Fasting is not a Diet


What is the difference between a religious fast and a diet? Dieting is about your body and health. Fasting is about your soul, God, and answers to prayer. Both are good; one is infinitely superior.

DetailPieterBruegelDeOudeBestrijdenTussenCarnavalEnVastenBoston   fastingWith a diet, incentives are many. Fitting into a smaller size is the Holy Grail of fashion and appearance. Feeling and looking good is the reward that gets us through a rumbling stomach. And then there are the compliments: You look great!

With fasting, it’s not about looking good or getting compliments. Instead, fasting has the power to defeat evil, strengthen our prayers and draw us closer to God.

When we fast, we follow the example of Jesus who fasted for forty days in the desert before he began his public ministry. Contemplate that a moment. Jesus, who is the second person in the Trinity, utilized the power of fasting. Before going public, he sacrificed his hunger for the power he understood it would bring.

Powerful Examples

Fasts were often called for in Scripture. For instance, God sent Jonah to the city of Nineveh to warn them that he would destroy them if they did not repent. The entire city prayed, repented and fasted. God spared the city.

Kings and presidents once called on their entire country to fast. President John Adams proclaimed a day of fast and abstinence in 1798 when France threatened war. War was avoided. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of fasting in August of 1864 during the Civil War. The tide turned.

During Lent, last year, Archbishop William Goh, Archbishop of Singapore called on all of Singapore’s 200,000 Catholics to fast each Friday on bread and water to promote the New Evangelization. For prayer to be effective, it must be accompanied by fasting,” he wrote. “We learn this from Jesus, our model in evangelization, by looking at how he prepared his ministry, going into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days.” Archbishop Goh emphasized that adding fasting to  “devout and fervent prayers” is the only way to defeat the “hostile secularism” that is undermining society. He also credited fasting with removing obstacles while cleansing us from sin.

But for it to bear fruit, Archbishop Goh said fasting should be a source to open our hearts to God and show mercy and charity to others. He recommended doing it in union with others, to benefit from encouragement and mutual support and to pray and read Scripture together.  He also suggested using mealtimes to pray or go to Eucharistic adoration.

In that same spirit of sacrifice and community, and in union with Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy, is inviting everyone to participate in prayer and fasting as part of the #LentenMercyChallenge. Every Friday for lunch during Lent, people are encouraged to fast on bread and water, and pray a decade of the Rosary for an intention to show mercy to others. On the first day, over 2,300 people signed up. By joining together with thousands of other Catholics we become a unified force, tapping into the spiritual power given to us by God.

Separate Dieting from Fasting

Getting back to diet versus fast, even if we are convinced of the value of fasting, how can we be sure our motivation to fast doesn’t get mixed in with dieting? The fact that weight loss could result from a fast and we might want to lose weight doesn’t have to rob it of its spiritual power.

LentenMealInjeraEthiopiaThis is how I personally keep fasting out of the realm of dieting. Diets don’t require losing the satisfaction of the food. As a matter of fact, making a tasty meal is encouraged in order to be satisfied when dieting. When I’m fasting, I make eating about survival and health and not about enjoyment. It’s the reason that eating fish instead of meat on Fridays is no sacrifice for me. I often prefer fish to red meat. So to fast, I eat what I don’t prefer. For instance, not putting dressing on a salad makes that meal a fast since I may be getting the same health benefits, but none of the taste benefits. If I’m doing a bread and water fast, I use a high protein bread for health reasons since I have hypoglycemia.   The goal is to offer a physical sacrifice in an area that challenges most of us: eating.

People have to determine for themselves how they will fast, but the point is to define your motivation and then identify how your fast will be different from a diet.

Fasting is one of the three pillars of Lent along with prayer, and almsgiving, but only fasting requires physical discipline and endurance. We feel the personal sacrifice in our body, just as Jesus felt his Passion. It’s but a shadow of his suffering and yet, we join our fasting to his cross.

“Prayer is good with fasting and alms, more than to store up treasures of gold” (Tobit 12:8).

“Know ye that the Lord will hear your prayers, if you continue with perseverance in fastings and prayers in the sight of the Lord” (Judith 4:11).

“But this kind [of demon] can be cast out in no other way except by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).

More valuable than gold, God will hear our prayers, and a powerful force against demons vs. losing a few pounds. Just keep priorities in order.


Art: Detail of Combat between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, circa 1525-1569, PD-US published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923; Detail of A typical injera served during the fasting time before Easter in Ethiopia. It contains no meat. Lalibela, Ethiopia, Maurice Chédel, 15 April 2009, own work, CCA-SA; both Wikimedia Commons.

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