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Heart and soul: Fasting has spiritual and physical benefits across faiths

Published: Friday, July 26 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

The imam said he counsels his congregation to focus on correcting one's behavior during Ramadan. For his own part, Shuaib-udDin said he increases his reading of the Quran, Islam's holy book, and finds an increased intensity in his prayers during Ramadan.

Donald Whitney, an associate professor of biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the best-selling book "Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life," said the hunger pains felt throughout a fast should serve as reminders to pray and ponder the larger, spiritual purpose of the fast.

"It shouldn't be an endurance contest where if you tough it out God will be impressed and give you what you are asking for," Whitney said. "That’s a works-based orientation to the gospel that evangelicals would reject."

Physical benefits

Today, fasting is receiving interest on the secular front as a practice that can yield health benefits. One of the latest trends is intermittent or alternate fasting, which ranges from periodic multi-day fasts to skipping a meal or two on certain days of the week as a way to cut calories and cleanse the body of toxins.

"There are individual claims of it causing improvement for all kinds of different medical problems … but it hasn't been investigated scientifically," said Dr. Benjamin Horne, director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at the Intermountain Heart Institute. "For example, no one can name the toxins they claim are flushed out" of the body through fasting.

But Horne has headed up several studies on the positive effect fasting can have on the risks of heart disease and diabetes.

He studied members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who observe a monthly "fast Sunday" during which they skip two meals and give an offering that goes toward helping the needy in their congregations.

Horne said that Utah's below-average incidence of heart disease was long attributed to the Mormon proscription of alcohol and tobacco. But when smoking declined nationwide and Utah still ranked at the bottom in heart disease, researchers at the institute began investigating other factors. They found that regular fasting stood out as they measured the dietary risks of heart disease.

"We adjusted for smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other risk factors and found a significant difference between those of the LDS Church and people of other faiths in their coronary disease risk, with the LDS people having about a 19 percent lower risk" of heart disease, Horne said.

Further studies explored the biological mechanisms behind those benefits, showing that fasting also benefited people with diabetes — a finding that went against the conventional wisdom that diabetics shouldn't participate in fasting.

But the research also found fasting increased levels of cholesterol and growth hormone, said Horne, which inhibits insulin and forces the body to consume fat cells for fuel instead of glucose.

Horne said research out of Iran has also found that the cholesterol levels of observant Muslims improved during Ramadan.

There are health risks to fasting, and most faith traditions allow exceptions for pregnant or breastfeeding women, young children or those susceptible to migraine headaches. Horne said dehydration, which is a strong risk factor for stroke, is the most common risk of fasting.

Spiritual solidarity

Parmar, whose Hindu tradition involves a nine-day fast once a year, said her participation in Ramadan is all about her spiritual health. She feels none of the animosity toward Muslims that many Hindus in her homeland feel.

An upstairs room of her home honors the Hindu, Sikh, Islamic and Christian traditions. The bright orange and yellow walls complement the four shrines that include statues, holy books and other important symbols of each respective faith. In the center of the room is a large throw pillow on which she can kneel for morning prayers.

"All religions have good, and it is wrong to use religion against other people," she said, crediting her parents for teaching her to respect and embrace the good in different cultures and traditions.

Parmar said she was 10 years old the first time she fasted during Ramadan. She did it to support a Muslim friend. Today, she supports her friends at the Utah Islamic Center, including Romana Qazi, who helped her prepare the food for the Iftar dinner and who owns a halal Indian restaurant, Zabiha Grill, in Salt Lake City.

This kind of solidarity is not an unusual motive for those who join Ramadan fasts in the United States, according to published reports on the growing number of non-Muslims choosing to participate in what can be a challenging experience.

In his Ramadan Reflections blog, Imam Khalid Latif reflected on why someone would want to go without food or drink during their workday if they are not Muslim:

"The primary conclusion that my mind takes me to is that Muslims enjoy fasting, and those who see us fast observe that enjoyment and want to try it out. It might seem like a simplistic notion, but when you really break it down, if I see you doing something and can see that you love doing it, it's going to incline me towards doing it as well."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

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