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First, Before You Fast

Over the last two weeks, I've been sharing some foundational principles of health with a group of local women. And by foundational, I mean biblical. With so many competing voices vying for our attention and loyalty when it comes to believing what is healthy and nutritious for humans, I can only say my confidence comes from knowing the message I share is not based on the latest dietary trend or buzzword, the current social media influencer, the latest $cience, and certainly not my own clever thoughts or opinion. What a blessing and encouragement for me to discover these foundational basics are written right there in the Word of God, where they have endured for generations. What is more trustworthy and unchanging as that?

Here's the list I've been sharing and unpacking in more detail with the women in attendance:

  1. Water

  2. Breath

  3. Nature/Sunlight

  4. Connection/Relationship

  5. Movement

  6. Sleep

  7. Diet

This past week, I added an eighth item to the list, but explained I'd have to cover it in a separate event, where we could really dive into it and do the topic justice. And I figure right here is a great place for me to begin putting to words the thoughts in my head on this issue. That item is fasting.

Fasting is such a simple concept when you get down to it. I mean, what's not to understand about not eating? Pretty straight-forward, right? And yet the discussion of this activity is certainly a nuanced one.

Here are just a few of the questions I would ask before embarking on a fasting plan of any kind:

  1. What is your intention with fasting? Short term? Long term? Convenience? As a time-saver? Some want to employ it as a potentially beneficial dietary tool; others intend to practice it as a spiritual discipline. And many are hoping to combine the two somehow - drawing closer to Jesus while dropping a few pounds and regaining their vitality. Truthfully, I see value in all of those motivations! But there is also a darker side to fasting - such as those who use it as a means of punishment and harsh self-denial, or practice it chronically, yet unintentionally, because they are so disconnected from their own souls and have no idea how to identify and respond to the many symptoms of a stressed out, undernourished body. Others use fasting in the hope that it will be that magic cure to cover up all their bad habits. Figure out what you're trying to achieve, and make your goals crystal clear so that you can develop an appropriate plan with safe boundaries and specific measures of progress.

  2. What guidance, if any, have you pursued in this fasting endeavor? Are you following a plan written in a book or magazine? Mimicking something a friend has done? Trying to act on advice from your doctor or other healthcare professional? Making up your own objectives as you go? There could very well be some solid information and pure intention provided from all of these sources, but there is also a good possibility of faulty, and even damaging, advice - even from within the church. I think The Daniel Fast is a great example of this potentially subtle twisting of the truth. Personally, I don't believe that Daniel's decision to forego certain foods was meant to elevate that way of eating as more spiritual or holy or perfect (which is often how it's portrayed, like vegetables are good, and meat is bad), but instead to demonstrate the goodness, faithfulness, and mighty work of God to sustain Daniel even on a diet of just vegetables and water. No one could deny that God was with Daniel and his men, given the way they were thriving despite an extended lack of vital nutrients. I think that was the point, not to say we would all be better Christians if we were vegan. And also, Daniel fasted so He could seek and honor God - not for any self-serving reason.

  3. Have you learned first how to eat, before you decide not to eat? If you end your fast with dietary fare like a package of Twinkies, a bottle of wine, a plate of cookies, or a bag of Tostitos with cosmic orange "cheez sauce," I'm not sure your fast is doing much for you. You might laugh at the obvious, but I talk to people all the time who treat fasting in this manner. If your goal is simply to practice not eating for hours on end, only to return to your usual junky fare when you grow tired of the hunger, I suppose that's your decision to make, even if it's a poor one. But how much more beneficial and pleasant would it be to employ the discipline of fasting when you are already very skilled at nourishing your body? I think you are much more likely to make lasting gains with this second approach.

  4. Can your body handle fasting right now? While fasting does have many potential benefits, the safety and efficacy of the practice really depends on the health of that particular body at that time. Fasting is a stressor. Used appropriately, it can be a hormetic stressor, meaning it provides benefits and builds resilience. But used at the wrong time and under the wrong conditions, fasting becomes another aggressive attack on an already overwhelmed and vulnerable system. Be honest with yourself about where you stand from a health and wellness perspective. Are you pregnant or nursing? Underweight? Anemic? Sleep-deprived? Stressed out with work and family? Dealing with autoimmunity or other health condition? Training for an athletic event? It might be that fasting is not appropriate for you right now.

  5. Have you succumbed to any eating disorders in your past that would make fasting a risky choice? This is the primary reason I am personally very reserved and careful with my fasting efforts. Even though my struggles with disordered eating occurred several decades ago, I am not too foolish to think I couldn't fall back into old patterns, given the right stimuli and environment. I also know that my experience during those years has impaired my body's ability to manage blood sugar like it should, so I make a concerted effort not to extend my fast past a certain number of hours and strive to nourish my body well during my eating window. I know my limits, I am not looking to prove anything to anybody, and I am committed to honoring my body's legitimate nutritional needs. Be sure you can say the same, and mean it.

What has been your experience with fasting, good or bad? If you haven't tried yet, what has kept you from it? What would you add to this list of questions?

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