All the great world religions and many contemporary health gurus agree: fasting is good for body and soul. We reflect on what happens to you when you consciously renounce something that’s readily available every day.
When you think of fasting, you may think of weight loss and a healthy lifestyle. But in the world’s major religions, fasting is above all a way of turning inward and looking at where you stand in life. That is why Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, following the example of the Prophet Mohammed by not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset to cleanse the soul and gain spiritual rewards. It is also why Jews have various days of fasting, which commemorate events from Jewish history. And it is why, in the weeks leading up to Easter, Catholics celebrate Lent in memory of Jesus’s forty-day fast in the desert.
There are plenty of spiritual reasons to live at least a little more modestly and maybe even to fast now and then. But fasting is also good for the body, at least if we keep certain rules in mind. Intermittent fasting, which has become the subject of a great deal of medical research, looks like a good strategy for reining in eating habits that are out of control. It may also be the simplest way to reach a healthier weight. Studies have shown that some animals live much longer when fed a restricted number of calories than when they graze freely all day from a full food dish. That applies to: worms, rats, and monkeys—and probably to humans.
You can achieve a healthier way of eating by detoxing or dieting every couple of weeks, but it’s even better to build in enough daily breaks. That’s intermittent fasting in a nutshell. The basic rule of this method is to eat only within a set window each day, whether it’s 12, 10, or 8 hours. That way, you give your liver, and your body, at least a 12-hour break for converting food into usable energy instead of storing it as fat. That may not seem like such a long time, but most people don’t normally stop eating for much more than about 8 hours. After that last glass of wine and handful of nuts or piece of cheese before bedtime, they start their day early the next morning with yogurt, oatmeal, or sourdough toast.
Intermittent fasting can be combined with any conceivable diet from paleo to vegan. In fact, this is a potential pitfall: if you eat nothing but fast food during your window, you won’t have much hope of success. Chips, cookies, ice cream, pizza, and other calorie bombs make you hungry again soon after you eat them, which can be a challenge when your fasting period begins. These products also contain too few vitamins, minerals, and fiber to truly nourish you. An occasional indulgence is nothing to feel guilty about, but intermittent fasting works best when combined with a healthy diet: lots of fruit and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and legumes.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), known as the father of India, is famous for using hunger strikes in his struggle for his country’s independence. He fasted seventeen times in the course of his life, usually to make a moral and political statement. His longest fast went on for 21 days. Gandhi saw fasting as a form of peaceful protest in harmony with his philosophy of ahimsa, which advocates non-violent resistance (satyagraha). He believed the only way to attain the truth (peace) was by walking the way of truth (peace).
From his childhood, Gandhi was passionate about eating a healthy diet. He was a vegetarian and tried veganism for six years, until he came down with dysentery and recovered with the help of goat’s milk. He used very little salt and refused processed food and sugar but was crazy about mangoes and other fruits.
In the Ayurvedic tradition, fasting is a way to cleanse the body. One possibility is to eat much less for several days and choose only plant-based food. For example, you might have boiled rice and mung beans for lunch and vegetable soup, vegetable juice, or a salad for diner. Focus on leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, and chicory. Take a few sips of warm water every half hour throughout the day to support the cleansing process. It may help to keep a thermos of water at your side. According to Ayurveda, the spring is the best season for fasting, because then you can flush out the toxins that collected in your body over the winter. At other times of year, it can be a good idea to go on a juice fast (including vegetable juice) one day a week.
“Being silent leads people to insight.” A retreat, silent or otherwise, is a form of spiritual fasting. We shut out the stimuli that normally surround us—such as music, books, screens, and telephones—avoid eye contact, and eat simple meals. The basic purpose of a retreat is to calm your inner world.
Text: Hanny Roskamp
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