Fasting: Fad or Human Universal
Illustration: Margot Whipps
In Philadelphia, if you live in Allegheny or around the Health Science campus like I used to, we can safely call this a semi food desert, if not a full food desert. I couldn’t find fresh fruit in the area for about one year until the Rite Aid across from the Dental School started offering bananas for 69 cents.
Now that I am back in Tokyo, finishing my degree at Temple Japan, I am surrounded by so much food I can not wait until my next meal sometimes! You might think that’s dramatic, but I dare you to come live here and see for yourself.
The options I have for food overwhelm my ability to listen to my hunger signals. I have a Lawson convenience store 2 minutes away, two 7-eleven’s another 2 minutes away, one super market 2 minutes away, and that’s not even mentioning the possibility of crossing the street to the other supermarket about four minutes away. I recently found two more super markets and have started going to the mom-and-pop stands that open at very particular and sporadic times of the week. One stand I asked said they were only open on Tuesdays and Sundays but then they opened Thursday and Friday too. The diverse options make food such a joyful thing for me, it’s no wonder I became interested in food cultures.
Conversely, the 24/7 convenience has me feeling spoiled. I’ve been spoiled all my life in this regard. I’ve never been hungry and I never thought about fasting until it became one of the largest diet trends in the United States in 2018 and 2019. There is now medical research to support the idea that fasting can manage insulin levels and even help to maintain or lose weight. It might even help to counteract aging as controlled calorie intake seems to slow down cell turnover.
That’s why I have started to become interested in different approaches and abilities to deny one’s self food. When I hear that someone can skip both breakfast and lunch in a period called “intermittent fasting” my eyes widen and I wonder out loud how they manage. It’s especially easy in Tokyo where with long nights, late dinners, and early mornings (business starts around 9 or 9:30 am), many workers don’t eat breakfast as they used to. Just coffee, or something very small. A convenience store at 7 or 8 in the morning is a fun place to people watch for this reason, because people come in to pick up one or two items and head out in less than a minute. It’s a daily routine. So, I now think of self denial of food as a super attractive trait. For example, to say, “my appetite is weak”, or, “I am not in the mood for food”has been contorted into a desirable lifestyle practice.
The idea of self-denial is not new though. It has been around for centuries. In ancient China, I learned that the starving protagonist, usually wasting away from a broken heart, is a trope in ancient Chinese stories.
Because of how many health trends in the United States seem to be based on fads and whims, I wanted to understand fasting around the world in time-tested cultures, religions and practices.
For example, while fasting in the United States seems recent, a quick Google search reveals fasting has long been an indispensable pillar of the Islamic faith in their holy month of Ramadan.
To discuss Ramadan, we must acknowledge it as the most sacred month of the year for Muslims. While Sunnis and Shiites have slightly varying customs, Ramadan essentially is a month of self improvement, self reflection, and critical study of the Quran in order to become closer to God.
Fasting is the main practice of Ramadan, and may be one of the hardest for many. It is called Sawm and from dawn (fair) to dusk (maghrib), the idea of fasting is to help people “burn away their sins”. Sawm is so important that it is one of the five pillars of faith in the Islamic tradition.
Refraining from smoking and sex from dawn to dusk is also practiced, and breaking the fast at the wrong times will require extra fasting time or public service at the end of the month. Not every Muslim will fast for there are exceptions for athletes, those traveling, and children, as well as those who practice their faith differently.
My first encounter with Ramadan was when I saw my uncle who was born Catholic, begin subscribing to the Islam religion by fasting from morning to night. I was 12 and only vaguely understood the Islamic faith, but I was mesmerized by his effort and remember watching from a distance as he chose between sleep or eating and battled headaches in the summer. Ramadan occurs in different months of the year and while I saw my uncle fasting in August, it coincides with the lunar calendar and is subject to change. This year it will be in April.
There are several other examples of fasting in world religions. The “Buddha diet” was a popular, but pretty much inappropriate coin for the type of eating that Buddhist monks of certain sects partake in.
Fasting in Buddhism
Many people link fasting and Buddhism in the United States. But some people do not realize there are multiple sects of Buddhism. The fasting rituals in Zen Buddhism will differ from those in Mahayana Buddhism or Vajrayana.
Fasting in Buddhism comes from the story of the emaciated (abnormally thin) Buddha. After reaching enlightenment, The Buddha fasted for seven weeks or about 49 days.
But some say that after this, the Buddha did not recommend extreme fasting. He only recommended that nuns and monks do not eat after lunch, from noon to sunrise of the next day.
The image of the starving buddha remains in the minds of all who see it represented, and we start to think of fasting as an ultimate control over one’s body. Control over bodily desires means one is a step closer to enlightenment.
Yom Kippur and Lent
Unsurprisingly, fasting in Judaism and Christianity also exists. In the Jewish Faith, the holy day of Yom Kippur celebrates Moses’ trip to Mount Sinai, his attainment of the tablets detailing the Ten Commandments, and his revelation after 40 long days and nights of fasting. Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement” and in non-Biblical times, it is spent mainly in Synagogue, and accompanied by a roughly 25 hour fast. Reflecting on wrong doings is the purpose of the fast and the holiday occurs ten days after the New Year of the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur 2020 will happen on Sunday September 27th through Monday the 28th. It is the holiest day of the year in the Judaism faith. Another holiday of fasting in the Jewish faith is Tisha Bav. While not detailed in Holy Scriptures, it is still an attempt to memorialize traumatic events in the Jewish faith such as the destruction of Temples. Drinking, washing, and donning leather are not allowed on both of these holidays. It will occur this year on July 29th through the 30th.
Christian and Jewish themes of fasting typically revolve around prophets. In Christianity, Jesus fasted for 40 days as well, and instructed his followers to fast with him. When I was living in Mexico, I participated in Lent and Ash Wednesday for the first time by giving up one material item that was somewhat of a sacrifice for me at the time, soda. I took it seriously and when I once confused coke for coffee, I spit the drink out of the sixth floor window!
Fasting in Jainism and Sallekhanaat
Finally, the most surprising religious fasting ritual I have encountered is the practice in Jainism that results in a fast to death. Jainism, with a following of about 6 million people, is one of the four major religions from India, the other three including Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. Jains are renowned as one of the most non-violent people on the planet, and not only do they regularly fast such as on founder Mahavira’s birthday, they also do not eat meat, animal products, some vegetables if their roots are grown in the ground, and some Jains wear masks over their faces so that they do not accidentally inhale bugs. Monks do not wear clothing because clothing is made from plant fiber. Jains do not believe in a god but they believe in the soul. Fasting relates to the atonement for sins and for purifying their bodies and souls. Since Jainism was established about 2,500 years ago, we can assume their fasting practices are also that dated.
The fast to death occurs at a very particular moment in time. In old age, monks will occassionally fast to death, something known as Sallekhanāat. It is a gradual death and wilting away at the end of life, and while it is different from suicide in that it is a peaceful resignation to death and the acceptance of a failing body, it has long been contested. It is estimated that about 200 people die every year in India from this purposeful fasting to death.
Of course, each religion’s fasting practices are complex and take years to comprehend. As it has only recently entered mainstream American culture, there is still much for Americans to understand about the practice.
Fitness Fasting Practices in the USA
Fasting in the United States has generally been accepted to be a period from 8 hours or longer in which no form of food or drink besides water and sometimes coffee or tea is ingested. According to the Harvard Health blog, fasting gained traction after popular books and documentaries such as The Obesity Code and The 5:2 Diet. As for how to go about fasting, there are different rhythms and patterns people like to follow. In my view, they can get overly complicated especially for those interested in fasting but do not know how to start. That’s why I started using an app for this called Zero. They allow for five main types of pre-set fasting patterns.
- The circadian rhythm (fasting for thirteen hours and eating when the sun is up),
- 16:8 pattern (don’t eat 16 hours, eat only in an 8 hour window—helpful to skip either dinner or breakfast)
- 18 hour fast, 6 hour eating window.
- 20 hour fast, four hour eating window.
- Monk Fast or 36 hour fast (supposedly allows for a metabolism “reset” and many start on Sunday Evening and break the fast on Tuesday morning)
One day I might like to try this monk fast but I think I’d have to be really busy to accomplish it. I think in Tokyo, it is physically impossible for me. And as I reflect on all the spiritual practices of fasting in other cultures, without a spiritual impetus, is it something realistic for me to pursue?
My longest fast was 17 hours. I found it easiest to begin the fast in the middle of the day around 2 pm. I stayed busy at night which was the easiest for me, forcing myself to do an interview for a part time job in Japanese helped me to forget about food and focus on the language. I did have a moment around 2 am where I felt I really needed to eat something, but I swiftly fell asleep again. While some fasting types advocate against any calories, according to the Zero app, it depends on what your goals for the fast are. Since my goal was, at that moment, to simply make it through the fast, I allowed myself to have tea and coffee and water but without added cream, milk or sugar.
What I think
What is clear is that food and fasting are a part of many cultures and religions, and have been for thousands of years. Instead of being afraid of fasting, I think we can look at it as a part of human history. Aside from the possibility that our cavemen ancestors probably fasted from sheer lack of food, spiritual enlightenment is a prime reason for fasting. Also, the idea of ultimate control over the body has been an impetus for restricting food intake.
I think it’s important to think of eating and food are human universals—you will always have this in common with another human being in some shape because every person needs nutrients. There is also little action we as humans perform with more regularity than we do eating. Some other human universals include assigning age, athletic sports, bodily adornment, keeping track of time, hygiene, cooking, cooperative activities, dating and flirting, dancing, art, food taboos, death ceremonies, and more. As a human universal, is it not a good, enlightening idea to try different ways of experiencing the human universal of eating?
Finally, I think fasting can help Americans look at the world differently because it can help us ask ourselves, in what other ways can I improve my health or relationship with food. How can I interact with my country’s food culture? Do I have control over my body? What am I able to do and think about when I am not allowed access to food? We all know that the United States does not have a very long food culture, and it is saturated with marketing campaigns and with what big chains and conglomerates want people to eat. So recently, I am wondering in what ways can I become more conscious of my own mindset, and catch how it is affected by culture, marketing, or something else like, intuition. Freeing up my mind to see the biases and limitations I set around food also are a part of my daily life and fasting might help me do this.