The Disciplines and Discoveries of a Daniel Fast

During the month of June, my wife Debbie and I went through our first Daniel Fast. Since we’re about to lead our small group through a fast, it seemed like a good time to look back through my journal and to reflect on the experience. 

We’d both fasted many times over the years, separately and as a couple; but although we had heard of a Daniel Fast, neither of us had read anything in detail about it or used this structure for a fast. I’d been looking forward to the fast as a new adventure, but also as a time to refocus and cleanse.  Debbie used the word “reset” when we were talking about our goals for the Fast.

It might be good to provide a little background and context. First, it feels awkward to be reporting on a fast because there is a clear scriptural admonition not to trumpet one’s fast as a evidence of holiness, or look worn and forlorn during a fast so others will admire your great sacrifice.  Jesus said that the Pharisees would get no heavenly reward for their fasting because they sought earthly adulation for their actions (Matthew 6:16-18). I hope my motivations are pure in sharing thoughts from this fasting experience (hoping not to lose any gem from my crown!)

Second, we found that this was a fast only in the sense of deprivation of particular foods and drinks and not in the sense of great hunger. We ate well. And so I’m more comfortable understanding this as a time of discipline and self-control, rather than fasting—but the title Daniel Fast is a familiar one, so we use it. 

Third, if you’re not familiar with Daniel, he was among the aristocrats from Jerusalem who were taken in the Babylonian captivity in 605 B.C. (600 years before Christ’s birth), and he spent most of his life in the royal court of Babylonian and Persian kings in Babylon. He maintained his devotion to the God of his Fathers and the disciplines of the faith, yet he was a trusted advisor to kings (except during a few hiccups, like his night in the lion’s den).   

The idea of the Daniel Fast itself comes from two passages in the Book of Daniel (in chapters 1 and 10). When I read these accounts, I jotted down five goals for my Daniel Fast.

  1. To avoid food and drink during the Fast that may “defile” the body.
  2. To test this healthy-eating rigor and compare results to our regular eating, which isn’t terrible, but includes a fair amount of fat through meat and creams and sauces. Also, for me, coffee is a major part of my diet and life. Dropping this will be difficult.
  3. To sharpen character by willingly sacrificing the pleasurable.
  4. To use hunger/longing/desire as a cue to turn to God in prayer and to listen for his will.
  5. To hear from God during this time, as Daniel heard from him in Daniel 10.

In preparation for the Fast, I consulted Matthew Henry’s commentary and found these thoughts:

  • People will not believe the benefit of a spare diet nor how much it contributes to the health of the body unless they try it.
  • Those who would excel in wisdom and piety must learn to keep the body under control.
  • The principles:  not indulging appetites; partaking not in the sins of a pagan society; a principle of conscience; not in love with the pleasures of the culture.

There are variations of The Daniel Fast and plenty of help online, including free resources and detailed instructions, books, and cookbooks that you can purchase. The Fast that we followed included the following guidelines:

Food included

  • Fruits and vegetables, preferably fresh or frozen vegetables. Vegetables such as potatoes, beans, and soybeans will help provide substance.
  • Pure fruit juices or fruit (no sweetened drinks or sweetened fruit): apple juice, orange juice, grapefruit juice, cranberry juice
  • Whole grains
  • It is advisable to take vitamin, mineral, and possibly protein supplements during the fast. You may also include various nuts to serve as a protein supplement.

Food not included

  • Meats, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs
  • Sugar and sugar products (desserts, soft drinks, etc.)
  • Drinks including caffeine (coffee, tea, etc.)
  • Yeast (so no bread)
  • Additives (which pretty much knocks out all packaged and processed foods)

We also made it a discipline to do a related devotional reading and study each day.

Looking back through my Fast journal, I read a lot of whining and fascination and obsession with what I’m eating and not eating. I won’t bore you with much of that, but here are some selected thoughts from the three weeks. 

Day 1

I woke up early to start this Journal. I’m hungry and will begin this morning with some potatoes and fruit. As I walked downstairs, what my mind automatically went to was making a pot of coffee. As I think about the food, I don’t dread the types of foods available on the Fast, but I anticipate being regularly hungry because of the huge reduction in fat and carbs. I’m also anticipating a couple days of headaches as I am weaned from caffeine. That won’t be fun. 

I relish the discipline of thinking about diet and more broadly about spiritual discipline and strengthening my spiritual life—which for both of us has suffered because babies and toddlers are a constant demand, mentally consuming and a physical drain. I hope we can find the time to refocus because we are not, of course, taking a fast from the children. 

Reading Daniel 1.  Note that Daniel didn’t see this as a fast but as a time to prove to the king’s official that this restricted diet was healthier than the court’s rich food.

Day 2

Up at 6:08 after a good night sleep, which means both of the girls [ages 2 years and 8 months] slept through the night. Day 1 was difficult, but not because of the food change (had apple juice to start the day, fried potatoes for breakfast, a pear, salad with all the right stuff for lunch, peanuts and raisins for afternoon snack, a baked potato with a bean salsa for dinner, a frozen banana for evening snack). The tough thing was dropping coffee. Headache all day; took some Tylenol. Felt irritable and very tired. I kept falling asleep at my computer, which I never do. Woke up with a headache this morning; I’ve done this caffeine weaning before; headache won’t last too much longer.

Day 3

Yesterday wasn’t pleasant because the headache didn’t go away and both Debbie and I were sullen and on edge. If you could do this kind of exercise cloistered away from the real challenges of life, it would be a different experience. Yesterday was another rainy day with whiny kids.  Debbie worked so hard peeling and chopping vegetables for dinner and she was getting frustrated with the interruptions and demands of the children. Dinner was great, with a stew of veggies—potatoes, rutabagas, carrots, onions; with sides of green beans and roasted squash. Banana pop for dessert. Earlier I had fried potatoes with green pepper and onion for breakfast, and a salad for lunch. Not missing meat or dairy as much as I am the coffee and sweet desserts. Seems like the headache is gone this morning, praise God.

Reading Daniel 3.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. God is able, but even if he chooses not to deliver us, we will still remain faithful and we will not worship other gods. This is ultimate faith and courage of your convictions.

Day 4

I miss getting out of the house [I have a home office] to work at Atlanta Bread Co. or a coffee shop, so I went to ABC in the afternoon. I just didn’t get anything; toyed with getting decaf coffee but decided to just stay away from even decaffeinated coffee as part of the discipline.

Day 7

We’re finding the Daniel Fast to be a discovery of a new way to eat and a new selection of foods, rather then deprivation; although we are both missing sweets. And food preparation and clean-up is quite time consuming if you don’t just eat a piece of fruit and open a bag of frozen vegetables. Debbie is doing a great job. We talked yesterday about the decisions we’ll be making at the end of the fast about how to change our eating habits and what foods to continue avoiding and what to add to our regular diets from the Fast menu. As we settle into the food part of this, we need to listen more to what God is saying to us in the midst of this spiritual discipline.

Day 8

It’s been one full week on the Daniel Fast. I like how I’m feeling this morning, although up early. Yesterday, the food was fine, although we talked about how the food can be really good on this fast, but not great. Need the creams and meat and cheese and chocolate and coffee and wine and bread to be a great meal. But it’s fine. Made the usual potato/pepper/onion/tomato breakfast, with a pear. Green salad with beans for lunch; snacks were peanuts and raisins; supper was an eggplant and rice casserole; banana pop for dessert. We went to church leadership training meeting late to miss the refreshments—an ice cream parlor!

Day 10

Well, if we were doing Daniel’s 10 day fast in Daniel 1, we’d be done today. In some ways that would be very nice. I’d love a lot of coffee today because Payton has been up since 3:30 and its going to be a tired day. We also seem to be getting irritable the last few days. So now the hard work begins in digging deeper to accomplish our goals for the spiritual fast. For dinner a vegetarian chili with tofu; pretty good. I’d like it again without the jalapeno in one ingredient.

Day 11

Yesterday had the feeling of a fast in addition to a discipline. I was out of the house a lot and we are getting low on groceries, so I didn’t eat very much and went to bed quite hungry. Ended the day with a lot of energy, though [maybe because I missed my workout!]

Day 13

Started our Saturday at the gym, as usual; good workout. I was down 6 pounds in 2 weeks. That’s a nice by-product of the fast. The menu yesterday: fried sweet potato and veg dish for breakfast; banana and apple for lunch; lentil soup for dinner. Peanut/raisin snack; banana pop dessert. Also listening hard for direction on a number of matters. 

Day 15

We’re experiencing the grinding disappointment of dull food choices in the midst of chocolate. Debbie baked an unbelievable chocolate cake with Kit Kat bars and strawberries, for Rachel Haney’s birthday; we took it to her and sat around talking, while the Haney’s ate the chocolate cake and we ate the strawberries. We took the girls to McDonald’s play place Sunday and bought Payton a hot fudge sundae. The Fast is working in that we experience frequent awareness of the discomfort and deprivation. We depend on food to lubricate our social events. Tough, and again, this discipline is beginning to present noticeable temptations and displeasures. I’ve noticed them and realized that those complaints are what are expected and I’ve tried to focus at those times on what God is saying to me. Restraint is good. Building the ability to not yield to desire is good.

Day 17

This fast is nearing its end; I need to spend time the next three days thinking about its lessons, listening for God’s voice; figuring out what to carry into our lives.

Day 18

I had a total fast Wed. p.m. to Thurs. p.m., drinking only apple juice. A veggie feast for dinner: roasted sweet potato, asparagus, and corn on the cob. As we come close to the end of the Fast, one question I have is whether I feel healthier and stronger than my counterparts who have continued to “eat from the king’s table,” with meats and wine etc. I’d say that mostly I do feel better than usual with the combination of the food regimen and exercise. I’ve been having back ache, but it’s probably related more to carrying the baby around and working out than diet. I wonder if I’m getting enough protein, but haven’t noticed anything physically except less strength lifting weights. I worry about returning to the usual diet; I don’t intend to eat as much of anything except fruits and veggies as we end the Fast.

Day 21                                                                

As we end the fast today, all four of my kids are gathering for Sunday dinner to celebrate Father’s Day and we’re going to have a chicken dinner.  Also, we are beginning our trip to New York this afternoon; glad the fast is over because it would be tough to maintain this discipline on the road. A tough day yesterday, mainly because the younger kids were out of sorts while we were trying to finish tasks before hitting the road. I’ve lost 11 pounds on the fast, which I feel good about. Hoping to apply some of the discipline to a more varied diet so I can lose a few more and maintain. I’m glad the fast is over; I guess that’s good. If it was too pleasant, it probably wouldn’t teach me anything about discipline.

End-of-Fast Observations

Here are my observations from our 21 days on the Daniel Fast:

  1. It is valuable to find ways to eat in more healthy and redemptive ways.
  2. While we will remain omnivores, but we want to eat less meat than usual, which will be better for our arteries, and will put less pressure on the meat industry (and therefore be better for animals).  
  3. Fewer additives is a good thing. Chemical and preservatives—anything on the package that you can’t pronounce, and more—aren’t generally good for us. So we will try to avoid them. Why do they add all that stuff? (Peanut butter only has to be pulverized peanuts with a little salt; that’s it.)
  4. Less sugar and fat is obviously good, but life without sweetness is bitter indeed. Vegans have it easy. So many of the vegan recipes are sweet desserts. 
  5. More fruits and veggies is healthy and tasty, but a diet heavy in fresh fruits and vegetables is more expensive. We need to tap into the farmers markets.
  6. It’s a whole lot easier to lose weight without meat and dairy products (and sweets, of course)!
  7. It takes a lot more time to prepare and cook fresh foods in different and tasty ways.
  8. The displeasure of discipline provides good times to seek the pleasure of God’s guidance
  9. Small children get in the way of reflective stretches of time
  10. Ten days is probably enough; certainly for a first time
  11. We need more Daniel Fast recipes
  12. The Daniel Fast, more than anything, provided lessons on being in control of our appetites, not allowing appetites to control us.

So now we prepare to lead and advise the folks in our small group Bible study, which meets each Thursday evening, on a 10-day Daniel Fast. We will pray that God will grant, as he did to Daniel and his colleagues after the Fast, “knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom.” 

I recommend The Daniel Fast as a time of a spiritual discipline, a way to become more familiar with what goes in your stomach every day, and good practice in exercising control over your appetites.  Give it a try!

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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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One Response to The Disciplines and Discoveries of a Daniel Fast

  1. Pingback: A Meaty Debate: Chef vs. Vegan | rooftop

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