Fasting: Friend Or Foe?
If food is the staff of life,
Should there be famine, wars and strife’s?
For like the ant should man proceed?
To fulfill his want and need.
And that is food. – Bunny Wailer
‘Tis the Holy Season of Ramadan and tens of millions of folks around our planet are observing one of the more challenging of the five pillars of Islam: fasting. Here in the west, where the practice of eating is all day every day – breakfast, then a snack, then lunch, then a snack, then dinner, then a nightcap – fasting is a daunting task.
I have heard some say that some health care providers advise that fasting is not healthy, especially for those with chronic health issues like diabetes, hypertension, depression, GI disruptions, headaches, women on their menses and anyone on medication – troubles that over 85 percent of the adult population suffer with.
Then there is advice to eat several small meals throughout the day, yet there is conflicting agreement on the appropriate caloric intake for this type of meal pattern. There are pieces of advice not to skip a meal especially breakfast the “most important meal of the day”, eat more protein and less carbs, eat more carbs and less fat – WHEW! No wonder we are in a digestive conundrum.
Yet if fasting is not good for us, why do the majority of the world’s faith traditions practice some sort of fasting at least once every year for millennia?
Fasting all over the world
Today, it’s the holy Season of Ramadan that was preceded by both the Christians’ season of Lent and the Jewish tradition of Passover: both faiths encouraging a practice of abstention from food among other activities.
The Buddhists observe Uposatha, in which two to six days of each lunar month provides a practice of fasting to “cleanse the defiled mind” that will “result in inner calm and joy.”
The Hindu celebrate fasting and prayer during their holy season of Vasanta Navaratri: a nine-day celebration to honor the Goddess Durga who represents the epitome of absolute power- Go Goddess Girl Magic! The Baha’i observe 19 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset to explore and enjoy the purpose of reinvigorating the soul and to assist one in moving closer to God. Most tribes of Native America and Africa all make an observation of fasting for purification during a cycle of the sun.
So why the disconnect in our contemporary western culture?
The science behind food consumption
Physiologically, (and according to researchers at the Mayo Clinic) the average time it takes for food to transverse through our digestive tract – from mouth to toilet – is 40 hours! 33 hours for men and 47 hours for women on average. So, if we eat breakfast then a snack then lunch then a snack then dinner then a nightcap seems we might have a back up the length of the Interstate 95 corridor from NYC to the ATL.
Western medical scientists, as well as most of the world’s healthcare researchers, agree that the majority of what ails us is a direct result of what we consume as food. And yet fasting is not only frowned upon; it is discouraged! As a wellness practitioner who is also a certified nutrition specialist and licensed dietitian, I see clients for a host of diet-related health problems, but curbing the appetite seems mission impossible.
Let’s face it! We have a dysfunctional relationship with our source of life, and that is food!
I am encouraged though! Some wise entrepreneur has found a way to disguise the art of fasting by retrofitting the practice as a dietary strategy: The intermittent fast. Credited as founded by Swedish bodybuilder who considers himself the “godfather and high priest” of intermittent fasting, Mark Berkhan is collecting big coin by re-packaging an age-old religious pillar sans the spiritual stuff.
I say, whatever it takes! Having practiced fasting over the years, I have come to understand its value. Besides feeling absolutely marvelous, fasting helps clear your mind and therefore helps calm it. All five senses are heightened, especially the sense of taste so when one does break the fast, food tastes so good! With the calmness of mind and body, one is naturally led to a state of introspection and that greatest of all questions waits our musing: what is the meaning of my life and what am I called to do?
A few years ago, I participated in a clinical study of yoga as self-care. The researchers who designed the protocol were instructed by their IRB (Institutional Review Board) not to include any “spirituality” in the yoga study. No use of Sanskrit words, no Om-ing, no holding hands in prayer like positions. We yoginis struggled with this sanitized approach to yoga. Hell, without the spiritual stuff, isn’t it just exercise?
Yet as we move through the cohort of students, we discovered that the students naturally found a deeper, inner exploration of themselves without the yogic spiritual prompting.
So too it may be with fasting.
The art of abstaining is one of voluntary refrain. It is the practical application of disciplining the self. We will never achieve our greatest desire giving when we’re into every desirous impulse that comes our way on a daily. Why not practice disciplining ourselves with the most obvious personal actions we have in our control, and that is eating food?
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