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Indians in NZ bridge culture, wellbeing through fasting

Sita Venkateswar is a socio-cultural anthropologist at Massey University. Photo: Supplied

Growing up in an Indian Hindu household, fasting wasn't an unusual occurrence for Murali Krishna Magesan.

"There are just so many festivals that take place for different deities or various religious events and, as a part of that, fasting became a normal tradition," Magesan says.

Born in New Zealand, 28-year-old startup executive Magesan has been practicing fasting since childhood.

"I was quite young, and I saw my family doing it naturally," he says. "They never compelled me to do it but when you see your brothers and sisters doing it, you just want to try it."

Fasting comes in various forms.

For some, they transition from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet. For others, it involves reducing the number of meals they have each day, while some opt for a liquid-based diet that refrains from ingesting anything solid.

There are a number of reasons why people choose to fast, Magesan says.

"Some do it for religious and spiritual reasons, while others try it to focus on their health and well-being," he says.

Fasting is prevalent in the Indian community.

Hindus observe fasting related to the festivals of various deities, with the most recent being Navaratri.

Christians typically fast for Lent in March and April before Easter, as well as in December before Christmas. Muslims fast during Ramadan.

Forty-three-year-old Dileep Augustine has been observing Lent for more than two decades.

"It was part of growing up in a Christian household in South India," Augustine says.

Augustine is from Kerala, India, a state that has a sizeable Christian population.

It was never a problem, rather it was something you look forward to every Easter and Christmas," Augustine says.

During Lent, Christians give up things as a sign of sacrifice to test their self-discipline.

"It is a time of reflection and of asking for forgiveness," Augustine says.

Rizwan Mohammed, 34, started fasting when he was 11 years old.

"I've been fasting for Ramadan ever since," Mohammed says.

Mohammed says it's compulsory for Muslims to practice fasting for Ramadan and says the first few days are tedious.

During Ramadan, Muslims have an early morning meal before dawn that is known as suhoor or sehri.

They do not eat or drink anything - including water - until they break their fast after sunset for the evening meal, called iftar or fitoor.

"It requires a bit of discipline," Mohammed says.

Sita Venkateswar, a sociocultural anthropologist at Massey University, believes fasting is a fundamental part of Indian culture.

"But the prescription for fasting varies among different kinds of households and how urbanized they are, to what extent they live within extended families and how religious they are," Venkateswar says.

She notes that joint families or extended families, where individuals live with in-laws or grandparents, might be stricter about religious fasting than a standard nuclear family.

In general, Venkateswar says that fasting in the Indian community is a form of worship.

"It normally follows the lunar calendar and, depending on the cycles of the moon, there are some cycles where you don't eat certain things," she says.

"There's a schedule in a month where you fast for the well-being of your husband, where you fast for the well-being of your children - you observe fasts for different purposes."

However, fasting has recently transcended beyond religion and spirituality.

Megan O'Mara, a registered nutritionist, highlights the benefits of fasting.

"It can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, enhance insulin sensitivity and improve blood sugar control," she says.

But she also points out that fasting isn't suitable for everyone.

"For people who fast, especially if they don't eat until midday, you can end up overeating in the mid-afternoon window because your body is craving energy," O'Mara says.

"If you're not prepared, then you obviously reach for unhealthier foods."

O'Mara says that overeating can create problems associated with low energy, tiredness and brain fog.

She suggests that fasting for short periods of time is more beneficial because it reduces potential side-effects.

However, she says it depends on the individual.

Magesan agrees.

He notes that more people appear to be fasting these days than in recent years.

"Over the years, I've started to see more people interested in fasting and when they see us practicing it, they want to do it as well," Magesan says.

"It's cool to see people from different communities, different faiths, different backgrounds having this shared practice of fasting for different reasons and different purposes."

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