We Should Fast, for Body and Soul
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.
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.
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?
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.
All 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.