Science, Faith, and Fasting

My copy of Jay W. Richards’ Eat, Fast, Feast.

Jay W. Richards’ Eat, Fast, Feast is a well-rounded, clearly written, and practical presentation of the discipline of fasting.

I’ve had my eye on this book for some time, and once I finally picked up my copy at my local bookshop, I read it in less than a week. What I found changed my thinking about food, the discipline of fasting, and my physical and spiritual health (which are intertwined). This is a resource I will keep handy in the year ahead once I resume leading and teaching in spiritual formation at Truett Seminary.

Fasting is perplexing for many Christians, and has largely fallen out of routine in the past century, despite the clear assumption of Jesus that his disciples will fast until the day of his return. There are many reasons for this decline. Modern affluence is one factor. Another is messages we hear from health officials concerning our diet, and in the fitness world, we hear it is best if we eat multiple small meals rather than three squares a day. We graze. But we also find it hard to fast due to what we eat. We mostly run on sugar and other carbs that turn into sugar. Many of the health problems we see in America can be traced to poor eating habits. Processed foods, rather than natural foods, are consumed thanks to lower cost and convenience, and, sadly, at the cost of longevity and good health.

As a member of my family likes to say, everything that is bad for you tastes good, and everything that is good for you doesn’t taste great.

In faith circles, fasting is frowned upon because of its association with asceticism and legalistic practices. It is also de-emphasized thanks to theological assumptions about discipleship and what it means to live a holy life. Some avoid fasting and other disciplines because they think that through these practices we must be trying to “earn” our salvation, as though by praying or attending worship more often we could merit favorable standing with God. Such understandings miss the point of both the gospel and the call to sanctification. Responding and trusting are involved in spiritual growth, but the outcomes always ultimately trace their way back to God. The glory remains God’s alone.

Richards names fasting as a historic practice of multiple faith traditions (fasting is featured in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other traditions as well), but focuses on Christian approaches to the practice. He writes as a Catholic, scholar, and as a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute. These commitments inform his presentation. His Catholic commitments provide the reader with an opportunity to learn about the liturgical calendar and the various ways the traditional fasts and feasts have shaped the rhythms of the Christian year. His chapter on the body’s design addresses arguments about human origins, and makes theological claims for a Creator and against Darwinian thought (he also supports his theological convictions with scientific perspectives).

The book is presented as a practical guide, and outlines a six week plan for integrating the practice of fasting into the rhythms of life. There is instruction for a transition period to prepare the body to begin fasting, followed by adoption of a ketogenic diet in week one, and then adding intermittent fasting in week two. Intermittent fasting follows a 16/8 routine (16 hours fasting, which includes sleep, with an 8 hour eating window). In the third week, you move to a 20/4 rhythm. In the fourth and fifth weeks, the plan becomes more intense, with smaller eating windows or food amounts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In the sixth week, Richards encourages the reader to observe a thirty-six to seventy-two hour fast. Every week, Sundays are “mini-feast” days.

Richards notes that fasting, classically understood, means to refrain from eating food. Sometimes fasting also involves refraining from drink. But often, the person who is fasting continues to drink water. The body can survive three to four weeks without food, but only three to four days without water. Fasting has traditionally been done as an expression of repentance or to intensify focus in prayer. Scientifically, fasting is a proven contributor to metabolic health and fosters mental clarity and focus. Fasting is a practice that incorporates and addresses mind, body, and soul.

After reading Richards, I didn’t go the whole hog with his proposed program. But I am three weeks into an intermittent fasting program where I observe a 16/8 intermittent fast Monday through Thursday, a 20/4 fast on Fridays, a circadian rhythm fast on Saturdays, and a feast day on Sundays. I’m also more mindful of the liturgical calendar. Molly and I have adopted a better approach to our diet. My approach has been more in line with Zone Diet principles. The result is that I’ve felt physically better, which shouldn’t be hugely surprising, since I’ve quit eating sugar, and have been fairly consistent in hitting 30/40/30 macro-nutrient (fat/carbohydrate/protein) and calorie count targets each day.

But the more significant result has been my deepened appreciation for fasting. Fasting is a discipline, and truthfully, I’ve known that food has had significant control over me. I eat when I’m stressed, and I’m a notorious grazer. I also like carbohydrates, and not the good kind. I eat way too many tortilla chips. Fasting is teaching me not only how to be disciplined as to when I eat, but also in what I eat.

It has also helped me in being more grateful when I receive food, and has served as a reminder to pray. Whenever I am in a fasting state, the small discomforts I feel are rather small when compared to what Jesus endured on my behalf. He fasted to draw near to the Father while in the body. In fasting, I not only follow his example, but I also draw near to him by considering his life.

I want to be a good steward of my body, for my body, when healthy, is a vehicle for service. Books like Eat, Fast, Feast are helpful, not only in the ways Richards explains the importance of fasting for Christian faith, but also in how he introduces important scientific considerations that help us better understand the body and how we can best approach eating to maximize well being.

The earth yields an abundance of foods that are for our pleasure and enjoyment, the Maker of which is God. Partaking in these foods should be a joy and a delight. In a disciplined life, with a measured approach to fasting and feasting, it is.