The Church's traditional teaching on fasting is not widely known or followed in our day. For those Orthodox Christians who are seeking to keep a more disciplined fast, the following information may be helpful.
Though the rules may appear quite strict to those who have not seen them before, they were developed with all of the faithful, not only monks, in mind. (Monks do not eat meat, so rules regarding the eating of meat cannot have been written with them in mind. Similarly rules regarding marital abstinence apply only to the laity and married clergy.) Though few laymen are able to keep the rule in its fullness, it seems best to present it mostly without judgement of what level is "appropriate" for the laity, since this is a matter best worked out in each Christian's own setting, under the guidance of his spiritual fathers.
There are many exceptions to the broad rules given here, such as when a major feast day, or the patronal feast of a parish, falls during a fasting period. Consult your priest and your parish calendar for details. St. Innocent Press publishes wall and pocket calendars that give the fasting rule for every day of the year. The Saint Herman Calendar, published annually by St. Herman of Alaska Press, is also a good day-by-day guide.
For the Christian, all foods are clean. When no fast is prescribed, there are no forbidden foods.
Complementing the four fasting seasons of the Church which are listed to the right, there are also four fast-free weeks:
Unless a fast-free period has been declared, Orthodox Christians are to keep a strict fast every Wednesday and Friday. The following foods are avoided:
Sad to say, it is easy to keep the letter of the fasting rule and still practice gluttony. When fasting, we should eat simply and modestly. Monastics eat only one full meal a day on strict fast days, two meals on "Wine and oil" days (see below). Laymen are not usually encouraged to limit meals in this way: consult your priest.
The Church has always exempted small children, the sick, the very old, and pregnant and nursing mothers from strict fasting. While people in these groups should not seriously restrict the amount that they eat, no harm will come from doing without some foods on two days out of the week — simply eat enough of the permitted foods. Exceptions to the fast based on medical necessity (as with diabetes) are always allowed.
So that the Body and Blood of our Lord may be the first thing to pass our lips on the day of communion, we abstain from all food and drink from the time that we retire (or midnight, whichever comes first) the night before. Married couples should abstain from sexual relations the night before communion.
When communion is in the evening, as with Presanctified Liturgies during Lent, this fast should if possible be extended throughout the day until after communion. For those who cannot keep this discipline, a total fast beginning at noon is sometimes prescribed.
The Marital Fast
Married couples are expected to abstain from sexual relations throughout the Church's four fasting seasons, as well as on the weekly Wednesday and Friday fasts. (This aspect of the fasting rule is probably even more widely ignored, and more difficult for many, than those relating to food. In recognition of this, some sources advocate a more modest, minimal rule: couples should abstain from sexual relations before receiving Holy Communion and throughout Holy Week.)
During fasting seasons, avoiding prohibited foods poses no health risk as long as adequate amounts of other foods are taken. Calcium intake and adequate calories may be a concern for growing children and pregnant and nursing mothers. Calcium-fortified orange juice is an easy way to guarantee plentiful calcium intake while avoiding dairy products. Nuts and nut butters are a good source of calories for those who need to maintain weight on a Lenten diet.
More About Fasting
If you are new to fasting, you may find the onset of hunger pangs distressing. Hunger pangs are not harmful; they are simply part of the fast.
The first few days of a long fasting period are often the most difficult. Do not be discouraged by headaches, fatigue, etc. at the beginning of a fasting season — they will disappear or reduce in intensity. If you are troubled by lethargy, try moderate exercise. A short walk can make a surprising difference in your energy.
At the Grocery Store
The rules given here are of course only one part, the most external part, of a true fast, which will include increased prayer and other spiritual disciplines, and may include resolutions to set aside other aspects of our day-to-day life (such as caffeine or television), or to take up practices such as visiting the sick.
Obviously, many Orthodox do not keep the traditional rule. If you adopt it, beware of pride, and pay no attention to anyone's fast but your own. As one monastic put it, we must "keep our eyes on our own plates."
Do not substitute the notion of "deciding what to give up for Lent" for the rule that the Church has given us. First, keep the Church's fasting rule as well as you are able, then decide on additional disciplines, in consultation with your priest.
We are always advised to fast according to our strength, and you may find from experience that you need to modify the fasting rule to fit your own strength and situation. But do not assume beforehand that the rule is too difficult for you. The Lord is our strength, and can uphold us in marvelous and unforeseen ways.
Those who attempt to keep the Church's traditional fast will find that, though the temptations to pride and legalism are real, the spiritual benefits are great. A return to more diligent fasting could play a large part in the spiritual renewal of our Orthodox churches.
The Lenten Fast
Great Lent is the longest and strictest fasting season of the year.
Week before Lent ("Cheesefare Week")
First Week of Lent