Ash Wednesday Marks The Start of Fasting for Millions

Ash Wednesday and Fasting

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a time when millions of Christians around the world begin a season of repentance and introspection. In honor of the season, many will fast or give up foods like meat, alcohol and sweets for part or all of the next forty days.

Lent, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word "lenten" or spring, begins on the seventh Sunday before Easter and continues for the forty weekdays until Good Friday. It is a time of sparse colors and little warmth, in which Christians consider the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness and offer prayer, charity and repentance for the previous year.

The name "Ash Wednesday" comes from the practice of anointing the forehead with ashes on the first day of Lent as a symbol of humility and sorrow. On Ash Wednesday, Church-goers consider the meaning of their faith and the changes they can make to improve their world and be better people.

The fasting of Lent conveniently coincides with both the beginning of spring - a time when cleansing the body is considered healthy – and with the end of winter, when food luxuries like meat, sugar, and alcohol might be scarce in traditional cultures.

Fasting can be either helpful or harmful to health, depending how the fast is done.

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Five tips for a safe, healthy fasting:

1. Keep drinking water. Eliminating rich or sugary foods from your diet can cause headaches or fatigue as your body starts to naturally cleanse. Water is vital in preventing headaches and easing this process. Going without food – or without certain foods – doesn't mean you have to go thirsty.

2. Replace food cravings for sweets with something that will satisfy that craving in a healthy way – for instance, replace candy or chocolate with fresh or dried fruits, which are loaded with natural sugars.

3. Take one piece at a time. Eliminating temptations a little piece at a time is a lot easier than dropping a whole load of bad food habits at once. Easing up to a fast is generally considered a good idea, or beginning the fast gradually by weaning yourself off one bad food habit per week.

4. Don't go on an intense fast if you're a competing athlete, pregnant, breastfeeding, or sick. There's no harm in eliminating small luxuries from your diet for religious purposes, such as Lent, but don't feel that you need go to all the way with a fast if it endangers your health.

5. Fasting is easier if you have company. So get involved in a Church community, or get a friend or family member to fast with you.

The Toronto Star, "The long fast begins," February 25, 2009.
The Voice, "The Season of Lent," 2008.