Mar. 27th, 2016

We all know that food is about more than just physical nourishment. It's interesting to note how many religions prescribe periods of fasting for several weeks - Lent, Passover, Ramadan - followed by a day or so of feasting. So for now, let's leave aside aside illness, weight-loss diets, food allergies and sensitivities and consider the following question: What psychological and spiritual benefits do people derive from observing periods of fasting?

At first blush, the requirements imposed upon our diets by religious doctrine would seem in many ways to be diametrically opposed to those recommended by standard health and medical guides. For example, we are told that yo-yo dieting is bad for us and moreover, crash-diets for weight loss purposes do not work. If you go on a very strict diet, your metabolism will just slow down so that when you start eating normally again, weight will pile on even more quickly. We are also told that it's better to eat high-calorie foods early in the day and to eat more lightly in the evening. That way, we work off the calories in the course of our daily activities and in the evening, our bodies have time to assimilate the evening meal before we go to bed.

But isn't a fast period, followed by a feast day (or even feast-week), followed by a normal everyday diet (whatever that is), precisely an example of yo-yo dieting? And in many cases, the fast period calls for total abstinence from solid food between sun-up and sun-down, followed by a meal (though admittedly a light one) after dark.

There have to be some benefits to the fast period, other than the confidence that God won't strike you down with a thunderbolt!

I suspect it has something to do with generally slowing you down, giving you the personal space - as well as the social and community permission - for quiet reflection without constant bombardment from the all-pervasive technological distractions. The idea that the unexamined life is not worth living.

On the other hand, I guess a cynic would say that if you're food-deprived, sleep-deprived and getting headaches and dizziness and delirium as a result, you're that much more likely to see visions and mirages - which you'll interpret as signs from the gods if you happen to be a believer.

Or maybe, as boring and wishy-washy as it sounds, the truth lies somewhere in between?

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