Why Religious Fasting Is Not A Diet

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has asked the world to join them in a fast today, with a prayer in our hearts that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, economy strengthened, and life normalized. The members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints aren’t the only ones fasting this month, since Ramadan and Lent also occur during April. 

If you haven’t participated in a religious fast before, you may wonder why a dietitian would ask you to give up food; and that’s justified. I hope I can answer some of your questions about fasting through this article, but know I am not a religious scholar or official PR person for my church. 

What Is Fasting?

Traditional fasting is the abstinence of food or drink for a designated period. However, one can also fast from a behavior, such as watching t.v. Many religions from Judaism (Yom Kippur) to Hinduism (Purnima) participate in fasting. In ancient times, fasting was a way to prepare priests to approach the Gods. The fast signified the priest’s dedication to worship, and as a result, their ability to communicate with heaven increased. The duration and how you fast depends on your religious beliefs and individual situations. For example, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a traditional fast occurs once a month and lasts 24 hours or for two skipped meals. Also, money that would have otherwise been spent on food during that time is donated to charity. In other religions, fasting may occur during certain times of the day. When fasting, it’s customary to begin and end with a prayer.

Why Do We Fast?

Similar to the priests mentioned earlier, our fast is rooted in sacrifice. When we fast, we demonstrate a humble heart, willingness to repent, and submission to God. We turn our hearts away from the luxuries and even necessities to life, and instead towards our Heavenly Father. When we have all we need temporally, it’s easy to find brief comfort and contentment in the world, without God. As we become weak from hunger, we rely on him, strengthening or spirits and our prayers. I know this is true from my own experience. I am a constant snacker, and fasting is challenging for me. It pushes my mind and body to its limit. I try to distract my hunger with everything under the sun – my phone, tv, sleep, just as I would typically turn to a snack to feel better, but those only provide momentary relief. During a fast I am only genuinely filled through HIM. This principle goes beyond a fast, it applies to our overall life.

Our daily prayers can become casual, said without much thought. However when we fast with a specific prayer in our heart (ex: relief from COVID19), we become more aware of the Lord’s hand in answering those prayers. In addition, we show Him we’re serious about our prayer. Remember, the answers to our prayers may not come as expected, but when we are praying with a humble heart, we will receive great blessings. At the very least, even if our trying situation continues, we will find more comfort and peace to endure the challenges we face in life. 

How Is Fasting Different Than A Diet?

If you are an eating disorder dietitian or practice intuitive eating, the idea of religious fasting may raise red flags. I agree, going long periods without food contradicts principles of intuitive eating, such as listening to your hunger cues. I want to remind everyone that fasting is not a diet nor to be done for an extended amount of time. Fasting should also not be used as a tactic to change our bodies. The intent behind fasting isn’t to employ the fear of God to shame us into following a diet. The difference between a diet and a religious fast boils down to our intentions. Honestly ask yourself, “Am I doing this to improve my body or my soul?” Diets are focused on the body. Fasting focuses on the soul. Yes, taking care of our bodies is vital to our overall spiritual journey, but it’s not the purpose of fasting. 

What if you are unable to fast?

Not everyone can fast from food for an extended time due to their medical history, pregnancy, age, etc. In these cases, remember the purpose of the fast. What are your intentions, and how can you show them to the Lord? The Lord knows your heart so what you choose to do is between you and Him.

Here are some ideas from Why I’m A Disciple :

  • Try for just one or two meals.
  • A water fast – drinking water but not eating food.
  • Fast from technology.
  • Fast from a food you typically enjoy.
  • Wrestle with god in prayer like Jacob, Moses, Job, Nephi, Saul and even Jesus Christ have done. 
  • Go to a holy place, even in your home, to be with God by journaling, praying, and pondering
  • Read holy scriptures and genuinely study them out in your mind and in your heart. 
  • Take an inventory of things you can give up for good to be closer to your father in heaven. 

Today I begin my fast with a prayer that we will find relief from COVID19. Regardless of what the outcome is, I have faith this fast will result in miraculous blessings, such as increased peace and unity around the world. I hope you enjoy this Easter season. Check out this video below featuring the invitation to fast from President Russell M Nelson:

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