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Religious Fasting and Diet Culture

As the Lenton Season is upon us, many people have chosen some sort of religious fasting regimen.

I want to start by recognizing that spiritual fasting is an important and biblical discipline.

1. Fasting has the potential to enable us to focus on God, to place him at the very center of our attention. It reminds us that we do not live on bread alone but are sustained at the deepest level by the Lord (Matthew 4:4).

2. We spend a lot of time each day on food preparation, eating and cleaning up. Fasting buys us spaces to pray, read the Bible and come before God in a more leisurely way than our schedules might usually allow.

3. Fasting humbles us, showing us our addictions, compulsions and sinfulness, and giving us the opportunity to ask God for forgiveness and transformation. It is a chance to strip away our defenses so that we can identify and then repent of the ugliness we all have hidden inside us.

4. Fasting while praying for something can give our prayers more weight, more urgency, more intensity. It is a way of telling God that we serious enough about our desire to seek him to put up with some hunger pangs.

In scripture, fasting always refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. As with any religious practice, it only pleased God when it was done with the right heart, out of love for God and a desire to acknowledge his authority.

With the benefits of fasting being far and wide, and with my certainty that the intent of the church as a whole, is to have this time be of true and pure worship, it is important for us to search our motives, as God sees the heart over the outward expression.

Let me start by saying that fasting from food is not necessarily for everyone. Some health/spiritual conditions keep us from the traditional course. Fasting does not have to be limited to abstaining from food. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.”

Western culture has transformed food abstinence from a spiritual discipline to a cultural norm. At any given time, 65% of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 have some form of disordered eating, and of that another 10% meet the criteria for an eating disorder. Unfortunately, we are a diet culture- a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body shaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match it’s supposed picture of “health”. This way of thinking about food and our bodies is so embedded in our society, in so many different forms, that it can be hard to recognize.

In the many conversations I’ve had with women(and men) inside and outside of the church, I’ve seen the same theme emerge again and again: people have lost years of their lives to dieting and disordered eating.

This is why I would like to ask you to prayerfully consider the intentions behind what you choose for fasting, so as to keep this a time of worshipping the Lord, and not bending to an idol of thinness or “health”.

A few things to keep in mind when you are considering what to fast during this time are:

· If at any time the goal of a fast shifts to primarily losing weight, it is no longer a fast but a crash diet. Fasting should not be used as a tool to promote weight loss. It’s ineffective, and it also lowers metabolism.

· Regularly focusing on the priorities of the fast is crucial. If you struggle with food and body issues, this may be a way that the enemy is using something meant for good, to mask disordered eating

· Encouraging a “no negative food or body talk “pledge during a fast is wonderful to include at the start of a fast. Food restriction tends to intensify food related obsessions and talk, and this can persist for some time even after the fast. This kind of talk can also be very difficult for someone struggling with food and body issues. Paul addresses the Corinthians to behave in a way that will not cause their neighbor to stumble, even when it is not spiritually harmful to themselves. A good reminder during this time. “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” 1 Corinthians 10: 23-24. He goes on to say in verse 31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

· Fasting is not recommended for active persons that wish to continue with exercise during the fast. Our bodies need the fuel (and electrolytes) before and after exercise, and throughout the day.

· Certain groups should never participate in fasting, and these include: children, elderly, pregnant women, persons with a history of disordered eating (or currently struggling) or are undernourished, persons who have problems with blood pressure (or are on medication for blood pressure), kidney disease, diabetes or are prone to hypoglycemia, persons with unique nutritional needs or nutrient deficiencies (just to name a few).

If the better part of spiritual wisdom for you, in your health/spiritual condition, is not to go without food, consider fasting from shopping, television, computer, social media, or some other regular enjoyment that would bend your heart toward Jesus. Prayerfully seek what you feel is the sacrifice that the Lord will use to move you closer to Him during this time.

And if you do prayerfully seek your heart and find that abstaining from food is best during this time, I am here to help as well. We are not culturally trained or inclined towards fasting, like some who do fast on a regular basis. But when done correctly, you can keep your health intact. Here are some recommendations:

· Seek medical advice before the fast, in any situation, and especially if you have any existing medical concerns or conditions.

· It’s not recommended that you abstain from water during a fast of any length.

· You do not have to consistently fast the entire 40 days, choose what times, types, amounts of food you will refrain from. Make a plan during these times to focus on the spiritual purpose or intent of the fast.

· It is highly discouraged to fast from all meals/food for any significant period of time.

· Don’t go from no fasting- to a longer period of no food intake. If you plan to cut a significant amount of food- Start with one meal a week for several weeks.

· Once the fast ends, be sure to slowly reintroduce foods.

· Again, before deciding on any specific fasting period, situation, seek medical advice for your personal health and your specific fasting choices. Do not get approval for a fast that is not outlined with specifics given to the medical doctor.

If you are participating in a Lenton tradition, and have questions or concerns, feel free to reach out; whether it be about if you should choose to limit food(or not), or about the particular food fast you are choosing.

Brittany Sanders RD/LD CEDRD-S

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