Modern Insights on an Old Lenten Practice

Like many in the secular world, in recent years I’ve rediscovered the value of fasting. But as a Catholic I’ve sought to apply to the age-old spiritual tradition some newer insights into its benefits. As part of my graduate studies in the field of nutrition, I’ve dug deeper into the physiology of fasting in order to understand it more clearly in terms of the body, so that in fasting for spiritual ends we might truly work to make the body the servant of the soul. 

In recent years, many people have discovered that fasting can help with problems like insulin resistance, inflammation, weight gain, and other health problems. Because more people have a physical-health motivation for fasting, more research has been conducted to find out how and why fasting benefits the body — and also how to fast in ways that are sustainable. 

By sustainable fasting, I mean fasting in such a way that the practice can be frequently undertaken. If you are fasting well, you avoid some of the pitfalls modern people associate with abstaining from food — headaches, low energy, and fatigue. People who fast properly experience better energy, few (if any) headaches, and improved mental focus. 

When you fast well, it starts to make sense that the Saints fasted in order to achieve closer communion with God — as we might say, to “supercharge” their prayer. It’s hard to imagine St. Anthony of the Desert felt as many people say they do when they fast — cranky and tired. It seems much more likely that he experienced both mental and physical benefits from fasting. 

Nevertheless, a certain segment of people tell me that my practical advice about fasting well (which I will get to shortly) is unneeded and denigrates the spiritual practice of fasting by making it “too easy.” This reveals a faulty view of the human person. 

St. Paul tells us that we are to subdue our bodies in order to “receive an imperishable wreath” (1 Cor 9:25). Does a body that is rebelling against a fast with headaches, fatigue, and irritability seem subdued? I think not. Fasting properly, on the other hand, puts the body in its proper place: servant to the soul. A poor fast is like trying to “teach” a servant by treating him poorly. A good fast gives the servant the training he needs to serve well. 

The most important thing to understand about fasting well this Lent is that fasting means not eating. It won’t seem strange that I have to point that out if you’ve been hearing the “two small meals not equal to the larger meal” spiel for as long as you can remember. I understand that this is what the Church requires. I’m telling you that you need to do more. And that doing more will actually be more sustainable than doing the “1+1 does not equal 1” method.  

When it comes to your metabolism, your body has two states: digestive and fasting. You have hours in each state every day, because you sleep overnight. A few hours after the last time you eat each day, your body enters a fasting state and stays in it until you “break fast” the next day. 

Of course, when you wake up in the morning you don’t feel hungry, cranky, and fatigued because you’ve been fasting. (At least, if you do, it’s not because you’ve been fasting.) If you normally eat right away, you will be hungry, but if you normally eat several hours after rising you will probably not be hungry until the time you normally eat. All this is because your body can give you energy during a fast. If the body weren’t able to do this, we’d be in trouble every single night. 

Unfortunately, the 1+1≠1 method means that you’re taking your body in and out of the fasting state all day long, instead of simply remaining in the fasting state. When you have a small meal (or any meal) your hormones respond to the presence of glucose in the bloodstream, putting you in the digestive state. When that small amount of glucose is taken care of, your body naturally asks for more, i.e. you’re hungry. In the digestive state, your body wants more glucose to provide more energy for your cells. 

Also, since hunger is highly related to your habits of eating, you can hardly be surprised that a small meal makes your body “wonder” when the heck the rest of the good stuff is coming down the pike. 

Not eating, on the other hand, means your body stays in a fasting state and continues using stored energy and alternative processes for fuel. There’s no painful switch to the digestive state and back again. Does this mean you’ll feel no hunger? No — but the hunger can be managed. It’s temporary, comes in waves, and won’t wipe you out.  

Here are the two best tips I have for fasting well: 1) It is fine to drink black coffee and tea during a fast, as long as you use no sweeteners of any kind, and 2) Drink water with a small amount of salt in it all day long. 

Headaches arise from dehydration, and dehydration comes not just from a lack of water, but a lack of minerals such as those found in salt. You can provide even more of what your body needs to remain hydrated if you use both regular salt (particularly if you use a salt with additional minerals, such as Himalayan salt) and “Lite Salt,” which contains potassium. 

The information I could share to help you fast well would be enough for a long series of articles, but the most important thing is to get started. This Lent, commit yourself to more fasting, and commit yourself to finding out how to fast well. 

Some of your fasting can consist of simply postponing your breakfast by a few hours. Once you’ve adjusted to that, quit all your post-dinner snacking as well. This type of intermittent fasting — stretching your fasting window a little and spending less time in the digestive state each day — is very good preparation for longer fasting.

A common extended fast is undertaken for 40 hours — one hour for each day Our Lord fasted in the desert. You can accomplish this by beginning your fast on a Thursday evening after dinner, say at 7 PM. Fast all day Friday and break the fast on Saturday at 11 AM. Your biggest stumbling block will be around dinner time on Friday. That will be a great time to pray the Stations of the Cross. 

I once heard an Ash Wednesday homily in which the priest challenged us to do a little more than we had originally planned in our Lenten promises. He shared about the time in college when he’d decided to give up beer completely and pray a rosary every day. He sort of knew from the outset he’d fail. And he did fail a few times, but he said it was the most spiritually fruitful Lent he ever had — and it had a direct impact on his call to the priesthood. 

In our best Lenten seasons, both our sacrifices and our failures become part of our growth in virtue, teaching us humility, charity, and reliance on Our Lord. Without failures, we are prone to attribute our successes to our own strength. This Lent, try something you know will be hard. And if you’re going to choose something hard, why not choose fasting — the very practice Our Lord commended to us in both his words and actions? 

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Suzan Sammons is a writer, editor, and homeschooling mom of seven studying for a master’s degree in nutrition and human performance. She facilitates extended fasts and teaches about fasting in a private facebook group and informally with just about everyone she knows.

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