- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Starting on Monday, Frederica Mathewes-Green of Baltimore will frequently eat oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and spaghetti for dinner.
She'll indulge in Japanese, Chinese or Indian food sometimes, for variation. But meat and milk products staples of her diet are off-limits for the next seven weeks.
This isn't a fad diet. As a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian, Mrs. Mathewes-Green, author of "The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation," is fasting for Great Lent, the season preceding Orthodox Easter. Orthodox churches begin the fast on Clean Monday, March 10; this year, it lasts until Orthodox Easter on April 27.
"It's like weight-lifting exercises," Mrs. Mathewes-Green says. "You lift weights to make your muscles stronger … If you discipline yourself to give up certain foods during certain times of the year … you can say 'no' to a lot of different temptations, like blowing up in traffic if someone makes you angry."
Fasting, the practice of eating little or avoiding certain food groups, is a discipline maintained by the devout of most of the world's religions. Juice fasts and other kinds have also become popular among the health-conscious.
Since today is Ash Wednesday, which Roman Catholics and many Protestants celebrate as the first day of Lent, many Christians will fast in some form for the 40 days until Easter, which falls this year on April 20.
Although fasting usually involves giving up food or drink, some fast from entertainment, negative thoughts or sleep, says the Rev. Raymond Studzinski, associate professor of religion and religious education at Catholic University in Northeast. The time that would have been invested in another activity can be invested in prayer or Bible study.
"We are trying to reform ourselves to change our lives," he says. "The hope is that you build up some good habits in the process and carry it through during the year … It's to make your life fuller and richer, growing closer in one's relationship to God, to take on the mind of Christ, to begin seeing things His way, becoming good and holy."
While fasting during Lent is a practice the Roman Catholic Church recommends, Father Studzinski says it should not be flaunted; it should be considered an act of intercession and repentance.
In the sixth chapter of the book of Matthew, Jesus warns against fasting to impress others. "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites … but when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you."
"You're not to win acclaim or other people's attention," Father Studzinski says. "It can be a powerful way of inviting God's favor … We can get immersed in so many things. Part of our discipline as spiritual people is we want to gain focus."
There are valuable health benefits to be gained from fasting, says Alan Goldhamer, a chiropractic physician at True North Health in Rohnert Park, Calif., which includes physicians and psychologists on staff.
A report in the October 2002 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine by Dr. Goldhamer and associates published a study that outlines the effects of water-only fasting on patients with high blood pressure. After 14 days of water-only fasting, 82 percent of 68 patients with borderline hypertension achieved a blood pressure at or below 120/80, which is within the normal range.
"People think the idea of fasting is insane, and that it's just Bible stories," Dr. Goldhamer says. "We have at our disposal one of the most powerful tools that allows the body to do what it does best: heal itself."
Although Dr. Goldhamer believes in the practice of water-only fasting, he suggests that believers undergo that diet only as supervised inpatients. The patients he monitors usually suffer from various health problems, such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, diabetes and auto-immune diseases. Fasting cleanses the body and allows people to break bad habits, such as drug and dietary addictions.
"If you look at most diseases people die from in our country, they are the diseases of dietary excess," Dr. Goldhamer says. "They used to be called the diseases of kings … Even poor people in our country eat like only kings could afford. We are digging our graves with our teeth."
Patients typically come to True North Health to fast as a means of eliminating the consequences of excess living, Dr. Goldhamer says. "We live in an environment of abundance," he says. "It's a pleasure trap."
Almost everybody fasts at least once a day, though they might not think about it because they're asleep. The morning meal is how we literally "break the fast," notes Sy Berkowitz of Glen Ellen, Calif., one of Dr. Goldhamer's patients.
Mr. Berkowitz, 80, has done a water-only fast annually for the past four years at True North Health. He usually fasts for two or three weeks, which costs about $100 a day. The medical staff also feeds him before allowing him to leave. After a 10-day fast, he eats organic produce for five days under supervision.
"I keep chugalugging the water all the time," he says. "I did once or twice feel faint or dizzy because I tried to get up from bed too quickly."
By the time the fast finishes, Mr. Berkowitz's cholesterol measurement usually drops at least 10 percent. This is key for his health, since he had a heart attack in 1972 and a quadruple bypass in 1989.
"I come out of fasting feeling good," he says. "It's like a new start … My sense of smell is heightened. I feel energetic."
In order to keep his cholesterol low throughout the year, Mr. Berkowitz tries to avoid processed foods in favor of organic ones. Since 1991 he has been a vegan a person who eats no animal products, such as milk and cheese.
"Processed foods have all kinds of chemicals in them," he says. "I don't think any of it does our bodies a lot of good. The trend is swinging back to health foods and what our bodies like." He formerly worked as a sales manager for Frito-Lay, Inc., whose potato chips are fairly heavily processed.
The body can function without food for a few weeks, but it cannot operate without water, says Stephanie Dacko, clinical dietitian at Georgetown University Hospital.
Some fasts can rob the body of nutrients, so it is important for those attempting any kind of serious fast to talk to a nutritionist beforehand.
"If you fast for the entire season of Lent, you should supplement the diet with vitamins and adequate intake of other food groups," she says. "If you eliminate meat, you would need to substitute it with nuts or beans for B vitamins and protein."

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