In recent years, fasting has become popular for dietary reasons, but for Catholics and many other Christian denominations, it’s a sacred tradition.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, the Christian preparatory period in anticipation of Easter. This year, the religious observance will be held Feb. 26.
On Ash Wednesday and other select days in Lent, Roman Catholicism requires its members to fast as a penance. Other Christian religions like Methodism encourage penitential fasting during Lent but don’t mandate it.
For English junior Cara Swift, fasting isn’t about potential health effects — it’s about practicing her religion.
Swift said she began fasting during Lent a couple years ago, and now she likes to implement it every once in a while as a penance.
When she fasts, she abstains from food and all drinks besides water for a full 24 hours. She said she’ll eat dinner at about 6 p.m. one day and then wait until 6 p.m. the next day to eat again.
However, fasting isn’t the abstinence of just food for her. It’s giving up something that you think you need but really don’t in order to grow spiritually. Sometimes, that’s social media or streaming services, she said. The point is that it’s something difficult to do without but leads to growth.
“Some days when I was fasting, it was really easy, and other days it’s really hard,” she said. “I think it just goes back to ‘Am I really doing this because I want to or because I feel obligated to?’”
If you fast with the intention of impressing religious peers or appearing holier than others, Swift said it won’t be easy.
Business management junior Logan de Groot said she enjoyed fasting a lot the first time she tried it as a means of spiritual growth during Lent. Like Swift, she implemented a 24-hour fast.
The comfort is worth the opportunity, she said, as long as it’s approached with a constructive mindset.
“Now, I look at fasting as a way to strip myself of worldly things like food and the things I rely on and strictly put my reliance on Christ,” de Groot said.
Registered dietician nutritionist Stacie Ellis said many people call their diets fasting when they actually still consume snacks or beverages. However, a true fast means you’re not taking in any calories at all.
“You will be hungry, you know, there’s no way around that,” Ellis said. “That hunger doesn’t go away; you don’t get used to it.”
The most common form of fasting as a diet is called intermittent fasting. Ellis said people intermittently fast for different periods of time, but it’s generally somewhere in between 12 and 24 hours.
Regardless of your motivation for fasting, abstaining from food for extended periods of time can lead to negative health effects like headaches, fatigue and inability to perform well.
Women of reproductive age should especially exercise caution, Ellis said. Without enough food to regulate hormones like estrogen and progesterone, the reproductive system can essentially shut down.
Fasting can sometimes lead to weight gain because when you fast, you’re literally starving your body, she said. Then when your starving body finally receives food, it automatically stores it as fat to make up for the lost nutrients, she said.
“Regardless of the symptoms and side effects, if they’re gonna do it for religion, they’re gonna do it,” Ellis said.
It’s important to exercise common sense even if you fast for religious purposes, Ellis said.
For people who do a “full on” fast without food or water, the longest they can last is three days, she said. For people who plan on doing a 40-day Lenten fast, she recommends getting a supplement because it’s hard to last that long healthily without food.
“Even though it’s for religion, [it] doesn’t mean you can’t end up in the hospital,” she said. “You can.”