Religious Fasting: Understanding an Old Practice
Fasting has played an important role in many religious traditions, and current research has also uncovered numerous health benefits associated with it.

Fasting has played an important role in many religious traditions, and current research has also uncovered numerous health benefits associated with it.

Food is more than just sustenance for our bodies. A shared meal is an opportunity for social connection, and we naturally associate some dishes with comfort and well-being. Its preparation can be elevated to an art form, with the resulting cuisine a luxurious sensory experience. Yet at various times during the year, many people willingly give up food for short periods of time. Why do they do this? Learning about fasting and the reasons behind it may help us understand this practice.

What Is Fasting? It Depends on Who You Ask

Cultural Awareness International offers a quick summary of fasting. This custom is observed by Christian, Jewish and Muslim people as well as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Taoists, and those in the Baha’i faith. CNN’s Drew Kann explains that repentance and atonement are key themes, such as in Judaism’s 25-hour Yom Kippur fast. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast to exercise self-control, focus on spiritual things, and practice gratitude by providing food to those in need. Some Hindus fast to purify themselves and their bodies. The Canadian Encyclopedia mentions fasting as part of purification rituals in some Indigenous societies.

Christian fasting customs vary according to each denomination. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops directs the faithful to participate each Friday as well as on Ash Wednesday during Lent. The USCCB defines fasting as abstaining from meat and eating one regular meal plus two smaller food portions that are each less than half of a standard meal. Patheos editor Terry Mattingly reveals that it can take on many forms in different sects:

  • Eliminating certain foods, such as meat and dairy
  • Eating no food but consuming liquids
  • Skipping food and drink from dawn until dusk
  • Absolute intake avoidance, cutting out both solid food and liquids

Most belief systems have rules and restrictions for fasting. Exempt individuals include those who are sick, elderly, pregnant, menstruating, traveling, or have conditions such as diabetes or heart failure.

Fasting and Spiritual Enlightenment

Many religious traditions contain stories about revered figures who fasted to repent for sin, purify themselves, or achieve a closer connection to their deities. According to Gospel accounts, Jesus endured temptations while forgoing food and drink for 40 days and nights. Others include St. Catherine of Siena and English mystic Margery Kempe. In contemporary times, some New Age practitioners and celebrities embark on sabbaticals during which they avoid eating or drinking. Self magazine writer Korin Miller recounts Ashton Kutcher’s seven-day fast on a trip to Big Sky, Montana. Kutcher reported that he began having hallucinations early in his ordeal.

Attempts to achieve altered states of consciousness aren’t new. They’re a cornerstone of shamanic and mystic traditions around the globe. Yale University’s Explaining Human Culture project mentions that fasting has been used to induce visions, trances, or prophetic dreams. How can a lack of food change our mental perceptions? Livestrong’s Allison Stevens points to possible stupor and delirium triggered by chemical imbalances, and NPR’s Susan Brink cites hallucinations as one symptom of late-stage starvation. Yet short periods with limited food intake may have some benefits, as Healthline discusses. These include improved blood sugar and boosted brain functioning, which could account for reports of increased mental sharpness from some individuals who fast.

Know Your Limitations

Many belief systems around the world include fasting in their traditions. While these faiths name a variety of reasons for the custom, most emphasize achieving deeper spiritual connections or understanding the sacrifices others have made. In the meantime, it’s important to take stock of both your physical and mental well-being before attempting to restrict your intake. While physical actions can be of great spiritual importance, it is our minds and hearts that receive their benefits.


Lent – A Season of Fasting
Lent is a time for religious people to give something up for their religion for a set amount of time.

During Lent, religious artifacts, such as this crucifix, will be covered for the entire duration of the fast.

One common thread between most Christian religions is the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, or Easter. The weeks leading up to Easter are often used as a time of remembrance of Christ’s ministry and what he went through before his death. In Christianity, the season of Lent is the 40 days before Easter. Because the date of Easter is based on a lunar, rather than solar, calendar, the beginning of Lent changes each year. Traditionally, the first day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday, which in 2017 falls on March 1.

Traditions of Lent

On Ash Wednesday, Christians attend a worship service in which the minister or priest makes the sign of a cross with ashes on the forehead of the worshipper. This symbolizes the sinfulness before God and human mortality. In the Bible, in both Hebrews and Numbers, the ashes of a red heifer would sanctify the ceremonially unclean. Ashes were thought to be purifying.

Human sorrow is represented by ashes. In the book of Esther, the Jews “lay in sackcloth and ashes” as a way of mourning the edict of the King that allowed for the destruction of the Jews. Job used dust and ashes as a symbol of repentance.

Fasting is one of the most common ways that Lent is observed. In older times, the tradition would be to have one full meal per day, with smaller meals allowed. The idea was that a person should have enough food to sustain strength, but never enough to feel full. Each community would have their own traditions, but generally, animal products were forbidden. Fish and fowl might be allowed on Fridays.

On Sundays, the fast would be suspended, but during Lent, Christians would refrain from saying “Alleluia” or the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” rite. These rituals were associated with joy. Because Lent was a time of sorrow, the words would be replaced with another phrase or simply omitted during the season.

During Lent the religious objects such as the cross, statues and pictures might be veiled for the entire 40 days. However, Anglican and Methodist churches traditionally only cover the objects on Good Friday. In more progressive churches, the liturgy of Lent might not be observed at all. Instead, the emphasis is on Easter Sunday, rather than penitence.

Fasting for Social Change

One current trend seen around Lent is that of a positive fast. People don’t just give up food or pleasure, but instead contribute to environmental stewardship. At, people are remembering the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness by doing one thing every day to be more environmentally conscious. For example, have dinner by candlelight and then talk and play games together.

Charisma House, a Christian publisher, is suggesting a 10-day word fast from complaining, criticism, sarcasm and gossip. According to Isaiah 58:6: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” The study asks you to watch what you say for just 10 days, to help you change a pattern of discouragement and negativity.

Another interesting concept is taking on atheism for Lent. For 40 days, a Christian examines literature that speaks to who God is and his or her beliefs in God. It’s a time to examine ideological structures of religion.

You do not have to honor Lent to celebrate Easter, but respect those who do. It’s a Christian tradition that means a lot to those who do partake in the season.