Lent is starting today. In the Christian tradition, believers are encouraged to fast for 6 weeks starting on Ash Wednesday until Easter. What elements are there to fasting? A six week lent fast is, both, a spiritual and health journey. Most of us approach it for physical health these days, fasting chocolate, sugar, alcohol, maybe even meat. Biblically, we know spiritual healing and revelations are closely linked to fasting.
From a nutritional point of view, is there any point to fasting and why would we fast? There is huge physical benefit to be derived from fasting. We all eat too much, really. We all eat a very heavy diet. Giving your body a break from all this heavy food is a good idea.
How hungry can I get during a fast? Well, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the desert, being tempted by the devil repeatedly. When he came out of the desert he is reported to have been hungry. We can relate to this. I do not recommend fasting for 40 days and nights, rather I’d recommend cutting back on unnecessary foods. During that kind of fast, we will not actually go hungry or starve, we will merely make healthy food choices. The body actually needs a break from all this food, and reducing our fare can greatly improve our cleansing powers. (Note: edited on 15/02/18. This originally erroneously read: reduce.)
How do we fast well? Really, there are many different ways of fasting, some will suit some body types while others will suit others. Again, in the Christian tradition we find a strong tradition of fasting on a set day of the week, or fasting for short periods of time when praying for a specific issue. I recommend fasting certain foods plus introducing intermittent fasting.
The foods we should fast (cut out) include: sugars (choc, biscuits, sweets, incl. excess fruit as this is still sugar), alcohol, coffee, excess meats, and other foods we enjoy regularly as treats yet know to have very little actual nutritional value in our diet.
What is intermittent fasting? Very simply put, it is giving your body a regular break from eating, and in every 24 hour period this break ideally should be 12-16 hours. We feel this may not be achieved, but for example small children will regularly fast between 5/6pm after their dinner and 7am the next morning – 12/14 hours. If small growing children can achieve this, we should be able to too.
How do we fast intermittently in this world? Do not skip breakfast, so make 7/8am your first meal, a substantial one at that. Then, try to have a substantial lunch, e.g. a cooked meal. If you can, try to have dinner before 6pm. If you don’t come home until later and rely on eating later, try to have a light dinner like home cooked vegetable soup, a fresh salad or a veggie meal. This way, you will provide your body with cleansing foods only after a certain time – vegetables. They will actually support your body’s cleansing. And you will still achieve an intermittent fast of 12-14 hours (overnight).
Do you recommend fasting for a day every week? Yes, absolutely, if this works for you. However, from a nutritional point of view, establishing a routine around fasting such as reducing heavy foods and/or intermittent fasting is probably more beneficial and easier to adhere to. Fasting a day a week might not suit everyone as the withdrawal of any kind of nourishment might cause blood sugars to get too low and physical discomfort too big to last a whole day. Try intermittent fasting or fasting certain foods that day instead!
Which diet is a healthy diet to stick to when fasting? The Mediterranean Diet has been praised for its health giving properties: reduction of cholesterol levels, improvement of heart health, reduced incidence of cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. It is rich in fresh vegetables, oils and fish (but also wine). What is lesser known is that when this diet was first introduced as a health-giving diet based on a small Greek island and its inhabitants health is that fasting was an essential part of these people’s lives. Being Orthodox their year included extensive periods of fasting – which makes it appear that the Mediterrranean Diet is as much about what you DON’T eat as about what you DO eat. So, we are back to the benefits of fasting …
Definite “Don’ts” for a healthy diet/fast: Reduce sugar in all its forms. Reduce alcohol intake. Reduce luxurious foods. Focus on cleansing foods (basically all vegetables). Chose light fish and meat. Fast intermittently, if you can at least 12 hours per day/night. Drink plenty of clean water. Find time to be still, meditate, pray, invite spirituality into your life, practice Mindfulness and remember your Daily Good Deed. Because fasting and cleansing are as much about spiritual healing and cleansing as they are about physical cleansing.
Do we have the discipline to fast? Yes, we all do. Make it easy and achievable, like all of life’s goals. If reducing chocolate is difficult for you, then at least cut down on it or cut it out of weekdays, allowing yourself some a weekends. And if you struggle with discipline, the spiritual aspect might really help – meditate, pray, maybe read a few specific books, meet up with like-minded people, go for walks in the fresh air, allow yourself to be challenged and to fail during some days. It’s all part of the journey.
So, Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights … and we fast for 6 weeks, which is more than those 40 days. Admittedly, we can afford to take off a day a week and break our fast, if this helps motivation and does not totally defeat the point of your personal fast.