Counsel from our leaders regarding fasting has been that we should abstain from food and drink for 24 hours on the designated day each month. (President Joseph F. Smith, Improvement Era, Dec. 1903, p. 146.) For the vast majority of Latter-day Saints, such fasting is not harmful, but even beneficial.
It is estimated that over 30 million Americans are overweight and many others of us overeat. For us the 24-hour fast gives our bodies a welcome repose and our appetites some needed discipline. Is it ever harmful to fast?
Yes. First of all, there are those people who simply cannot fast. Some individuals actually become ill when they go without food and drink. Some become weak to the point of fainting. Others develop severe headaches or other incapacitating symptoms that indicate that their bodies do not tolerate fasting.
Certain diabetics cannot and should not fast. Surely those who have urinary tract disease and must take medication for this condition must not go without adequate fluids. Individuals who have infections often require food in order to tolerate the antibiotics and fluids to prevent dehydration. Nursing mothers may do well to skip fasting. And there are others with special situations, temporary or permanent, who should not fast.
President Joseph F. Smith certainly was mindful of special needs when he counseled: “The Lord has instituted the fast on a reasonable and intelligent basis, and none of his works are vain or unwise. His law is perfect in this as in other things. Hence, those who can are required to comply thereto; it is a duty from which they cannot escape; but let it be remembered that the observance of the fast day by abstaining twenty-four hours from food and drink is not an absolute rule, it is no iron-clad law to us, but it is left with the people as a matter of conscience, to exercise wisdom and discretion. Many are subject to weakness, others are delicate in health, and others have nursing babies; of such it should not be required to fast. Neither should parents compel their little children to fast. I have known children to cry for something to eat on fast day. In such cases, going without food will do them no good. Instead, they dread the day to come, and in place of hailing it, dislike it; while the compulsion engenders a spirit of rebellion in them, rather than a love for the Lord and their fellows. Better teach them the principle, and let them observe it when they are old enough to choose intelligently, than to compel them.” (Gospel Doctrine, p. 244.)
Sometimes Latter-day Saints think that if it is good to fast for 24 hours, it is three times as good to fast for 72 hours. Healthwise nothing could be farther from the truth. Missionaries, especially, must have strength to carry out their work and should not overindulge in fasting anymore than in food-faddism. Let’s follow the counsel of our leaders “that food and drink are not to be partaken of for twenty-four hours, ‘from even to even.’” If longer fasting is required of us, they will so direct us.
To compel fasting in anyone (such as by turning off the water in meetinghouse drinking fountains on fast Sunday) is not only denying free agency to all concerned, but it may also deny water to those who may, for medical reasons, require water during this time.
Perhaps just as important is the fact that compulsion also deprives us of the blessings that come when we willingly comply with the Lord’s instructions to us through his prophets.