The History of Fasting

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This section has been included to conclusively prove that fasting has been around as long as civilization, and as a matter of fact, arguably even before, as can be witnessed by your pet dog or cat’s fasting behavior when they have eaten something that doesn’t agree with them or suffered some other illness. For the purposes of this book, I am focusing on the history of fasting as it pertains to religious, spiritual and medical usage.

Let’s start with religious fasting. Excepting Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by a Persian prophet that forbids fasting (but does avoid eating meat four days a month!), one can hardly name a religion that does not historically include fasting in its observances in one fashion or another, for a wide spectrum of reasons.

Normally, the go-to source for religious fasting is the period of Ramadan, an approximately month-long period of time observed by Muslims around the world. During this period, eating and drinking is abstained from during daylight hours. The fast is then broken after sunset, usually by a large meal. Fasting is observed during Ramadan as an act of abstinence, as they strive to cleanse both body and soul and increase taqwa, or good deeds.

Muslims have always believed that by reducing overindulgence in food and eating only enough to quell hunger pangs, as well as maintaining normal daily physical activity during Ramadan, they are viscerally reaffirming their religious goals of always striving to attain virtuous behavior, character and habits in thought and deed. Christianity also has a long rich history of fasting, most notably during the Lenten period when fasting is also required by Roman Catholics as an act of abstinence and to represent and reenact the 40 days and nights Jesus spent alone, fasting in the wilderness.

In Judaism, fasting requires complete abstinence from food and drink, including water, and occurs on 6 days of the year, most notably Yom Kippur, which is considered the most important day of the Jewish year. Fasting on Yom Kippur represents atonement and repentance for all one’s sins and transgressions from the past year.

Many Buddhist monks and nuns follow Vinaya rules and rarely eat after each day’s noon meal. They do not consider this a fast, but more a part of their disciplined regimen, which they believe, helps them in meditation and general good health.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, there are many lesser known fasting traditions and rituals associated with religion and spirituality around the world. Here is just a sampling of a few of them:

Eastern Orthodoxy: Fasting is tied to the principle between the body (Soma) and the soul (Pnevma). Orthodox Christians regard body and soul as a single unity and believe that what happens to one has an effect on the other (known as the Psychosomatic Union). Fasting takes up much of the Eastern Orthodox calendar and is not enacted to suffer, but rather to guard against gluttony as well as negative thoughts, words and deeds. The fasting is always accompanied by prayer and almsgiving, or donations to charity or individuals in need.

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Church of the East: All Christians of Syriac traditions have practiced a pre-Lenten fasting event called the Nineveh Fast since the 6th century! During that time, a plague afflicted this region, which we now know as modern-day Iraq.  Out of fear and desperation the people ran to their Bishop for a solution. The Bishop referred to scripture and ordered a three-day fast to ask God for forgiveness, based upon the story of Jonah in the Old Testament. Legend has it that after the three days the plague disappeared.

Mormons: Members of the Mormon Church are encouraged to fast the first Sunday of each month. During these “Fast Sundays” they skip two meals for a total of 24 hours. Any money they save by not purchasing or preparing these two meals is donated to the church, which, in turn uses the money to help the needy.

Hinduism: Fasting takes on many forms and variations in the Hindu religion, based on personal beliefs and local custom. Certain days of the week are designated for one’s personal creed as well as favorite deities. Thursdays, for example, are a common fasting day for Hindus of northern India, who wear yellow clothing and worship Vrhaspati Mahadeva or Guru.

Yoga: Practitioners of the yoga principle believe a fast should be maintained on the Full Moon day of each month, and to spend the entire day with a positive spiritual attitude.

Taoism: Fasting practices originated as a Daoist technique for becoming immortal and later became a traditional Chinese medical cure for Sanshi, or the “Three corpses”, life-shortening spirits thought to reside in the human body.

Sikhism: Sikhs only believe in fasting for medical reasons and when fasting for health are encouraged to remember to act with honesty, sincerity and to control desires.

Interestingly, no matter the form, intensity, length or reasoning for fasting in these religions and spiritual groups, all recommend cautions to individuals who are in some way not capable physically of the rigors of abstaining from nutrition.

These include: children, the elderly, those who are medically fragile, pregnant, nursing or menstruating women. I think it is wise to take a page from these sometimes-ancient fasting rules and exceptions, and always seek medical treatment before beginning any form of intermittent fasting.

The medical history of fasting is as fascinating and diverse in its own right. Pythagoras (580-500 BC), the famous Greek mathematician and philosopher, purposely fasted for 40-day periods, believing that it increased mental acuity and creativity. He demanded the same strict fasting periods from his disciples and followers. Hippocrates (460-357BC) the “father of medicine” and inspiration of the Hippocratic oath, which must be sworn by all medical doctors to this day was an advocate of moderation and treatment through fasting, believing “when a patient is fed too richly, the disease is fed as well. Remember – any excess is against nature.” Fasting as a medical treatment continued through the middle Ages and had resurgence during the Renaissance. Luigi di Cornaro, a Venetian aristocrat, credited fasting with saving his life, writing “A Treatise on temperate living” in tribute to its life changing benefits. German physician and chemist Friedrich Hoffmann (1660-1742) used limotherapy, or the voluntary temporary abstention of food to treat many ailments, including plethora, arthritis, apoplexy, skin disease and cataracts. His first rule of treatment: “For each disease, for the patient it is the best not to eat anything.” Famous patriot, inventor and founding father of America, Benjamin Franklin was a fierce advocate of fasting, claiming “The best of all medicines is rest and fasting”. In 1877, Dr. Edward Dewey, an American physician, pioneered the implementation of long term fasting for its curative powers.

He believed that if a patient presented symptoms including loss of appetite and a coated tongue, s/he should fast until these symptoms disappeared.

Therapeutic fasting became more and more popular through end of the 19th century and continued on into the early 20th century in Europe, and fasting resorts opened to treat patients. American naturopath, Herbert McGolfin Shelton, who supervised the fasts of over 40,000 clients, lived for 100 years and was nominated by the American Vegetarian Party to run for President in 1956, wrote, “Fasting must be recognized as a fundamental and radical process that is older than any other mode of caring for the sick organism, for it is employed on the plane of instinct…” During this century, fasting was used to treat a range of health ailments including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, digestive problems, allergies and headaches.

To this day in Germany, fasting is part of “nuturheilkunde” – natural health practice, and has been integrated into medical practice to the point that patients can be referred for a fast by their doctors.

The practice of intermittent fasting has brought this ageless practice full circle, proving the axiom, “everything old is new again!” Intermittent fasting seems to have entered the diet and health scene around the turn of the new millennium and, not surprisingly, during the early days of the Internet. Books like “The Warrior Diet” by Ori Hofmekler and “Eat Stop Eat.” By Brad Pilon, pioneered the principles of intermittent fasting and then in 2007, Martin Berkhan burst onto the Internet scene with “Lean Gains”, bringing awareness of intermittent fasting to mainstream audiences and becoming the face of the movement. Since then, countless health, nutrition and fitness communities including Paleo and CrossFit have adapted intermittent fasting to their own regimes.

Whether you ultimately choose to follow one of the many well-established intermittent fasting programs or customize intermittent fasting to your individual needs, it’s reassuring to know that this is not just the latest dieting fad or trend. It is a lifestyle choice with deep roots in the history of humankind.

In the next chapter, I will explain exactly what happens when your body is in a fasted state, rather than a fed state, as well as how fasting affects how we burn and store calories and how we detoxify.

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