All world religions have some type of fasting tradition. In other words, fasting is deeply rooted in human culture and one can suspect that fasting has positive effects in addition to the physical health markers.
Religious fasts take place in a variety of ways. Buddhist monks do not eat from lunch until sunrise. During the fasting month of Ramadan, Muslims stay away from both food and water during the day. Jews do the same for a day at the feast of kippur. In Christian traditions, the periods are longer, but with more relaxed requirements. Before Easter they have to cut down on a particular food for 40 days, such as refraining from meat.
The reason why the fasting traditions arose can be connected to the challenging life of the ancient man. The savannah, after all, was not a never-ending buffet. Our ancestors needed to learn to forgo something in the moment in order to ensure their future. Those who saved for tomorrow, even though it is always satisfying to eat, had a greater chance of survival.
For this to work, it was necessary for the entire tribe to follow the principle so that no one stole the saved food. By developing cultural traditions, reinforced by psychological mechanisms such as shame, it became possible for man, unlike most other animals, to conjointly plan for the future. The realization that it was worth it not to meet immediate desires gained hold.
This important cultural principle: renouncing something today to thrive in the future is a fundamental theme of world religions. The pagan sacrificial rites practiced throughout history are likely an expression of the same intention. Although it may seem totally insane to burn the finest goat on an altar instead of giving the meat to the children, it was a sacrifice to the gods (the future) that strengthened the tribe.
Abstaining from food is perhaps the easiest way to symbolize the principle and it is therefore no wonder that fasting traditions have taken place in religions. Fasting is also physically tangible and leads to feelings of depressing hunger and uplifting clarity. It often seems that religious fasting is about sacrifice, but if you ask the religiously active it is more about opening a conversation with God and getting guidance.
Many studies have been conducted on religious fasting and, as expected, the physical effects are positive in the short term. Believers around the world, after fasting, receive improved risk factors such as lower insulin resistance and better cholesterol levels. Then there are the more difficult-to-measure psychological effects linked to tradition, religion and origin.
The fasting tradition today
In the ingrained lives that most of us live today, many of the threads of our past existence have broken. We make every effort to do our jobs so that we can fill the fridge with food and avoid shame, but most do not live in the unconditional affiliation of religious traditions that were once forced. Of course, it is positive in many ways, but it may be worthwhile to open the door to our past every once and awhile.
Not by sacrificing a goat, but by starting a conversation with ourselves about what is valuable in life. I myself began to fast only for the health effects, but over time I have shifted my focus to also using the periods to get a better look at my place in life. Sometimes the days of calorie restriction are just pitiful. Often though new insights and thoughts arise. Call it a hunger-induced psychological phenomenon. Or guiding. For some reason it is also always easiest to fast just before Easter.
In our new modern tradition it is after New Year’s that most of us think about it. This is also when we tend to increase our exercise and healthy living efforts. No matter which season you decide to give it a try though it is worth saying that it is one tradition that is worth trying.
This is a guest post. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.