Fasting is Food for the Soul

The spiritual and physical health benefits of fasting.

by Alan B. Sanderson, MD

Once in the middle of my work day I sat down to eat lunch, which was some leftovers from dinner the night before. When I pulled it out of the microwave oven and opened the lid, one of my colleagues said, “That smells . . . difficult!” I wasn’t sure what he meant at first, until he explained that he was fasting. My friend is a Muslim, and was observing the month of Ramadan by not eating or drinking during daylight hours.

Fasting is an important part of my faith too, so I could empathize with my friend that day. Latter-day Saints fast for 24 hours at a time on the first Sunday of every month. It can be hard to go without food and drink for that long, especially when other people around me are eating, but I can have a really wonderful experience with fasting  when I focus on the spiritual aspects instead of dwelling on the hunger or thirst I feel.

The Physical Effects of Fasting

Everyone knows that extreme fasting is bad for you. It is possible to die from starvation if you don’t eat enough calories to sustain your life, and lesser degrees of malnutrition can have various harmful effects on the body. But intermittent fasting actually has health benefits. Caloric restriction has been shown to have cardiovascular and anti-aging benefits.

In 2008 a team of researchers from the University of Utah and Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake City published a paper in the American Journal of Cardiology in which they report that patients who routinely fast have a lower risk of coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus than those who don’t fast. This effect was still present even after they used statistical methods to control for other variables, like whether or not patients used tobacco, coffee, or tea, and other factors like how much social support they had and how often they attended church meetings. The health benefits of intermittent fasting were seen in Latter-day Saints and in people of other religions who routinely fasted. The authors of the paper felt that fasting was producing this benefit by influencing the metabolic systems of the body, and that the effect was not simply from restricted caloric intake or improved self-control. (One of the authors of this paper was Dale G. Renlund, whom we have mentioned in a previous post.)

There have been several other studies of different styles of fasting and dietary restriction among different faiths, including Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians, and adherents of the “Daniel Fast,” and these studies generally show positive effects on cardiovascular and metabolic health. But however beneficial these physical effects of fasting might be, they are far overshadowed by the spiritual benefits.

The Spiritual Effects of Fasting

The earliest mention of fasting in the Bible is when Moses was in Mount Sinai speaking with the Lord, and there are many other examples throughout the Old and New Testaments, and in the Book of Mormon. Fasting can be an enabler or catalyst to intensify our interactions with God, and many of these passages in the scriptures describe how fasting brought great spiritual blessings to people in times of sorrow or special need.

One extreme example of the spiritual effects of fasting was related by John H. Groberg. While he was a missionary in Tonga he nearly starved to death after a hurricane swept over his island, and weeks went by before a rescue boat came to their island with food. Elder Groberg said:

As the eighth week commenced, I had no energy. I just sat under the shade of a tree and prayed and read scriptures and spent hours and hours pondering the things of eternity.

The ninth week began with little outward change. However, there was a great inward change. I felt the Lord’s love more deeply than ever before and learned firsthand that His love “is the most desirable above all things … yea, and the most joyous to the soul” (1 Ne. 11:22–23).

I was pretty much skin and bones by now. I remember watching, with deep reverence, my heart beating, my lungs breathing, and thinking what a marvelous body God has created to house our equally marvelous spirit! The thought of a permanent union of these two elements, made possible through the Savior’s love, atoning sacrifice, and Resurrection, was so inspiring and satisfying that any physical discomfort faded into oblivion.

I learned that just as rockets must overcome the pull of gravity to roar into space, so we must overcome the pull of the world to soar into the eternal realms of understanding and love. I realized my mortal life might end there, but there was no panic. I knew life would continue, and whether here or there didn’t really matter. What did matter was how much love I had in my heart. I knew I needed more! I knew that our joy now and forever is inextricably tied to our capacity to love.

As these thoughts filled and lifted my soul, I gradually became aware of some excited voices. My companion Feki’s eyes were dancing as he said, “Kolipoki, a boat has arrived, and it is full of food. We are saved! Aren’t you excited?” Feki gave me some food and said, “Here, eat.” I hesitated. I looked at the food. I looked at Feki. I looked into the sky and closed my eyes.

I felt something very deep. I was grateful my life here would go on as before; still, there was a wistful feeling—a subtle sense of postponement, as when darkness closes the brilliant colors of a perfect sunset and you realize you must wait for another evening to again enjoy such beauty. (October 2004 General Conference)

My own experience with fasting has never been this extreme, but I have tried to exercise some of the same cognitive and spiritual behaviors which Elder Groberg describes in his account. During a true fast I will disconnect from or ignore my concerns about physical or temporal needs and instead concentrate on my relationship with God and my fellow human beings. I feel more grateful for my blessings, and I find it easier to pray while I am truly fasting. It is also easier to hear God’s answer to my prayers.

Fasting is not entirely about introspection, however. It is also an opportunity for charitable giving. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to take the money saved by not eating two meals and give it to the church to help feed the poor. Gordon B. Hinckley, former president of the Church, said this about fasting and fast offerings:

Think, my brethren, of what would happen if the principles of fast day and the fast offering were observed throughout the world. The hungry would be fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered. Our burden of taxes would be lightened. The giver would not suffer but would be blessed by his small abstinence. A new measure of concern and unselfishness would grow in the hearts of people everywhere. Can anyone doubt the divine wisdom that created this program which has blessed the people of this Church as well as many who are not members of the Church? (April 1991 General Conference)

Fasting has spiritual, physical, and societal benefits, each of which I have experienced personally. My fast offerings have put food into the mouth of the poor, and at times my family has been fed by the generous fast offerings of others. The Lord has heard my prayers, and showered blessings of health and faith into my life. I encourage you to try fasting, if you are able to do it without risk to your health. You will discover for yourself what so many people throughout the history of the world have learned: that fasting is food for the soul.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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