Updated: March 9, 2014 at 9:02 am
Melissa Taylor stirs a steaming pot of soup atop the stove in her kitchen.
There are lentils and carrots, tomatoes and celery, a bay leaf that bobs to the surface with each turn of the wooden spoon. It's a feast by some standards, famine by others - and a staple for the spiritual journey on which Taylor and her husband, Josh Taylor, soon will embark.
On Feb. 10, the Taylors began a 21-day "Daniel fast," a biblically inspired period of prayer and relative deprivation, various versions of which have become increasingly popular in evangelical Christian circles.
Based on passages in the Book of Daniel, these so-called fasts - they're partial fasts, really - have spawned a small industry of how-to books and devotionals, blogs, recipe exchanges and longer-term plans that encourage healthy eating as a show of reverence for God's creation.
"It's meant to humble your flesh," said the Rev. Mike Brownie, the Taylors' pastor at Rehoboth New Life Center in Milwaukee, who began a period of fasting with church members last month.
"It's all about seeking God," Brownie told adherents at a recent Tuesday night Bible study on the subject. "If you draw near to him, then he is going to draw near to you."
Fasting is an ancient practice common to most faith traditions. Many Christian churches fast early in the new year as a kind of cleansing and to mark a new beginning. The idea is to deprive the physical self, so one can focus more intently on the spiritual; to subjugate the ego, to better hear the divine.
Those are the aims of the Daniel fasts, but with a twist. In deciding what will and will not pass their lips during this prayerful period, followers look to scripture, specifically two passages in the Book of Daniel.
Daniel is the story of a prophet, a diviner of dreams, held captive in Babylonia some 600 years before the birth of Christ. In Chapter 1, Daniel vows to eat only vegetables and water rather than defile himself with the royal food and wine provided by his captors (after which Daniel is said to appear healthier than those who ate the king's foods). Later, in preparation for a vision, he says: "I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips."
From these few words, proponents of the Daniel fasts have developed variations of these dietary guidelines that in some ways mimic a vegan diet:
No meats, no dairy, no sweeteners, no leavened bread or baked goods, no refined or processed foods and no coffee - though some allow herb teas and honey.
In their place, participants are to eat essentially a plant-based diet: fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Whole grains are allowed, including brown rice and popcorn; certain oils; and water and juice.
Some fast for 21 days; some more, some fewer. But the food is only part of it. Followers are encouraged to pray more, read their Bibles or listen to praise music or podcasts of sermons - some of which are provided or sold on church- and Daniel-related websites. Some churches send out daily devotionals on Facebook and Twitter.
"It's not that easy," said Melissa Taylor, a self-described chocoholic who grew up fasting for a week each January in the Apostolic Pentecostal church movement.
In addition to changing the way they eat, she and husband Josh planned to curtail their TV time and cut back on video games and social media. "The idea is to conform our will to the will of God," said Taylor, who planned to spend more time reading her Bible and memorizing scripture.
Though it's not a traditional fast, in which one abstains entirely from food for a period of time, she says it has much the same effect.
"It creates a kind of mind shift and makes you more aware of how you've been living," she said.
Many tout the fasts' health benefits and insist they feel better during and after.
The Rev. Jerry Michaelson of Oakbrook Church in Sussex, Wis., said he saw a drop in his blood pressure and cholesterol level after a 21-day Daniel fast two years ago.
"At the beginning, you go through some detoxing symptoms - headaches from giving up caffeine," said Michelle Pope, office manager and the pastor's wife at First Assembly of God in Waukesha, Wis., who completed a Daniel fast in January. "But after that you feel wonderful."
Nutritionists are skeptical of health claims related to fasting and raise concerns about fasts that are overly prolonged or restrictive. At the same time, they're encouraged by plans that replace processed foods and sugars with whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
"A fast is meant for a short period of time. And any of the ones that are just fruits and vegetables are going to be missing out on key nutrients," said Amy Kulwicki, a registered dietitian with Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin who has had clients on the Daniel fasts.