As a Baptist, January Rowe knew that tough times sometimes call for fasting. Purposefully going without food has long been a part of Judeo-Christian spiritual practice—David, Jesus, the disciples, and many other Biblical figures fasted regularly as a way to show obedience to God. For centuries, Christians have followed the Bible’s example by going hungry for stretches of time as a form of prayer.
In the summer of 2011, Rowe’s husband had just started a business, and “it was a major life change. I wanted to pray and do whatever I could to support him,” she said.
She thought about fasting, but she worried that not eating entirely for days would make it even harder to keep up with her two small children. The she remembered a relative mentioning a modified type of fast—she had called it “the Daniel Fast”—that involved eating only fruits, vegetables, and whole grains for 21 days. For Rowe, a self-described “sugar addict,” it seemed like a meaningful way to deny herself her favorite treats while attempting to channel God’s intentions for her family.
“It wasn't just me wanting to fit into a size 8, it was me committing to God,” Rowe, who lives near Dallas, explained.
After a few days, she no longer craved sugar, but more importantly, “I was closer to my husband and felt closer to God.”
In the Bible, the Jewish noble Daniel and his companions are captured by the Babylonians and inducted into the service of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonians offer Daniel and his men rich food (“the King’s meat” and wine), but Daniel was wary of God’s prohibition of “unclean foods.”
Daniel 1:8 states: “But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king's meat, nor with the wine which he drank...”
Daniel said he and his friends would eat a diet of only vegetables (“pulse”). After 10 days, they grew healthier and stronger than the Babylonians, and his diet became a small demonstration of his opposition to the King’s power.
This passage is occasionally used to encourage Christians to resist the corrupting influences of the outside world. But several years ago, some Protestant churches began to take the “diet” aspect of Daniel’s story literally.
Motivated by both faith and fitness, today many protestant Christians around the country are, like Daniel, occasionally limiting themselves to fruits and vegetables for 21-day increments. Several such believers told The Atlantic that while their intention for the initial fast was simply to enter a period of Lent-like self-denial in deference to their Lord, they have since found that the fast broke a life-long pattern of unhealthy eating and seems to have set them on a course toward better nutrition even after the 21 days ended. Now, a longer-term version of the Daniel fast is being promoted by the California-based Saddleback Church, the seventh-largest church in the U.S.
In 2012, 48 percent of Americans described themselves as Protestant. In 2005, 58 percent of the South and 44 percent of the Midwest described themselves as born-again or evangelical. If the Daniel trend takes root, it has the potential to reshape the eating habits of huge swaths of the American Christian population, who some studies show are more likely to become obese than their secular peers.
During her initial Daniel fast in 2011, Rowe had an epiphany that she didn’t need to eat sweets every day.
“But, most things that are life-changing, we tend to avoid them,” she told me.
Soon, she was back to her old habits. That Christmas, she made a huge vat of chocolate chunk cookie dough, intended to be baked into dozens of cookies for her son’s teachers. Little by little, she ate the entire batch in three days.
One night, crying over spoonfulls of dough, she began surfing overeating websites and wondering why snacks held such power over her.
“My brain went back to the time I did the Daniel fast,” she said. “Essentially I was able to resist it because I was making a deal with God. He was the only thing I loved more than food.”
Rowe then took on what she calls the Covenant Diet, a plan to do a modified version of the Daniel Fast—largely vegetarian and strictly without sugar—for the rest of her life.
Leslie Bonci, a registered dietician and director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that many of her clients tend to be more successful in dieting when their reason for eating right is more meaningful than their weight or pants size.
“Everybody needs their dangling carrot,” she said. “We don't always do ‘I just want to eat better.’ There has to be some other motivation. If that motivation is a higher power, fine.”
Sarah Neumann, who lives in Ypsilanti, Mich., said she tried the Daniel fast with her fellow churchgoers several years ago, mainly as a devotional exercise and without thinking about the potential weight loss.
At first, she struggled when ordering in restaurants or visiting non-fasting friends. An early attempt to sweeten a butternut squash with a date paste yielded a mushy disappointment.