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Fasting to live or starving to death?

  • …Dietitians, clerics disagree

By Chioma Obinna

All over the world different religious groups observe fasting to increase their spiritual growth and other purposes. According to the teachings of the Bible, fasting helps Christians to grow spiritually, discipline their flesh and seek the face of God for answers to their prayers.

Fasting to live or starving to death?

In Nigeria today, members of different religions embark on all forms of fasting in line with their beliefs. While some fast for a long period, others do so for a short period. Lately, the duration of fasting has become an issue of concern given how some expose themselves to dangers in the process.

A few days ago, a teenager was rescued from the jaws of death in Ebonyi State, having fasted for 41 days without food and water. There was also the case of a man who lost his sanity in Ibadan after fasting longer than he ought to have done. The list is endless.

The question many are asking is: How safe is fasting for a long period? According to medical experts, a short period of fasting can be an effective way to lose weight if done properly.

It has also been found that intermittent fasting which is fasting within 12 or 16 hours can improve diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, neurological conditions, and inflammation among others. It could also be dangerous if wrongly handled.

Complications

Unfortunately, while such a short period has some health benefits, studies have proven that long hours of fasting can lead to complications that can alter the immune system and ultimately expose individuals to diseases and even death.

Although there have not been any documented reports of fasting -related deaths in Nigeria, stories abound about many people who end up with life-threatening complications. In other countries of the world, there have also been reports pastors who died from complications arising from long days of fasting.

A few weeks ago, there was a story of an SS1 student of Ishieke High School, Ebonyi State, who was said to have sneaked to a mountain to pray against the misfortunes in his family but collapsed after the 41 days of dry fasting.

Battling to live

He is currently battling for his life. According to media reports, the boy was said to have severally complained of hardship in the family and sort assistance from government and private individuals but to no avail.

The boy who is into hawking of sachet water and Gala in Onitsha, Anambra State during holidays to raise his school fees decided to embark on a 41-day prayer and fasting to seek God’s intervention.

The 19-year- old boy survived following the immediate intervention of his prayer colleagues and the elder brother, who rushed him to a patent medicine store where drip and some drugs were administered to him in an attempt to revive him.

Frail-looking children

Another case in point is the seven frail-looking children including a five-year-old, whose mother subjected to compulsory one-month fasting and were rescued by the policemen attached to Shaha Division in Lagos last week.

Sunday Vanguard learned that the mother of the children had approached the owner of a vacant shop, to allow them to stay there for two weeks but after the agreed date, she told the owner of the shop that God instructed her to use there as a worship centre.

She added that her children would be her first coverts. However, the Spokesman of the Lagos State Police Command, DSP Elkana Bala, said the children were rescued and were undergoing medical treatment for onward transfer to the ministry of social welfare.

The story of a Zambian pastor, who died at the age of 37, is another shocking incident. He was said to have died of starvation while on a 30 – day fasting and prayers. It was reported that his wife found him dead in the early hours of the 20th day of his 30-day fasting programme. He was said to have fasted on behalf of his family and church members.

The case of a South African Pastor who died following 30 days of fasting is also still fresh.

Malnutrition

According to a media report, the Pastor died of malnutrition.

Studies have shown that the risks involved in long fasting are enormous.

Some public health officials and religious leaders, who spoke to Sunday Vanguard on what should be the duration of fasting, expressed divergent opinions.

Assistant Director, Dietetics, Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital, Dr. Obinna Ogbonna warned against starvation, insisting that food and water are important for human survival.

Ogbonna explained that science has proven that man can only survive a few weeks without food, adding that 50 percent of the average human body is water.

He said: “Water is essential for metabolic processes and excretion of waste products from the body. Man can only survive for a maximum of seven days without water.

“Except for religious rites, a long period of fasting is not advisable. And if one must embark on the exercise, it is better to break in the evening with food and water.”

He further said a short period of fasting, like two to three days, may have some benefits to the body, especially for those who are overweight.

“However, 40 days or more is killing and it is never ideal. Professionally, I discourage such.’’

He advised religious leaders not to impose such long fasting on their members, saying it could be suicidal.

Deaths

Reacting to the reports of deaths associated with fasting, Ogbonna explained that the victims must have died of complications. He further explained that: “With long fasting, complications will set in and ultimately death. Adequate diets in its qualitative and quantitative measure nourish the body by supplying the necessary minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that the body needs for its optimal functioning. Such nutrients increase the body’s immunity against invading pathogens. Replenishing tears and wears as well as energy for our daily activities. Again, food and water are very essential in the metabolic processes in man. Food acts as fuel and water as the lubricants. These keep the homeostasis in man.”

For a Professor of Nutrition at the University of Ibadan and former President Nutrition Society of Nigeria, Prof. Tola Atinmo, moderate fasting is okay if the objective is to lose weight.

Atinmo who is also the founding President Federation of African Nutrition Societies (FANUS) noted that there is no need for excessive fasting except for a spiritual reason.

More than seven days

He suggested that people should not fast more than seven days to avoid complications.

In the views of the Bishop of the Diocese of Ikeja, Lagos, Methodist Church of Nigeria, Bishop Stephen Adegbite, people should embark on fasting regularly.

“Fasting is also a commandment from God and in the book of Isaiah chapter 57, God told us the type of fast that he requires from us and this type of fast is the heart that turns to God in holiness. Not someone that would abstain from food and he or she indulges in worldly pleasure, and now pretend that he is fasting.

“However, those with medical issues are not expected to fast. Fasting is not a punishment but a spiritual journey with God. It is when you have the strength that you can wait upon the Lord.”

Adegbite also said that believers must always remember that they cannot bribe God by fasting, adding that God requires genuine repentance.

How often should you fast?

Too much fasting can stress the body so the longer you choose to fast the less often you should do it.

Experts advised that 16- to 19-hour fasting can be done daily.

24- to 36-hour should be done twice a week.

48-hour should be limited to once a week or less often.

Longer fasting than 48 hours should only be done with medical supervision.

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