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How Fasting Works


Skipping a meal is one thing, but fasting is a conscious decision to abstain from eating altogether.
Skipping a meal is one thing, but fasting is a conscious decision to abstain from eating altogether.
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Eating is an essential part of life. Of course, it provides nourishment for the body, but it also brings people together and helps establish a cultural identity. Food plays a part in many aspects of public life. Curiously, though, people sometimes express themselves not when they eat, but in when they choose not to.

Fasting is an intentional abstinence from eating for a period of time. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon word faesten, which meant "to hold oneself from food." Fasting has been practiced for thousands of years as part of religious ceremonies. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Confucians, Hindus and adherents of other religious faiths observe fasts. In Native American ceremonies prior to discovery of America, fasting was frequently used to induce fertility and was believed to help cure certain diseases. Babylonians were known to observe fasts as penance for sins committed in the eyes of God. Jews fast on special holy days as a form of atonement and purification.

People fast for health and political reasons, too. And some people use the word to indicate a self-imposed restriction on their diet, for example using terms like "fruit fasting" and "cheese fasting" to show that they're cutting out certain foods -- though that's not really what the word means.

In this article, we'll look different types of fasts and the reasons behind them. We'll also take a look at the effects of going without food on a person's health. On the next page, we'll start with those who fast as a matter of faith.


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