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Fasting to feed the spirit

Come sunset today, Jews worldwide will do something that many in our overweight nation find hard to do: They will stop eating.

No food or drink for 24 hours, in observance of their religion's most sacred holiday, Yom Kippur.

Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, Baptists, Muslims, Baha'is and charismatics fast, a practice that goes back thousands of years.

Different faiths fast for different reasons. The Jews, to reflect on their sins and concentrate on the changes they need to make in life. Catholics, to worship God and avoid overindulgence. The Baha'is, as a call to self-discipline.

These days, though, fasting has expanded beyond its spiritual roots. People fast to shed fat. Claims for the "liquid cleansing diet" and the "detox diet," for instance, suggest that fasting cleanses the body of toxins. The diets encourage people to forsake food and go on "water fasts" or "juice fasts."

Medical professionals warn people to visit their doctors before fasting, be it the physical or spiritual variety. There is no scientific evidence that fasting cleanses the body, said Noralyn Wilson, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Whether it increases spiritual clarity is up for each individual to decide.

Some religious leaders ask followers to fast for days or weeks at a time. During extended fasts, members usually don't entirely abstain from food. They might forsake sweets or meat or something else that they hold dear as many Christians have been known to do during Lent, the 40-day season before Easter.

The effect of a fast on a person's body depends on the kind of fast, Wilson said.

People who drink only water deprive their bodies of nutrients, she said. Juice fasts offer some carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, but no protein or fat. People do lose weight on sustained fasts. They gain it back, however, when they start eating again.

Either way, she said, "You definitely know you're going to limit certain nutrients."

Most faith leaders exempt people who are on medication, pregnant or have some other physical need that would make fasting harmful. They say fasting is central to their spirituality.

"It's not that you feel closer to God," said Rabbi Richard J. Birnholz, of Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa. "It's that the self-denial reminds you of the laws that God gives us."

Fasting heightens a Jewish person's awareness. "As you feel hungry or thirsty, it's a wakeup call that you need to review your life."

From the start of Rosh Hashana, which began Sept. 15, through Yom Kippur, which ends Saturday, Jews pray for forgiveness from sins and determine to do better in their lives. If they are sincere, Birnholz says, "God accepts us into the book of life for another year."

For Jose Gomez, pastor of Restoration Ministries in Tampa, fasting has no scheduled day or time. He usually fasts about three days each month. At times, he gives up all food and drinks water or juice. Other times, he gives up something he likes, such as red meat. He has fasted from meats for 40 days at a time.

"I was seeking some direction from the Lord," Gomez said. Fasting helps him focus on God's direction for his ministry and his work as a minister, he said. Sometimes the direction comes as he meditates on Scripture and sees new meaning in a familiar passage.

Other times, Gomez fasts with church members, while praying for blessings. A few months ago, his church's school had just seven students, Gomez said. He asked his congregation of about 100 members to go on a two-week fast. People signed up for particular days so that at least one person was fasting each day within the period. Most did not fast the entire two weeks. Throughout the day, fasters prayed that God would show them how to boost enrollment. As far as Gomez is concerned, it worked. The school now has 28 kids, he said.

But Catholics see fasting much differently. They don't fast to receive blessings from God, said Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. "We're not going to prove ourselves to God, so God's going to be nice to us," Irwin said.

For Catholics, fasting is an act of worship and a way to be more open to God during prayer, he said. It's a way of abstaining from overindulgence. Some Catholics fast because they have eaten too much and harmed their bodies. In that case, a Catholic might fast as a sign of repentance, Irwin said. Still others stop eating so they can donate the money they would have spent on food to charity.

The Catholic Church used to mandate fasting during certain times of year, as is the case today in Judaism and some other religions, such as the Baha'i faith.

During Lent, Catholics were to limit their food intake. For example, a person's combined breakfast and lunch could not equal what they ate for dinner. Another custom required Catholics who planned to receive Holy Communion during Mass not to eat anything after midnight the night before.

"The point was that one should not overindulge," Irwin said. Also, people didn't want their senses to be dulled by food or drink when they took the sacraments, he said.

The church did away with both customs in 1968. Today, Catholics can fast individually whenever they choose, but the only days they are required to do so are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, considered "days of penance when you give up something that you like as an act of self-discipline," Irwin said.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also fast as a form of charity. Their church law requires that on the first Sunday of each month they skip two meals and donate the value of them to a "fast offerings" fund for the needy. Instead of gathering for a meal, families come together and pray for problems to subside, for blessings to come, healing, forgiveness.

"It's just a time to set aside something of the world where you can draw closer to the Spirit and listen to the Spirit," said Janis Gillrie, a director of public affairs for the church, who lives in Odessa.

Earlier this month, Gillrie's church decided to use their fasting prayer time to talk to God about Hurricane Ivan.

"I prayed that anyone affected by hurricanes would receive the help they need," she said.

Rason Dobbs has been fasting 19 days a year for nearly 50 years. His Baha'i faith, which has about 6-million members worldwide, requires followers to forgo food and drink from sunrise to sunset every day from March 2 to March 21, the first day of spring. The cycle is considered a complete month in the Baha'i faith.

Fasting develops self-discipline and "mindfulness" or awareness, said Dobbs, a member of the spiritual assembly of the Baha'is of St. Petersburg. He remembers once passing a water fountain and instinctively taking a sip. It was a mistake, so "that doesn't count," he said. But the experience took him back to that sense of awareness. When hunger pangs start, you become more aware of things around you and your inner motives, he said.

Also, for people who have never lived in poverty, "You get to know what it feels like to be poor or hungry," he said.

As Birnholz goes to his synagogue for Yom Kippur service tonight, he will concentrate on his spiritual life, on things that he can do better in the coming year. But honestly, he said, there is one other side effect of fasting that he can't deny:

"I just get hungry."

Sharon Tubbs can be reached at (727) 892-2253 or