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Fasting is an important spiritual aspect of many religions. Research data show that religious fasting may help to adapt healthier lifestyle by learning self-control and making changes to the diet.

To non-religious people, fasting for religious purposes may look like a meaningless ritual of starvation aimed only at expressing loyalty to God or the faith by torturing the body and endangering one's life. But what does religious fasting really do to the body? You may just be surprised at what science has to say about the health benefits of religious fasting.

What Is Fasting?

Fasting can be defined as a wilful abstention from eating, from eating and drinking, or from some foods and drinks, for a certain period of time. In some traditions and religions, such as Christianity, fasting represents a withdrawal from certain types of foods, while in Islam and Judaism, fasting represent a complete withdrawal of food, drinks or any flow to the body, as well as the withdrawal of bodily pleasures, from dawn to sunset or from sunset to sunset.

From time immemorial, fasting was considered as beneficial for health. In fact, this is one of the oldest methods of health preservation. Even Hippocrates advised his patients to treat their soul and body with fasting, moderate exercises and fresh air, instead of taking medicines. Scientists proved that fasting can be quite a successful method in the treatment of many diseases, primarily related to obesity and excess body weight.

Fasting Vs Dieting: Exactly What Are The Differences?

Fasting and dieting are often confused, but those two terms should be clearly separated. A diet is a special regime of nutrition, with selected foods and pre-determined rules. Fasting is an abstaining from food, in which weight loss is just a side effect. Refraining from eating certain foods, like meat, or limiting their intake may indeed result in a weight loss similar to that seen in dieting, but the underlying reasons for engaging in fasting are completely different.

What does science have to say about the health impact of religious fasting? Though fasting is an integral part of many religious traditions, here we'll look just at those fasting traditions into which reliable research has been conducted.

The Positive Health Effects Of Orthodox Christian Fasting

Greek Orthodox Christians, and other christians from within the Eastern Orthodox religion, fast for a total of 180 to 200 days each year. The main fasting periods include the Nativity Fast, Lent, and the Assumption. The fasting periods are rather similar in terms of limitations on food consumption and can be described as a variant of vegetarianism.

According to a study published in the journal Nutrition, some of the positive effects of Orthodox Christian fasting include a reduced body mass, and a decrease in total cholesterol, LDL-C (low density lipoproteins, so-called “bad” cholesterol) and LDL-C/HDL-C ratio (“bad” to “good” cholesterol ratio).

A case-control study demonstrated that fasters increased their fiber, magnesium, fruit and vegetable intake during fasting periods and decreased their sodium intake.

Furthermore, another study found that fasters (as compared with controls) had lower intakes of dietary cholesterol, total fat, saturated fatty acids and trans-fatty acids along with an increase in total dietary fiber attributed to their higher consumption of fruit and vegetables during fasting periods.

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  • Sarri KO, Linardakis MK, Bervanaki FN, Tzanakis NE, Kafatos AG. (2004). Greek Orthodox fasting rituals: httpa hidden characteristic of the Mediterranean diet of Crete. Br J Nutr. 92(2):277-284
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  • Aksungar FB, Topkaya AE, Akyildiz M. (2007). Interleukin-6, C-Reactive Protein and Biochemical Parameters during Prolonged Intermittent Fasting. Ann Nutr Metab. 51(1):88-95
  • Bloomer RJ, Kabir MM, Canale RE, Trepanowski JF, Marshall KE, Farney TM, Hammond KG. (2010). Effect of a 21 day Daniel Fast on metabolic and cardiovascular disease risk factors in men and women. Lipids in Health and Disease. 9:94
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  • Photo courtesy of Hamed Saber via Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/hamed/54801811
  • Photo courtesy of jeffk via Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/jeffk/110547236

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