We Should Fast, for Body and Soul

By Jay Richards Published on February 9, 2018

Valentines’ Day will be tricky for Christians who follow the liturgical calendar. This year, the holiday coincides with Ash Wednesday — the first day of Lent — which is a fast day. That means that on Wednesday, faithful Catholics “in good health aged 18 to 59” will “fast and abstain from meat. … They may eat one full meal, supplemented by two smaller meals that together do not equal the full meal.”

Well, this isn’t really a fast, if by that we mean not eating. It’s just eating less than usual and abstaining from certain foods. Catholics can still have a Valentine’s Day lobster for dinner. They just can’t have three big meals, gorge on turtle pecan clusters, and then pass blissfully into a coma in front of the TV.Turtle pecan clusters

The fact that we call such small self-denials “fasts” shows how much the practice has declined as a regular Christian discipline.

Christians used to fast. A lot. Now, for the most part, we don’t. Not really. At least not in the West.

What happened?

We’re Wimps

As you might have guessed, we’re wimpier than our ancestors. We’re creatures of comfort. Most of us have never gone a full day without eating. We get shaky if we go more than four hours without a vanilla latte or Greek yogurt smoothie or granola bar or protein shake.

Aren’t We Supposed to Eat Like This?

But the wimp factor is only part of the story. Many of us eat the way we do because official sources have said it’s good for us. We’re armed with supposedly scientific arguments for the virtues of eating lots of small meals throughout the day. This habit, we think, keeps our blood sugar steady and protects our body from going into starvation mode, where it clings to fat and sheds muscle.

Besides, if we go too long without eating, we’ll be ravenously hungry and overeat as soon as we gain access to the fridge or manage to pierce that tamper-proof bag of tortilla chips.

We wouldn’t dream of telling our kids, as parents did for most of the twentieth century, to eat only three meals a day with no snacks in between. Haven’t human beings always had carb infusions at 10 am and scarfed down a big bowl of sweet cereal right before bed? And if not, isn’t that just too bad for them?

The practice of this daily grazing casts fasting in a bad light.

Our Modern Diet Makes It Much Harder to Fast

Our modern diet has also made it much tougher to fast. I don’t just mean our actual diets, which are packed with processed carbs and refined sugar. I mean the official “healthy” diet, which the USDA and other smarty pants groups have pushed for decades. No doubt you learned, as I did, to fear dietary salt and fat. Especially saturated fat.

The food pyramid, with carby grains at the wide bottom and fats at the tiny top, is burned into our long-term memories. In recent years, the government has used a plate rather than a pyramid to explain its Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It’s much harder to remember than the pyramid. But it does serve to distract us from asking the obvious question: Why do we take dietary advice from the US Department of Agriculture?

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The result is that we mostly run on sugar, not fat, and so we need frequent doses.

For millennia, people fasted on some days and feasted on others. Now, for the most part, we eat our fill every day except for holidays. That’s when we feast. It’s no wonder there’s a growing epidemic of obesity, Type II diabetes, and other metabolic diseases.

Kinda Crazy

Fasting for Body and Soul Jay Richards 2 - 600All this has led us to think that fasting is, well, crazy. It’s okay for some desert monks and ascetics like St. Francis of Assisi. But c’mon. Jesus told us to carry our cross, not look for ways to get killed. In the same way, how can making ourselves crazy hungry help turn our minds toward Jesus?

As mentioned, Catholics still abstain from some foods on fixed dates — Fridays during Lent, and for an hour before Communion. We call that fasting. And fasting movements emerge in Evangelical circles from time to time. I still remember Bill Bright’s inspired crusade for a forty-day fast in 1994. But these campaigns tend to start with a bang and die with a whimper. Some Protestants fast, but it’s not a group effort anchored in the calendar.

In the past, some Protestants even avoided fasting on principle, because they thought it smacked of works-righteousness and popery. What’s next, incense and funny hats?

If most Christians view fasting as crazy and unhealthy, we won’t make it part of our lives.

It’s no surprise, then, that we’ve lost a sense that fasting matters. Praying; going to Church; helping the poor, widows and orphans; reading the Bible; and spiritual devotions: That all makes sense. But if we’re supposed to fast, why didn’t Jesus command it clearly?

Give It a Try

By the way, I’m not accusing you of thinking these things. I’m summarizing what I thought for years. Until I was more or less forced by a medical condition to think through the details of fasting, I didn’t. Now I have, and I’d like to share it with you.

Lent is right around the corner, so this is a good time to reflect on fasting: what it is, why Christians (and others) have fasted throughout history, when and why most Christians abandoned it, why we should still do it, how to alter our diet and lifestyle to make it much easier, and why it’s actually good for us — despite what we’ve been told.

In a series over the next few weeks, I’ll describe a simple, step-by-step way you can adjust your diet and eating. This isn’t casual advice while I stand on the sidelines. I’ve already tested this on myself — so far as testing blood glucose and ketones. I’ll provide links to background evidence so you can verify the science for yourself.

Barring a rare medical condition, fasting is good for your body and your soul. This method will allow you to make fasting part of your lifestyle, without a lot of fuss, bother or torture.

If you’ve ever thought about fasting — or even if you haven’t — I hope you’ll give it a try during this Lenten season.

Next up: What fasting is and how Christians have fasted throughout history


Jay Richards is the Executive Editor of The Stream and an Assistant Research Professor in the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • Lisa

    I was considering fasting during Lent, so the timing of these upcoming articles couldn’t be more perfect. Happy to get any ideas you have gleaned on how to succeed at it.

    My family has fasted from sugar in the past, but I’m considering fasting from breakfast during Lent, which would be huge for me because I wake up hungry most days.

  • Paul

    Jay, great topic, I look forward to the rest of the series. I have fasted as well and as you’re alluding to, it is much easier when my diet is low carb to begin with. I have yet to be part of a church that took fasting seriously. It might come up from time to time but wasn’t ingrained in the culture so my fasts are mostly of my own doing.

  • Jesus-in-the-City

    I’ve been a part of a few churches that fast. My current US church fasts occasionally but my old church, Times Square Church in NYC used to fast corporately and regularly. I started going there shortly after I got saved so I think that’s why it became a more regular part of my faith than maybe some other believers.

  • Elizabeth Litts

    We still fast once a week around our house–we started during the election and we still fast and pray for our leaders in goverment and this country . we also fast for other things as they come up. Sometimes one day is hard but it’s a good disapline and it can really let you know what your realtionship with Jesus is like and how to make it better.

  • Char B

    Jay, you were sad about testing for food allergies (something like a Christmas dinner of carrots . . ) Is this related?

  • G Hazel

    Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • David Hess

    The interesting point you were making about carbs vs. fat suggests a ultra-low carb or ketogenic approach to diet. Since shifting to this way of olive, fasting is easy – and by fasting I mean real fasting (=no food/no calories). Being fat adapted, instead of a carb-burner is the key. Dr. Jason Fung’s work might be the most important there is currently.

  • Howard Rosenbaum

    Perhaps if fasting were called “slowing” it would help those unable or unwilling to entertain the prospect of a fast to reconsider. Hey, for many in this world of near instant almost everything , it just takes too long to reach the end result.
    Yet there is as Mr Richards notes , a history of fasting w/cause among the faithful. Seems like those who valued this opportunity to draw nearer to a less distracting season of fellowship w/the Father & all that that implies were quicker than many in today’s church.
    Quicker that is to press towards the goal from which the “high calling of God” is perceived & affirmed in a life not ruled by distraction …!

  • philnmdg

    Hi Jay,
    Excellent and well presented discussion. I just viewed a documentary named the Science of Fasting on Amazon Prime and it explains the benefits of fasting exactly as you say. On an interesting note, a normal size and shape male has just enough body fat (lipids) to last 40 days before the body starts burning proteins that can then result in a life threatening situation. There is that miraculous biblical 40 days again!

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