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.
She did lose weight, though, and years later she said she still eats better.
“Since the experience I've lost a lot of weight just from learning how to have more self-control,” Neumann said.
Bonci, the nutritionist, added that for many Daniel fasters, the Church community acts as a kind of reinforcement mechanism.
“Community is one reason why Weight Watchers has been so tremendously successful,” she said. “A lot of people, they need that other voice that's on their shoulder saying, ‘Yes you can.’”
In 2010, Rick Warren, the best-selling author and leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, began to notice that his own and his congregation’s waistlines were expanding. On Jan. 15, 2011, Warren began to push what he calls “the Daniel Plan,” a year-round program that encompasses exercise groups, small-group gatherings, and a diet composed of 70 percent fruits and vegetables and 30 percent lean protein and whole grains—less strict than most Daniel fasts but still far more virtuous than the typical American diet. By last year, an estimated 15,000 people were taking part in Warren’s Daniel Plan, both in person and online.
In December, Warren will publish a book based on his version of the regime, The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life, which he co-wrote with psychiatrist Daniel Amen and physician Mark Hyman.
“If you take the Bible as an owner’s manual for how to live, we want to be sure we're living at our top-notch best,” said Karen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the Saddleback Daniel Plan.
There are a few key differences, of course: Warren’s plan kicks off with a 40-day break from sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and any processed foods, but it eventually allows meat and dairy. (The number 40, Quinn told me, is a “number of completion” in the Bible, representing the length of the Great Flood, in days, and the length of time the Israelites wandered, in years, to name just two examples.)
Meanwhile, the non-Saddleback Daniel fast doesn’t appear to have a central guidebook, though several of its adherents have published recipe books to help fasters along.
Kristen Feola’s church in Ozark, Missouri did the fast together in 2009, and the following year she wrote The Ultimate Guide to the Daniel Fast, which is filled with recipes like black bean chili bake and date honey spread.
Feola told me that self-denial “makes us more aware of our dependency on the Lord, and it brings us to a place of surrender and weakness.”
She said that while most of her fellow churchgoers began the fast for spiritual reasons, “most people do not eat the same after the fact. Usually what happens is that people feel so good physically after they get past the first initial days, they want to keep it up.”
She said her book and recipe site are popular even for those in her church who aren’t actively fasting. To her, the Daniel fasting movement seems to be part of a broader realization that in an era of instant gratification, Christians should honor God by staying healthy.
“Christians think we can eat to excess, and we don’t have to exercise if we don’t want to,” Feola said. “But you can worship God by taking care of your body.”
That’s one thing the two Daniel movements have in common. At Saddleback, many Daniel Plan participants reportedly wear T-shirts that say, "God created it/ Jesus died for it/ The Holy Spirit lives in it/ Shouldn't you take care of it?"
That message, however, does not reflect the current, grim reality in much of Christian America. The majority of America’s most-obese metropolitan areas are located in the Bible belt. At least one study has shown that young adults who frequently attend religious services are 50 percent more likely than their non-religious peers to become obese by middle age. Women who are Baptist and regularly read religious materials are also more likely to have unhealthy BMIs, another study found.
More than half of white evangelicals say the government should not attempt to curb obesity. Meanwhile, Warren’s previous book, the Purpose-Driven Life, has sold more than 30 million copies. The Daniel trend’s emergence in the faith community raises the question: Will overweight evangelicals who resist the government’s calls to eat healthier be more open to the same directive coming from their churches? Or better yet, can their quest to grow closer to Christ through fasting set them, seemingly unintentionally, on a path toward improved physical well-being?
As I interviewed Feola, I was sipping a Coke and had just polished off a towering stack of gingerbread cookies.
“I don’t think I could do your diet,” I said.
“Are you a Christian?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Well, I know I probably couldn’t do it if I didn’t have the Lord,” she said.
By all accounts, she’s probably right.