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In search for spiritual nourishment, fasters follow the Daniel diet


Black Bean Pablano Corn Chowder, one of the most popular recipes among readers of Grace Bass's Daniel Fast cookbook. (Photo courtesy of Grace Bass)


Walnut Avocado Fettuccine, one of the most popular recipes among readers of Grace Bass's Daniel Fast cookbook. (Photo courtesy of Grace Bass )

A vegetable omelet and hash browns never tasted as good to Kathy Pilcher as they did on Feb. 1.

Throughout the whole month of January, Pilcher, 27, a small-business consultant from Chicago, abstained from eating meat, dairy products and sweets and drank only water. “This is the most challenging fast I’ve ever done,” she said, describing her experience practicing the Daniel Fast, a popular ritual that combines Christianity with dieting.

Pilcher is one of many Americans who went on the Daniel Fast in January. In this period, many of the fasters--most of whom are Christians--practice the ritual as a way of entering into a type of spiritual discipline they believe will bring them closer to God. The fast is modeled on the way the prophet Daniel fasted: It is limited to vegetables, fruits and water, and lasts for 21 days (or in some rarer instances, 10 days).

When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in the late 6th century B.C., Daniel was among those taken captive, explained John T. Fitzgerald, an associate professor at the University of Miami’s Department of Religious Studies. During his captivity, Daniel stayed faithful to God and fasted to seek answers about when the Jewish people would be restored to the Holy Land, Fitzgerald said, adding that it is not uncommon for people try to model their behavior on him.

“Daniel is presented in the Biblical texts as someone who has the courage of his convictions,” he said.

The Daniel Fast has been around for at least a decade, but it has become increasingly popular within the last year, according to Susan Gregory, 58, a former Christian writer and real-estate agent whose online alter ego is as the Daniel Fast Blogger.

“The economy is in flux, and people are looking for stability in God,” Gregory said. Since December 2007, when she started writing the blog that offers information about the fast, the site has logged more than a million hits. Gregory estimates that around two million Americans went on the Daniel Fast in January.

The site is bombarded with questions from people curious about the fast: “Can I have herbal tea during the fast?” “Is it allowed to drink smoothies?” Gregory answers them individually. It turns tea is not allowed, because the prophet Daniel drank only water. Smoothies, however, are fine because they are considered to be liquid meals.

Gregory has also written two e-cookbooks based on the fast that have so far sold 5,000 copies. The recipes that can be found in the cookbooks look as removed from a fasting diet as they can be: potato and green onion frittata, Indonesian tofu with peanut sauce, Greek vegetable stew, pumpkin black bean soup and fruit kabob. Gregory has left her job in real estate and works full-time on the blog from her farm in Ellensburg, Wash., dispensing advice to people around the country and the globe.

Among those using her advice on what to cook during the fast was MaryGail Galvan, 32, a supervisor at a real-estate company in Dallas. A co-worker asked her to join him in the fast.

“When I heard the word fast, I did not want to do it,” said Galvan. She said that she had no religious reason to go on the fast, but in the end reconsidered, seeing other payoffs.

“I wanted to challenge myself to eat healthier,” said Galvan. “It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be not eating dairy and sugar.”

The affordability of such simple meals is particularly appealing during lean times, says Grace Bass, who together with her, mother Lynda Anderson, 60, wrote “The Daniel’s Fast Cookbook,” published by A & B Publishing in February 2008.

Her cookbook has sold several thousand copies, and Bass has recently ordered 5,000 additional copies to be distributed to different bookstores. Some of the most popular recipes in the cookbook include walnut avocado fettuccine and black bean poblano corn chowder.

Bass teaches Bible studies and leads a youth group in the New Life Church of Tempe in Arizona, a nondenominational church that was founded by her husband, Patrick Bass, in 2008. Bass and her husband are doing a 10-day Daniel Fast in February and have already challenged members of their church to join them.

“In a time of recession, potentially depression, I think we’re gonna see a lot more people re-evaluate their lives and their lifestyles,” said Bass.

Experts, however, point out potential problems with the diet.

“From a nutritional perspective the diet is very unbalanced,” said Aoife Ryan, assistant professor of nutrition at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. According to Ryan, the diet does not meet carbohydrate needs and, if followed long-term, could cause problems associated with the lack of vitamin B12 (found only in animal-derived foods like meat, milk and eggs).

Judi Morrill, a lecturer in the Department of Nutrition at San Jose State University, said the Daniel Fast diet can be either unbalanced or balanced, depending on what one chooses to eat. Lack of proteins can be addressed with legumes; tortillas and brown rice can fill in for carbohydrates; and soy milk can be fortified with B12 and calcium.

“This diet is better than what most Americans eat, but you would have to make it balanced with knowing what you eat,” said Morrill.

Karen Weaver says she only found benefits to participating in the fast. Encouraged by the pastor, Franklin Jentezen, an early proponent of the Daniel Fast, her church in Gainesville, Ga., started fasting seven years ago. Weaver, 58, even included her son Brad, who was in the fifth grade at the time.

“We just eat fresh fruit and vegetables,” said Weaver, who added that she was not worried about allowing her son to take part. “With all the junk food, it seemed like a better option,” she said.

Now a senior, Brad Weaver still continues to practice the Daniel Fast with his mother whenever they are in search of answers to questions important to the family. This year they prayed and fasted to make the right decision on the college Brad should attend. He chose North Georgia College in Dahlonega.

“When you can say no to food, you can say no to other temptations,” said Weaver, explaining how the discipline of the Daniel Fast helps her in her spiritual life.

While many churches encourage discipline that benefits the soul and the body, the official position of the Episcopal Church is not to endorse any particular method, including the Daniel Fast, according to Neva Rae Fox, a public affairs officer for the Episcopal Church. Don Clemmer, assistant director of media relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, similarly said that the Catholic Church does not have any official position on the fast.

For her part, Weaver remains convinced that the Daniel Fast not only benefits her spiritual life but that it strengthens her in all other areas.

“If I can give up chocolate, I can do anything,” she said.