Health Benefits and Risks Associated with Specific Practices

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Certain groups of people must necessarily be excused from fasting and restrictive practices. These groups include pregnant or nursing women; individuals with diabetes or other chronic disorders; those engaged in very strenuous work; malnourished individuals; young children; and frail elderly or disabled persons. Recognition of these exceptions has been addressed by each religious group. Most fasting practices allow certain intakes of liquid, particularly water. In fasting regimes where water is restricted, a danger of dehydration exists, and those fasting should be monitored.

Those who fast without liquids increase their risk of a number of health problems. Symptoms of dehydration include headache, dry mouth, nausea, fever, sleepiness, and, in extreme cases, coma. When these symptoms occur, it is important to end the fast or add water to the fast. Depending on the extent of the symptoms, ending the fast may be the only alternative. In severe dehydration cases, medical care should be sought as soon as possible to restore proper health.

Some negative health consequences have been observed as a result of fasting practices, however, especially those carried out over longer periods, such as the Muslim fast during Ramadan. For example, excess acids can build up in the digestive system during a prolonged fast. This gastric acidity results in a sour taste in the mouth, a burning in the stomach, and other symptoms of illness.

The structure and outward appearance of each person's body is, in part, a reflection of the food and drink he or she consumes. All the organs of the body, as well as the skin, bones, muscles, and nerves, need nutrition to survive, regenerate, maintain function, and develop structural foundations. The vital organs, such as the liver, heart, brain, and kidneys, depend upon essential nutrients from food and drink to sustain life, increase strength, and improve health. Throughout life, the body constantly breaks down the food products that are ingested, using some components to rebuild the tissues that contribute to good health. Similarly, the body also disposes of the waste products of food through excretory processes or in storage centers (fat deposits, for instance) in the body.

The restriction of, or abstention from, certain foods may have a direct impact on the health of those engaged in such practices. Some effects have been found to be positive, as in the case of vegetarian diets, which are eaten by many Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, Buddhists, and Rastafarians. Research results have documented a 50 percent reduction in heart disease and longer life expectancy in people who eat a well-planned vegetarian diet. There are a number of religious rationales for a vegetarian diet. According to the Book of Genesis in the Bible, humans were given a plant-based diet diabetes: inability to regulate level of sugar in the blood chronic: over a long period malnourished: lack of adequate nutrients in the diet dehydration: loss of water nausea: unpleasant sensation in the gut that precedes vomiting gastric: related to the stomach acidity: measure of the tendency of a molecule to lose hydrogen ions, thus behaving as an acid nutrition: the maintenance of health through proper eating, or the study of same nutrient: dietary substance necessary for health fat: type of food molecule rich in carbon and hydrogen, with high energy content heart disease: any disorder of the heart or its blood supply, including heart attack, atherosclerosis, and coronary artery disease diet: the total daily food intake, or the types of foods eaten

An archbishop leads communion at a Catholic mass. The importance of the ceremony, which calls for ritual consumption of bread and wine, shows how food traditions and religion have evolved together. [Photograph by Stephen Senne. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.]

nervous system: the brain, spinal cord, and nerves that extend throughout the body physiology: the group of biochemical and physical processes that combine to make a functioning organism, or the study of same drugs: substances whose administration causes a significant change in the body's function malignant: spreading to surrounding tissues; cancerous cancer: uncontrolled cell growth high blood pressure: elevation of the pressure in the bloodstream maintained by the heart proscription: prohibitions, rules against wellness: related to health promotion at the creation of the world. There are also ethical issues that involve the killing of animals for food, and environmental issues regarding the raising of livestock and the safety of the food supply.

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