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The Truth About Fasting

As we move from the festivities of Carnival and look forward to Easter, many Christians will be observing the period of lent, which is a time of introspection and self-discipline in the Christian calendar, often accompanied by some form of fasting. As a religion, Christianity is not alone in observing a period of fasting in their yearly routine. Muslims observe the month of Ramadan, prior to Eid-ul-Fitr, while in the Hindu religion, fasting may be used in preparation for different holy days, such as Divali.

But is there any health benefit to fasting, and conversely, should we worry about the impact of this practice on our health? Before we discuss this, let’s think a little about what we actually mean by fasting. To most people, fasting alludes to some deliberate dietary restriction, often undertaken for a limited period of time, and as part of a wider regime of self-discipline and introspection. During lent, for example, Christians focus on spiritual self-discovery through meditation, prayer and in some instances fasting. This may mean periods during the day when we abstain from food, or it may mean restrictions to our diet. For example in many Christian denominations it has been traditional to give up meat during this time. For Muslims, fasting during Ramadan involves the avoidance of food from sunrise to sunset and is incorporated into the spiritual observances of the day, which would include a regime of prayers, meditation and reading from the Qur’an.

There are many health benefits to fasting. Most obviously, the conscious restriction of our diet helps us to think about and control how much we eat, what we eat and how we eat it. This can lead to a healthier diet, and can be used to develop more positive eating habits, including smaller portions, less snacking, more healthy choices and more thoughtful eating (taking more time to eat, and chewing our food more thoroughly). On the other hand, mindless food deprivation can be harmful, leading to dietary malnutrition and gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and gastritis (irritation of the stomach). So, if we are fasting, we should do so thoughtfully and in a planned way.

Fasting is often part of a broader change in our lifestyle, even if temporary. Many people who fast use this as a time for introspection, meditation and self-searching. This can be very positive, if we view it in that way. Can we look at ourselves dispassionately, lift up the positive and work on the things that need improvement? If we can, then this would be a real boost to our emotional and mental health! However, be aware that such introspection can engender negative and self-destructive feelings, particularly if we are experiencing difficulties in our lives. It is important to be aware of our own vulnerabilities at times like this, and our self-searching may need to be shared with a supportive friend or professional counselor in such situations.

Finally, a period of fasting often encourages us to think about other aspects of our physical health, especially exercise and fitness. This may be an ideal time to start a proper physical fitness regime, but be sensible about this as your fasting may be reducing your calorie intake. This should not affect your ability to do moderate exercise and may indeed enhance the health benefits of such exercise (by promoting weight loss and other health benefits). However, prolonged, strenuous exercise may not be appropriate while restricting your calorie intake.

So, fasting can be a real opportunity to improve our health and well-being. Approached in a sensible way, it can impact positively on our spiritual, physical and mental health, and provide us with good habits to continue with, even after the fasting period is over!

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