and consumption are familiar to many who suffer eating disorders. Bulimia Nervosa involves “binging and purging“, where the sufferer will firstly binge – a vast consumption of calorific and fatty foods desired by the sufferer. Once the binge has taken place, a period of purging will begin. Those with Bulimia will force themselves to vomit or take harmful doses of laxative to try and ensure they do not gain weight. The purging is triggered by not only a desire to loose weight, but a strong sense of guilt that comes from overconsumption.
Rob Waller, writer at mindandsoul.info, highly recommends the book “A Hunger for God” as a reference to religious fasting. He has also written a blog that explains the similarities and problems that can occur with religious fasting and eating disorders:
A few years ago, I facilitated a six week course on prayer and fasting. As many of the group were in their 20s and many were also female, the topic of eating disorders seemed important to cover. In this article I try to summarise how true Christian fasting might relate to different types of eating disorder…
There are a number of blogs we’ve found that cover the problems that can occur when fasting and eating disorders become intertwined and confused. The Pay Now, Live Later blog includes a post examining the faint line between intermittent fasting and eating disorders. Also of note is a cautionary tale of using food to control stressful situations on the Marie Claire health and fitness blog.
Eating disorders such as Bulimia and Anorexia are incredibly harmful eating disorders that abuse the intake and withdrawal of food. There are a number of self-help groups that can help those with eating disorders overcome their problems, such as b-eat and your local GP can also offer you guidance and support.
Religious fasting and intermittent fasting diets can offer fantastic results for health, weight loss and spirituality if not abused. Fasting can improve many aspects of your health, but only if you continue to eat a healthy and balanced diet on the non-fasting days.
Further Information on Religious Fasting
If you would like to read further about the subject of Religious Fasting and the benefits both spiritually and physically, we have compiled a list of recommended book titles below: