The practice of voluntarily going without food. It can be undertaken as a religious observance, a sign of mourning, a political protest (hunger strike), or for slimming purposes.
Fasting or abstinence from certain types of food or beverages occurs in most religious traditions. It is seen as an act of self-discipline that increases spiritual awareness by lessening dependence on the material world. In the Roman Catholic Church, fasting is seen as a penitential rite, a means to express repentance for sin. The most commonly observed Christian fasting is in Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, and recalls the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians usually fast before taking Communion and monastic communities observe regular weekly fasts. Devout Muslims go without food or water between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan. Jews fast for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and before several other festivals. Many devout Hindus observe a weekly day of partial or total fast.
Total abstinence from food for a limited period is prescribed by some naturopaths to eliminate body toxins or make available for recuperative purposes the energy normally used by the digestive system. Prolonged fasting can be dangerous. The liver breaks up its fat stores, releasing harmful by-products called ketones, which results in a condition called ketosis, which develops within three days. An early symptom is a smell of pear drops on the breath. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, severe depression, and irritability. Eventually, the muscles and other body tissues become wasted, and death results.
The human body cannot survive without food or water for longer than eight days, but it is possible to sustain life on water alone for 30 or 40 days or even longer. Emaciation and a lowering of body temperature are invariable accompaniments of starvation, the wasting occurring first in the fatty tissues and later in the muscles. The wasting process takes place less rapidly when the body is kept warm and exertion is limited to a minimum. The insistent craving for food diminishes after the first few days and is succeeded by torpor.
Fasting has frequently been resorted to as a means of securing political ends; for example, by the suffragettes in the UK in the early part of the 20th century. In these and many other cases, forcible feeding has been attempted, but in others hunger strikers have died.
Partial or complete abstinence from food at stated periods was practised at a very early date by Zoroastrians, Hindus, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans. It was a prominent and inseparable feature of the Jewish ritual. The solemn national fast on Yom Kippur was the only public fast ordained in the Books of Moses, and the penalty for not observing it was death. During the Babylonian Captivity (6th–5th centuries BC), additional fasts were instituted to commemorate certain incidents in the downfall of the nation. Jesus, his apostles, and their followers practised and taught fasting. The Muslim fast of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and encourages fellow feeling with those who do not have enough to eat.
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