Fasting for Body and Soul


I long to take just one little bite as I watch the melted cheese slowly ooze out of the golden, toasted bread.  My children wait with eager anticipation for my famous grilled cheese sandwiches.  The clock reads 12:30, and today is Friday.  On my periodic fast days, I make it a priority to not eat between the hours of 12:00 and 3:00 pm in honor of the time that Our Lord hung on the cross.   My hunger pangs focus my attention on His ultimate sacrifice for my salvation.  I silently pray a decade of the Rosary and offer up my temporary suffering.  Turning my attention back to the stove, I realize that preparing food for my family when I cannot eat focuses my attention on the humility and service of motherhood. 

As a busy mom, I often joke that my day revolves around food.  A preoccupation with food can easily take over our lives.  We are inundated with advertisements for food, lists of “good” and “bad” foods and wildly differing advice regarding the best methods to prepare it.  There are even several cable channels devoted to food!  

Fasting frees us from the persistent distraction of food and shifts our attention to sacrifice and self-denial.  The roots of fasting can be found  in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were asked to forego the fruit of a certain tree.  The practice continues today during the season of Lent, which recalls the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the desert before beginning His public ministry.

Fasting is truly beneficial for both body and soul.  Regular fasts can increase longevity and reduce the risk of various diseases, including heart disease.  Yet penitential fasting does not focus on the self.  Instead, the self-denial of fasting leads to a desire to make amends for our sinful nature.  During a fast, we physically demonstrate contrition by denying ourselves the basic need for food.  This practice of humility and obedience shifts our attention from self to God and prompts a desire to pray.  Conversely, fervent prayer gives us the strength to continue our fast.  Our physical hunger should create a spiritual hunger and serve as a constant reminder to pray.  Without prayer, fasting is spiritually empty and has no “soul.”  Our prayers during a time of fasting are especially pleasing to God.

The hunger experienced during a fast unites us with those who are truly hungry.  We should give thanks to God for the blessings of the abundant food He has provided.  We should also be motivated to feed the hungry by donating food or money to the poor when we fast.  Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the triad of true penance and should be the focus of our Lenten observance.

The season of Lent begins and ends with a day of fasting.  Canon Law requires fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and applies to all Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59.  Food intake is limited to one full meal a day.  Two additional meals are permitted if their combined amount does not exceed the main meal.  The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk).  Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast but hardly reflect the spirit of doing penance!

The Church excuses from fasting those outside the age limits, the mentally ill, the sick, frail, pregnant or nursing women and manual laborers (according to need).  Catholics who cannot fast are encouraged to perform some form of penance in lieu of fasting such as giving up TV, internet or another favorite pastime.

These requirements are not stringent and outline a minimum obligation for Lenten fasting.  Catholics are encouraged to fast more frequently during Lent as well as throughout the year.  If you’re not accustomed to fasting regularly or if you wish to fast more than two days, seek the advice of your doctor.  It is also advisable to request spiritual direction from your confessor or another priest.

While the sacrifice of fasting compels a feeling of hunger, it is counterproductive to go so long without food that you become grouchy and irritable.  St Thomas Aquinas advises, “[Eat] as much as is necessary for sufficient strength to perform those things that one’s state requires, or that are required for living with others.”  In this spirit, it’s important to plan the main meal to fuel your period of greatest activity.  If you must be mentally sharp and alert for an important morning meeting, then your main meal should be breakfast.  The same principle applies to lunch if your primary work occurs in the afternoon.  Those who can’t sleep well on an empty stomach might plan the main meal a few hours before bedtime.  Do remember that the two required days of fasting are also days of abstinence, so no meat may be eaten.

The two smaller, optional meals can be consumed, if needed, throughout the day.  These mini-meals should be nutritionally dense and include protein, carbohydrates and some fat.  A few examples are a banana or apple with peanut butter, a small serving of beans and rice (or cornbread), tuna salad on half a bagel, cheese and crackers, or a fruit and yogurt smoothie.

Another alternative is to eat an energy bar or meal-replacement shake.  Remember that a glass of milk will not break your fast and may be a good option before bed if you’re really hungry.  Ensure that you stay hydrated on fasting days by drinking plenty of water.

Some Catholics prefer a simple bread and water fast.  Ezekiel Fasting Bread, based on the ingredients in Ezekiel 4:9, is popular and can be found in some health food stores.  There are a variety of recipes online, but most require a grain mill or specialty flours.  My favorite  recipe for a nutritious and hearty fasting bread can be found below.

Interestingly, the traditional Lenten fasting bread is the pretzel.  The design of a pretzel represents arms crossed over the chest in prayer.  Making pretzels during Lent could become a fun family tradition!

This Lent, resolve to make fasting a priority.  As Pope Benedict XVI recommended, “Through fasting and praying, we allow [Jesus] to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being:  the hunger and thirst for God.” 

Fasting Brown Bread

3 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 cups low-fat buttermilk
3 tablespoons molasses
2 ¼ cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup whole flax seeds
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, whisk melted butter, brown sugar, buttermilk and molasses.  Add flours, baking soda and salt, mixing until just combined.  Stir in flax seeds and walnuts. 

Spoon batter into a 9” x 5” bread pan, coated with cooking spray.  Bake 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert on a wire rack.  Cut into 10 slices.

For fasting, a slice can serve as one of your smaller meals.  You can also serve it with soup as a main meal on a fasting day.

Makes 10 servings

Nutional information, per serving: Calories 370, fat 14g, Sodium 546mg, Carbohydrates 55g, Fiber 6g, Sugars 6g, Protein 9g

(© 2011 Peggy Bowes)


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  • goral

    If one is fasting from gluttony than this fast is a step in the right direction. I know that people have different eating habits and different nutritional requirements hence the lax requirements.
    The consumption of a full meal is hardly considered a fast in any religion or culture outside of the overweight US.

    If you are what you eat, then do you really want to supersize it?

    • Goral, like it or not, these are the Church’s guidelines for fasting. As I stated in the article, they are not very stringent and represent a *minimum* requirement. I also stated that the Church encourages Catholics to fast more often during Lent and throughout the year.

      Do consider that individual Catholics are on different levels in their spiritual journey. Usually those who feel compelled to undertake a more disciplined fast do so in a very penitential spirit as part of a rich and varied spiritual life. Clearly this article does not focus on that type of Catholic.

      On the other hand, the majority of those in the pews are mystified and confused by the practice of fasting. I know because I was a very lukewarm Catholic for many years and didn’t “get” what fasting was all about. I wrote this article to educate and inspire not to condemn and demotivate.

  • goral

    Peggy Bowes, while I may not be the guy who would spend any time on the fasting brown bread recipe, I know there are many who would and I’m sure it would be a worthwhile and delicious culinary exercise.

    “For fasting, a slice can serve as one of your smaller meals. You can also serve it with soup as a main meal on a fasting day.”

    Your suggestion is more in line with my thinking but who knows what interpretations prevail out in our indulgent world. The Church’s suggestions and guidelines are always misinterpreted anyway, so why not put out something more definitive.

    Sunday before Ash Wed., the priest was giving us the guidelines, “like it or not”.
    They always make me chuckle. This time, I continued to chuckle as the priest continued to clarify the definition of meat. He added, let me save you a phone call to the office, chicken is considered meat.
    Like you said, there is confusion in the pews.
    I hope you didn’t read my comment as a criticism of your article. I liked the article.

    My approach is – if you’re going to fast than fast. It’s actually good for the body.
    Everyone can do it. Everyone will be required to do it for a blood test sooner or later.
    Our faith gives us the opportunity to ease into it, of our own free will and with added spiritual benefits.

  • Goral, I’m glad you enjoyed the article,but I’m not sure what you meant by “put out something more definitive.” I covered the Canon Law and the exceptions, encouraged readers to try fasting more often, emphasized that penitential fasting should also include prayer and almsgiving, introduced the idea of a bread and water fast, and included suggestions on how to augment the main meal without breaking the fast.

    I do agree that the current Church guidelines on fasting will not cause most people any undue suffering, but it is not our place to impose a higher standard than the Church requires. We can certainly pray that more people are called to true penitential fasting, however.

    I had to laugh when you mentioned that your priest had to define chicken as a type of meat. My pastor told us at daily Mass that he was besieged on Ash Wednesday by Catholics who missed Mass but begged for ashes. When he asked them, “Would you like Communion too?” they shook their heads adamantly and said, “No– just give me the ashes!” Talk about misplaced priorities!

  • goral

    Your article, Peggy Bowes is very definitive, I was referring to what the Church puts out. The average Catholic delves more into the MacDonalds Friday menu they they do into Canon Law.
    I grew up in a culture that took fasting quite seriously. I personally find it easier not to eat anything. Once I take a bite of bread then the taste buds make it more difficult not to take another and another.

    I think there’s a problem of perception here. Fasting is considered almost totally in a negative light. It needs to be sold as something very beneficial in all respects. I think it could be a bigger success as people diet all the time.
    God and the Church just don’t run a good public relations campaign.

    You got me with the Ash Wed. story. I’m embarrassed to say how close you hit home.
    I think the devil planned my schedule last Wed. because for the first time, I couldn’t get ashes.
    I’ll throw in another fast day.

    Thank you for your responses.
    I did take another look at that recipe.

  • Kmbold

    That bread is delicious. I like to pile the batter in a heap on a greased baking sheet instead of baking it in a loaf pan. It has more crust and texture. I cut a cross into the top, to remind myself that is IS for Lent.