Fasting: Is it healthy?
Fasting has been a common human activity since the beginning of recorded history. At its most basic level, fasting is abstaining from food and liquids, or sometimes just solid food. But is fasting healthy? More specifically, can fasting be used to lose weight, or detoxify (detox) harmful materials from the body?
Fasting to lose weight
Medical experts agree that fasting is not a safe or beneficial way to lose weight. Although it may help you lose a little weight in the short term, it presents numerous health risks and is not a long-term solution. Weight lost due to fasting usually is regained quickly. In fact, fasting can actually make weight problems worse.
Dr Joel Fuhrman explains that “Fasting is not a weight loss tool. Fasting slows your metabolic rate down so your diet from before the fast is even more fattening after you fast.”1 After fasting, your body will quickly try to regain your “set point”, whereas if you lose weight more gradually, by changing your diet and combine that with exercise, this effect will not be as pronounced.
Fasting to detox the body
Lately various schemes to detox the body have become popular. Dr Michael Ho (famous for the “DR-HO Dual Muscle Therapy System”) makes numerous claims about his Digestive Detox system, including that it “helps cleanse and detoxify the intestinal tract by promoting regular bowel movements” which “help eliminate built-up toxins, parasites and worms from the digestive system.”2
However, such products are not supported by the medical field. Research has concluded that “detox diets do no more than the body’s own natural system to get rid of toxins.” Similarly, suggestions that fasting can somehow clear toxins from the body is repudiated by most medical experts, who suggest that drinking plenty of water, along with getting enough sleep and getting fresh air, are all that are needed.3
What’s the point of fasting?
If fasting isn’t useful for dieting or detoxing the body, why bother with it at all? Traditionally fasting was a spiritual exercise. It is mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, where people like Moses, King David, and others fasted to humble themselves or to focus more on spiritual matters rather than merely physical ones. Fasting is also found in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions.
Jesus taught about fasting, and commented that:
When you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.4
For him, fasting was all about focusing on prayer and your relationship with God. Although most biblical fasts were for a single day, Jesus once fasted for 40 days! This is feat that has been repeated by others in recent times such as Dr. Bill Bright who fasted for 40 days as a time of spiritual renewal. He later described the experience as being “a great blessing.”5 He undertook this fast after many years of doing smaller fasts. If you are considering a long fast be sure to consult your doctor first.
The role of fasting today
Today the tradition of fasting continues in several different ways. One of them is Lent, a forty day long tradition commemorating the forty days Jesus spent in the desert. It is celebrated during the forty days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter, which is the celebration of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection. During Lent many Christians will fast or give up a certain cherished food or activity in order to try to spend more time in spiritual contemplation.
In a society that often over-emphasizes the feverish pursuit of material things to the detriment of development of our spiritual lives, fasting is a way to focus on things that are more important. Have you ever felt like something important is missing from your life? Perhaps it’s time to take the spiritual component of your life more seriously, maybe for the first time? If so, here are some links you might be interested in exploring.
Another option is the article Who did Jesus think he was anyways? which explores Jesus’ own self image.
1. Susan Seliger, “Is Fasting Healthy?,” WebMD, n.p. Cited 25 February 2009. Online: http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/is_fasting_healthy
2. “Benefits of DR-HO’S® Digestive DetoxTM,” Dr. Ho Website, n.p. Cited 25 February 2009. Online: http://www.drhonow.com/digestive-detox-benefits.php
3. “Scientists dismiss detox schemes,” BBC News (3 January 2006), n.p. Cited 25 February 2009. Online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4576574.stm
5. Kerry Batchman, “Fasting for 40 days,” Today’s Pentecostal Evangel (March 11, 2001), n.p. Cited 25 February 2009. Online: http://pentecostalevangel.ag.org/conversations2001/4531_bright.cfm