It is obvious that if we ate three sensible meals a day, every day of our life, our body would adapt to the regime and do its best to keep us healthy. Unfortunately, we put our systems under strain by eating too much, eating at the wrong times and eating too many different foods at once. It is rare now to meet someone who eats a perfect diet. It has become essential, therefore, to look to abstinence and fasting as methods of giving our system a rest, particularly when there is a health issue such as excess weight adding to the stress put on the body.
We are conditioned to our mealtimes. As a mealtime approaches, acid secretion increases and our appetite builds up. If no food is supplied, we are likely to get angry and irritable more easily. Skipping a meal or two can cause great tension, headaches, weakness and even a sinking feeling. Probably everyone at some stage or another has experienced this. It is this fear of starving or collapsing from hunger that scares people off fasting. Yet we also know, from news stories of people surviving days under rubble after an earthquake or other disaster, that we can survive without food for quite a long time.
The Fasting Tradition
Most traditional religions, including Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity, advocate fasting at various times. Fasting is viewed not only as a method of observing sacrifice or penance but also as a means of purification of the body and soul, and it is recognized that fasting is important for improving the healing power within the body. Hinduism and Islam have looked at the matter of fasting very deeply and have made it compulsory to observe the rituals associated with it.
Two important Hindu fasts are the seasonal Navratri fasts, one in the springtime and the other in autumn. These are times of the year when people generally tend to get ill and perhaps these fasts awaken their bodies and help them adjust to the new season. These are times for prayers and chanting, and people eat just one meal a day, at sunset, consisting of fruit, grains and some vegetables, cooked simply. There are also weekly one-day fasts dedicated to various gods, to thank them and to improve the quality of life.
Although these fasts are observed strictly for religious reasons, they have an effect on health too – this weekly pause helps keep weight in check and gives the system a chance to rectify any damage caused directly by diet. Of course, everything should be done in moderation, and unfortunately there are some zealous people, women in particular, who overdo the fasting, often when they are unhappy or there is a problem in the family. They follow every fast there is and consequently suffer from poor nutrition. One has to be cautious of such fasts, as anything in excess is bad.
Jains go further still. Because they believe in not harming any living creature, they follow a strictly vegan diet and during the monsoon season, when a lot of insects are found in fruit and vegetables, they eat nothing fresh at all, and survive on grains, lentils and dried beans. Jain priests are known to fast for a month or so at a stretch, taking in nothing more than water. To suppress their appetite and control hunger pangs they suck cloves, as clove oil numbs the nerve endings.
Sometimes, fasting becomes a practice followed to the letter but not in spirit. The Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, when nothing is eaten or drunk between sunrise and sunset, was formulated to give the body a total rest, the day’s fast prepared for by a breakfast of dates and other fruit and broken by a light evening meal. Unfortunately, for some, it has become a time to sleep all day, and eat and party all night. Thus this admirable month-long fast is becoming increasingly unhealthy. And then, soon after Ramadan, comes a festive season, when all the goodness achieved during fasting is ruined.