Feasts and Fasts

Australia is a multicultural society; our cultural diversity is important in creating our wonderfully diverse food supply. Like our inclusive food traditions, an understanding of other’s beliefs is required for harmony.

By Jeremy Ryland


Ramadan begins in Australia around Sunday 5 May and ends on the evening of Tuesday 4 June 2019. The exact time is determined by the sighting of the new moon. Ramadan is the ninth moon in the Islamic lunar year which holds special religious significance.  It is an annual event, observed by Muslims worldwide and is the holy month of prayer, reflection and forgiveness. It is a time when Muslims renew their faith and strengthen their spiritual ties with God or Allah. 

During Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast from pre-dawn to sunset every day. Fasting during Ramadan is designed to build compassion, renew one’s focus on spirituality, build character and encourage social interaction.  The fast is broken at the time of sundown, traditionally with dates and water, followed by prayers and then the main meal. Muslims are encouraged to share their food with family, friends and neighbours. The end of Ramadan is celebrated with a big feast called Eid-ul-Fitr, which can last up to three days. This festival is one of the most joyous times on the Islamic calendar. It is a time of celebration, a time to give gifts to the poor and needy, to indulge children with small presents and to spend time with family and friends. The feast is also known as the "Sweet Eid" because of the amount and variety of sweet dishes consumed on this occasion, celebrating the happy end of Ramadan. Dishes such as pasta and dates cooked in milk, sweet pastries, butter cookies, chicken cooked in rosewater and aromatic tagines are often enjoyed. 

The religious importance of Ramadan is similar to Easter for Christians. All cultures have religious and special celebrations that bring people together with feasts including Passover, Christmas, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. Food and eating are intimately linked with culture. Food and particularly commensality, the sharing of food, is an important social symbol in religions as well as everyday life across all cultures. Sharing food; especially rare or symbolic foods, conveys a sense of belonging; bringing people together with a special bond. Fasting and diet is also an important part of many religions and beliefs. The fast is central to Ramadan and is designed to test one’s will, to better understand one’s own limits and self-control. Similarly, in the Christian calendar, Lent is a period of fasting, for prayer and “sacrifice”, lasting from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday at Easter. 

Sometimes there are practical reasons for fasting. Lent happens at the beginning of Spring, in the Northern Hemisphere. Food was generally still in short supply from the winter period. So, we would fast to cut down on perishables, in advance of the new Spring crops. Fasting is common amongst many cultures - Egyptians, North American Indians, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Islam etc. Fasting provides the opportunity for one to identify with others through suffering. It is not always total abstinence, but more the reduction of one’s intake of food. Most fasts permit one meal a day or only places restrictions on certain foods, or meal times. 

Other than religious reasons, Fasting can also be beneficial to our general health. Studies have shown, using mice and monkeys, that fasting can contribute to disease recovery and disease control. People fast for many medical reasons including preparation for surgery, medical tests, detox diets and of course, weight loss. Recently there has been a revival of the starvation or “Calorie Restriction” diet that is supposed to extend life longevity. Adherents of the Calorie Restriction follow a diet that leaves them near starvation in the hopes that it will radically increase their life span. Mice apparently live 50% longer on this regimen and proponents suggest humans could live to 160. But would it be fun? 

Many of the Japanese people on the island of Okinawa have a kilojoule intake about 20% lower than those on the mainland - and live beyond 100 years of age. 

The 5:2 Diet is also popular, where one eats normally for five days and then fasts – or have a restricted kilojoule intake – on the other two days of the week. This has been shown to provide benefits of weight loss, mental clarity and improved metabolism. And whilst this may be true, it is primarily a mental process as it focuses us on what we eat and how much we eat. 

In Australia, we eat too much. Obesity is a major issue, with over two thirds of Australian adults estimated to be either overweight or obese. Obesity will certainly contribute to an early death, whereas if you eat less, you may live longer! Generally, giving up food, or fasting, is not a good way to lose weight. When we restrict our food intake, our body looks for other sources of energy, ituses up glucose and fat first, and then protein in muscle. When we have a restricted kilojoule intake, our body goes into conservation mode, slowing down our metabolism to save energy, which also slows down weight loss. When we start to eat again, the body continues to conserve, storing fat in case it needs it later on. So we tend to put on more weight – the so called “yo-yo diet” effect.  

Personally, I would much rather enjoy my food in moderation. Eat well. Eat better. Eat less. Food should be savoured, relished, enjoyed and eaten at leisure. Eating well and sharing with others, is one of the joys of life – a pleasure – not a problem. So whether you are fasting or feasting, enjoy your food and the foods of others