Learning to Fast for Health, Healing & Holiness

Keith KettenringAncient Paths, Christian Living, Prayer & Fasting

When you picture Jesus walking around Galilee, do you imagine him with a pot belly and love handles? “Hey, Son of Man, you’re lookin’ a little pudgy.” I doubt it. Nor can you imagine him trying to eat 5-6 small meals every day to keep his metabolism cranking. As a good Jewish lad, he was probably brought up in the tradition of fasting twice a week. Add to this a diet of healthy fish, grains, and wine while walking everywhere and it’s easy to imagine him slim and trim, healthy and “fit.”
Could we entertain the idea that to be like Jesus means not only seeking to be like him in character and virtue but also in physical body? That’s a bit novel, right? So, how might we journey there?
For the past four years, I’ve been learning how to fast. It’s been a fascinating journey with many struggles and triumphs. Today, I will share with you my journey into a more consistent fasting lifestyle with the hope that you will also be encouraged to engage fasting well.
Many Christians are convinced that fasting should be a part of their spiritual journey but they don’t know how to start. Others have made attempts at fasting but found it too difficult to sustain. Some question its value. I’ll attempt to address these issues as I relate my journey.
The Problem 
A major issue damaging our health is our eating habits. We simply eat too much and too often.
Dr. Satchin Panda, a sleep researcher and expert, found that only about 10% of Americans eat all their food within a 12-hour window. In other words, people are eating during nearly all their waking hours. In her research she discovered that Americans typically eat nearly 15 out of 24 hours in a day and that they consume more than 35% of their calories after 6 p.m., when energy needs are lowest. The health consequences are tremendous since the human body is not designed to eat food at all hours of the day.
Our culture is permeated by food and inducements to eat. From TV food shows, fast food restaurants, billboards, commercials, 1000’s of restaurants around us, an abundance of grocery stores – brick & mortar and online, and food markets, we are constantly bombarded with temptations to eat…and eat some more. It’s literally being crammed down our throats!
While discussing why half of all Americans (164 million) have a least one chronic disease, Dr. Joseph Mercola writes:
Dietary changes over the past 100 years have contributed to the rise of chronic disease; this increase is likely related to the consumption of industrially processed omega-6 fats (vegetable oils, etc.), a reduction in healthy saturated fats (low-fat diets), and an overreliance on carbohydrate-rich grains and sugars, in addition to rarely going more that a few hours without food, other than sleep. (Ketofast, p. 16)
What can be done to structure our food intake and develop healthy eating patterns? From my experience and the experience of hundreds of thousands of people, one powerful and impressive answer is fasting.
Jesus & Fasting 
There has to be something super-significant to Jesus beginning his public ministry with his baptism then forty days fasting in the wilderness (Matthew 4.1-11). Led by the Spirit into the wilderness (amazing!), he was tempted by Satan after 40 days of fasting. One might assume that this time of fasting would have weakened Jesus physically. But just the opposite was happening. Let’s not downplay this physical aspect.
Many years ago I read Dallas Willard’s thoughts on Christ’s fasting in the wilderness with his idea that Jesus was actually very alert at the end of the 40 days rather than weakened by the lack of food. At first, I didn’t believe this could be true. Lately however, I’m discovering that science supports Willard’s idea.
Without going into great detail as to how it happens, fasting, among other things, increases adrenaline use, revs up metabolism and drives up human growth hormone. Fasting actually increases energy (by burning fat rather than burning food). One study showed that after a four-day fast, resting energy expenditure increased by 12%. Growth hormone also increases the availability of fats for fuel. In fact, “the most potent natural stimulus to growth hormone secretion is fasting.” (Fung, The Complete Guide to Fasting, p. 52).
Dr. Fung continues:
A study of a religious forty-day fast found that baseline growth hormone levels increased from 0.73 ng/mL to peak at 9.86 ng/mL. That is a 1250% increase in growth hormone, all done without drugs. And a 1992 study showed a fivefold increase in growth hormone in response to a two-day fast.  (p. 52)
I’ve personally experienced this phenomena. Even at the end of 16-20 hour fasts, my energy levels are high enough to engage in fairly intense weight training. A few weeks ago, having fasted for almost 24 hours, I engaged a group discussion with clarity of mind that is rare for me.
Think about it, when you are “hungry for something” doesn’t your focus and intensity increase? It’s like ancient hunters pursuing the elusive deer. They are not distracted or satisfied until they kill their prey. Nothing else matters.
Jesus prepared himself to face Satan’s strongest temptations by fasting. He was truly energized and focused on the task. He wasn’t starving himself. He was actually nourishing himself with energy, a dynamo of physical and spiritual power. Can this happen to us as well?
Food Fast (not fast food!?!)
My focus in this post is on fasting from food. The practice of fasting can be applied to many areas of our lives seeking to control us such as Facebook, praise, sports, hobbies, TV, sex, and alcohol. However, I believe that if we engage fasting well, we will also strengthen our ability to control other “temptations” trying to defeat us.
All through Scripture, we find passages that inform us about fasting:
  • Ps. 35.13-14 – fasting helpful for humility and for dealing with troubles
  • Isaiah 58 – an insightful chapter describing true and false fasting
  • Joel 2.12-13 – fasting within repentance
  • Matthew 6.16-18 – fasting assumed and rewarded yet must be done well
  • Matthew 9.14- 7 – Jesus’ presence makes all the difference in fasting
  • Luke 2.36-38 – Anna’s example of devoted worship (and monasticism) includes fasting
  • Luke 18.9-14 – an example of prideful, “legalistic” fasting
  • Acts 13.2-4, 14.23 – fasting as a significant element to worship, dedication, and decision making in the early church (an important pattern for us)
  • Philippians 3.17-19 – “enemies of the cross of Christ” described with the phrase: “their god is their belly…with minds set on earthly things,” in contrast to the challenge to imitate Paul
St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6.12-13: All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything. Food is meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food – and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 
“I will not be enslaved by anything,” St. Paul testifies. However, I fear that most of us are enslaved by food. So shackled are we by food that we can’t imagine going a day without eating let alone skipping breakfast. Is God in control of your stomach and food intake or is your appetite your master? All that we are and have is to be dedicated to the Lord, even our bodies. He’s to be in control, not us or our cravings.
While discussing why half of all Americans (164 million) have a least one chronic disease, Dr. Joseph Mercola writes:
Dietary changes over the past 100 years have contributed to the rise of chronic disease; this increase is likely related to the consumption of industrially processed omega-6 fats (vegetable oils, etc.), a reduction in healthy saturated fats (low-fat diets), and an overreliance on carbohydrate-rich grains and sugars, in addition to rarely going more that a few hours without food, other than sleep. (Ketofast, p. 16)
What can be done to structure our food intake and develop healthy eating patterns? From my experience and the experience of hundreds of thousands of people, one powerful and impressive answer is fasting.
Purpose of fasting
Why fast? Let’s focus on the physical and spiritual reasons.
Dr. Jason Fung (The Complete Guide to Fasting, p. 85) lists some physical benefits of fasting:
  • Improves mental clarity and concentration
  • Induces weight and body fat loss
  • Lowers blood sugar levels
  • Improves insulin sensitivity
  • Improves fat-burning
  • Lowers blood cholesterol
  • Prevents Alzheimer’s disease
  • Extends life
  • Reverses the aging process
  • Decreases inflammation
The spiritual benefits are great as well:
  • Gives mastery over oneself and appetites
  • Helps conquer the passions of the flesh
  • Liberates from dependence on the things of the world
  • Creates a focus on the things of the Kingdom of God
  • Gives power to the soul, heart, and will to resist temptation and sin
  • Allows the fruit of the Spirit to develop within
  • Frees time from eating to serve others or engage in good work
  • Releases financial resources to be used for purposes other than our own food and eating and can supply food for the poor and needy
  • Helps you become more like Jesus
Fasting for Christians is a prescription for wellness not only illness. Fasting and praying are taught to be methods of cleansing our hearts and communing with God. You might say fasting makes us hunger for the Trinity, helps us deny ourself or starve our passions,  places our body under submission to the Holy Spirit, humbles our soul before God’s presence, and helps us trust God for all things like strength and nourishment. Fasting helps heal us, body and soul.
Fasting has been a part of the Church’s spiritual practice for a couple thousand years. It was a normal way of life for Christians since the days of Jesus and the Apostles (until some misguided theologians and mistaken church leaders thought otherwise). Most of our Christian ancestors experienced both feast and famine on a regular basis.
Surprisingly, eating all the time is not normal.
Fasting is Doable 
Dr. Fung includes these advantages of fasting:
  • It’s simple – fasting is easier to understand: Eat nothing. Drink water, tea, coffee, or bone broth. You’re not adding food or meals as you would in a particular diet which complicates things.
  • It’s free – it actually saves money because you don’t need to buy food at all. The price of fasting is zero.
  • It’s convenient – there is no time spent buying groceries, preparing ingredients, cooking, and cleaning up. Most diets tell you what to do. Fasting tells you not to do anything.
  • You can enjoy life’s little pleasures – fasting restores the proper place of food. Fasting usually includes feasting: feasts follow fasts, fasts follow feasts. It fits into a healthy lifestyle.
  • It’s powerful – fasting can change you from the physical and spiritual benefits mentioned above to how you relate to almost everything in your life. It has not limitations.
  • It’s flexible – it can be done any time (no set duration; you can mix and match time periods) and anywhere. Start and stop at will according to your need.
  • It works with any diet – it’s about something you do not do. Vegetarian/vegan? Allergies? No money? Don’t cook? Young/old? Carnivore? You can still fast.
He also warns that some people should not attempt therapeutic food fasting, including:
  • Those who are severely malnourished or underweight
  • Children under 18 years of age
  • Pregnant women
  • Breastfeeding women
Others should be cautious if:
  • You have gout
  • You are taking medications
  • You have type 1 or type 2 diabetes
  • You have gastroesophageal reflux disease
The rest of us will benefit physically and spiritually by regular fasting.
Summarizing, St. Isaac of Syria (7th c.) says: Meager food at the table of the pure cleanses the soul of those who partake from all passion…for the work of fasting and vigil is the beginning of every effort against sin and lust…almost all passionate drives decrease through fasting. 
Powerful words from an experienced, godly man!
Regular Fasting
So, how can you develop a “fasting lifestyle?”
Start by not snacking at night. Stop eating any food three hours before going to bed. Use your time at night for spiritual reading, prayer, and/or connecting with family/friends.
Expand your nighttime fast (while you sleep) into the morning hours by skipping breakfast or moving your first meal of the day closer to noon. Not fixing breakfast allows more time for solitude and communion with God. Avoid eating on your way to work. If your habit is to grab something on your way, resist the urge, saving money and calories but also giving time for prayer as you commute.
Coffee or tea is great for getting you started in the morning. Have all you want. To help satiate your hunger, pour in coconut cream. If you must use a sweetener, use a quality non-sugar sweetener like erythritol, stevia, xylitol, or monkfruit. Lakanto, a very good brand, may be found at your Walmart.
Here are a few fasting protocols you can choose to follow:
  • 16-8: fast for 16 hours and only eat within an eight-hour window.
  • 20-4: fast for 20 hours and only eat within a four-hour window. This is called the Warrior Fast.
  • 5-2: fast for two, 24-hour days each week and eat healthily for the other five days of the week.
Under guidance from the Church, I fast on Wednesday and Friday. But, for the past 10 weeks, I’ve also done daily intermittent fasting (except Saturdays) with an eating window of 4-8 hours depending on my schedule. My energy level is higher, my attentiveness to God and His work has increased, and I’ve lost over 27 pounds while increasing my muscle mass (due to training). In seeking to “glorify God in my body” and to “love the Lord my God…with all my strength,” I am coming to know God like never before.
Some simple guidelines when fasting:
  • Do not overeat when not fasting. You have enough resources in your body to support you while fasting. You don’t need to cram more food into your stomach while engaging in a fasting lifestyle.
  • When you eat, eat healthy food – no fast food, high carb or fat-producing foods. Google what healthy eating looks like according to modern nutrition standards. You might be surprised.
  • Make it fun and effective by experimenting with various fasting routines and foods. Challenge yourself spiritually and physically.
  • Always remember, fasting is about communing with God through your body and soul. Having a healthy body and relationship to food is huge in your relationship with the Trinity. It is one way to “love God with…your strength (might, body) as Jesus says is the greatest commandment.
For more information watch a couple videos that might help you get started. These do not come from a Christian perspective but will support your efforts. They’re addressing “intermittent fasting” which is kinda’ what I’m talking about. Of course, I’m including the spiritual aspect of fasting, too.
Tom takes some “getting used to,” but you might find some help here.
Also, Dr. Berg is helpful…
Let me know below what you think or if you have questions. Fasting has been life-changing – soul and body – for me. I can be for you, as well.
Dr. K/Keith