Fasting is an amazing tool for health and weight loss. But did you know that fasting is also part of many religious traditions?
Deliberate abstinence from food and drink as a spiritual practice is very common.
It’s practiced in many diverse cultures across the globe, despite their significant differences in beliefs and geographical separation.
Let’s take a look at some of the religions that observe fasting, and what they consider to be the spiritual benefits.
The Christian faith observes several fasts, though it is not a strict requirement for everyone.
It depends on the particular denomination and the individual choice.
Older, more traditional denominations like Orthodox and Catholics tend to be stricter with their approach to fasting than Protestants.
This is the most well-known Christian fast. It’s a period of 40 days that starts in the spring leading up to Easter Sunday.
Traditionally, Christians would give up animal-based products and other luxuries like alcohol and sweets for most of this period.
Abstaining from food is just one aspect of the Lent. Christians are supposed to use this time to foster spiritual growth, repentance, and cultivating a closer relationship with God. The physical act of fasting should be accompanied by prayer and almsgiving to fully encompass the Lenten practice.
These days, and in more modern denominations, the approach to fasting is more flexible. It’s voluntary and people can choose what they want to give up during the period.
They might give up specific types of food like chocolate. Or abstain from other forms of consumption, for example, social media.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
For the Catholic faith, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory fasting days, as well as all Fridays during Lent.
Sometimes a Pastor or leader in a Christian community might call for fasting and prayer for a specific purpose like healing. This voluntary abstinence is offered as a form of sacrifice and a way to stay focused more on prayer.
Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam.
It is compulsory for all Muslims with a few exceptions. Children and the elderly, as well as pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, are not required to fast.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims must abstain from all food and drink from sunrise till sunset.
The exact dates of Ramadan change every year. It’s linked to the lunar calendar and so each year it starts about 10-11 days earlier.
If Ramadan falls onto winter months, observance is a little bit easier due to shorter days. Whereas in summer months and in certain climates, the daily fast duration could last up to 20 hours.
Ramadan, according to Islamic scholars, serves as a vital period for spiritual growth and self-discipline, fostering a heightened consciousness of God (Taqwa), empathy towards the less fortunate, and a deeper engagement with the Qur'an.
It is a time of purification and renewal, enabling Muslims to develop stronger self-control, deepen their gratitude, and reaffirm their faith.
Read more about Islamic Fasting on our blog
In Judaism, fasting serves as a form of penitence, prayer, or commemoration of certain significant historical events.
There are two major fasts observed in the Jewish year - Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av. They involve abstinence from all food and drink for about 25 hours. All healthy adult Jews are expected to observe these two fasts.
There are four other fasts but they are less strict and last from dawn till dusk: The Fast of Gedaliah, The Tenth of Tevet, The Seventeenth of Tammuz, and Ta'anit Esther (Fast of Esther) before Purim.
In addition to these, there's also the concept of a "Ta'anit" or personal fast in times of trouble or mourning.
Buddhism overall is less formalized than Abrahamic religions. There is more emphasis on personal experience and underlying philosophy, especially for regular people.
Buddhist monks and nuns have more structures and restrictions which include various forms of abstinence from food. In Theravada Tradition, monks and nuns have one just meal in the morning and then fast from noon until the morning of the next day.
Fasting in Buddhism isn't typically seen as an act of self-denial or penitence. Instead, it's more often viewed as a way to aid meditation and mindfulness, helping to train the mind and reduce attachment to the physical world.
Taoism encompasses practices that are religious but also those that are primarily cultural or philosophical.
There is less emphasis on deities and more focus on personal spiritual growth and cultivation.
Various forms of food abstinence are practiced before Taoist festivals and rituals, as a form of purification. Some Taoist monks used to practice Bigu - giving up all grains as a way to promote immortality.
What are the spiritual benefits of fasting?
As you can see, there are many spiritual benefits to fasting.
Religious traditions use it as a tool for deeper introspection, expression of penitence and enhanced connection to the divine. There are also more personal benefits such as improved self-discipline, deeper gratitude and compassion, and purification of the body and mind.
But I’m not religious!
You don’t have to be religious to fast for spiritual purposes.
Maybe you need some clarity about some part of your life. Or maybe you want to reconnect with your deepest self, or foster more gratitude.
Decide what kind of fast you want to do and how long you want to fast. It can be a fast from all food, or a fast from specific types of food.
Or maybe a fast from something else in your life, like social media or television.
During the time that you would be eating (or whatever it is you’re fasting from), focus on the spiritual aspects of your voluntary abstinence.
You might take up meditation. Or take long walks in nature. Or spend time journaling, getting to know yourself better.
Fasting for body and spirit
Whether you’re fasting for better health or weight loss, or for religious reasons, fasting isn’t just a physical experience. It provides a way to reconnect with your spiritual self and foster personal growth.
Author: Roo Black
Roo is a fasting coach with over 5 years of experience. She leads the admin team of the Official Fasting for Weight Loss Facebook group - one of the largest fasting communities on social media with over 125,000 members. We highly recommend this group for anyone who is looking for fasting advice or coaching.