The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Religious fasting: an adaptive response to resource scarcity or pathogen threat?


Anthropology, Ball State University

April 16, 2020 40, Platinum Ballroom Add to calendar

Deliberate fasting, the intentional change in nutrient condition of an individual that results from the abstention of food and liquids, is widespread across human societies occupying diverse ecological settings. Existing models predict that fasting is an adaptive response to either resource scarcity or increased pathogen risk. Formal tests of these hypotheses, however, are scant, with existing studies primarily focusing on Western biomedical, adult populations. The aim of this biocultural investigation was to therefore test these models of religious fasting in a non-Western population who vary in access to resources and pathogen risk.

Research took place among rural and peri-urban participants in Mysore, Karnataka, India. A quantitative investigation was conducted to explore differences in fasting across age, gender, and location, and to test the a priori hypotheses (N= 465). Logistic regression and negative binomial regression were used to assess the presence/absence and frequency of religious fasting, respectively.

Logistic regression analyses revealed that peri-urban, adult male participants had greater odds of religious fasting. A significant interaction in the demographic model suggests that rural participants fast more frequently as age increases, whereas peri-urban participants fast in similar frequency across adolescence and adulthood. Tests of the two a priori hypotheses revealed that resource scarcity best predicted both the odds and frequency of fasting. The pathogen avoidance model was not supported.

In summary, this study found support for the resource scarcity model of fasting, with variation in fasting frequency across age, gender, and location. Results are discussed in the context of life history theory.

NIH Fogarty International, Grant/Award Number: R25 TW009338