TIPS ON FASTING by Richard Israel

Fasting is no fun. It isn't supposed to be. Nevertheless, fasting is said to have salutary effects and is therefore held in high esteem by many religious traditions and health regimens. In the Jewish tradition fasting is taken quite seriously and so we find that on a major holy day like Yom Kippur, even Jews who wouldn't think of entering a synagogue will nevertheless fast because they believe fasting to be good for either the body or the spirit or both.

In the Jewish religious tradition, the discomfort that is produced by fasting is thought to have instructional value and is intended to help us reflect upon our human frailty. This does not mean that Jews are intended to make themselves as miserable as possible on Yom Kippur, only that they not eat or drink. The discomfort some people experience during a fast is so extreme that they forget the appropriate agendas for the day. It is possible to diminish that discomfort without losing awareness of the fast.

Not only is eating wisely tricky, so is fasting wisely. Here are some strategies that may make the fast a little easier:
  1. Lots of Water. This may be hard to believe after one is twenty or so hours into a fast, but most healthy adults can survive well over a month without eating. Most of the unpleasantness associated with a fast does not come from lack of food, but rather, from lack of fluid. The solution therefore is to super-hydrate beforehand. "Camel up" before a fast, drinking a great deal the prior afternoon, perhaps two quarts well in advance of your final pre-fast meal. At the time, you may feel you are going to float away. Before the fast is over, you will be glad you did it. Diluted orange juice is a good drink, as is water. Beer or other alcoholic beverages will dehydrate you, so try to avoid them.

  2. Meat and Potatoes. Though you should drink a lot before a fast, you do not need to stuff yourself with food. Eat a normal meal but emphasize carbohydrates like potato or noodle dishes, not proteins or fats. Carbohydrates bond with water which your body can "drink" when it needs to during your fast. Proteins do not. Most of the dramatic but limited weight loss that people on high protein diets experience is lost water that protein molecules cannot hold onto or bring into your system, water that you want around during a fast. I have heard of grandmothers in Europe who fed their families immense starch meals for the better part of the week before a fast and then, at the final meal, encouraged everyone to eat heavy meat dishes. The carbohydrates would provide the necessary water reservoir. The last-minute meat meal would give the comfort of a full stomach for a number of hours. What people who still eat this way before a fast have to consider is whether they really want to take on all those calories. This kind of pre-fast diet might have been suitable for a culture in which meat was a rarity and people were close to involuntary fasting through much of the year. It is not clear that it makes sense today. "Fast food" does not need to be hopelessly bland, but go easy on the salt, which may make you thirsty. Season with non-irritating spices and herbs.

  3. Can the Caffeine. The nausea and headaches that many people report during a fast have nothing to do either with food or fluid. They are usually the result of caffeine withdrawal. If you are a heavy coffee or cola drinker, start tapering off a week or so before the fast. Unless you drink a great deal of caffeine, one cup less a day, with the day before the fast being caffeine free, will usually do it. Using decaffeinated coffee during this period may help you fool your system. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms are less of a problem when you are eating and drinking than when fasting.
A brief fast is not a quick weight-loss scheme. An average adult will burn 2,000 to 2,500 calories, about two-thirds of a pound, during a twenty-four hour fast. It doesn't take long at all to put that back on again. A couple of pieces of cheesecake and you will be just about even. Most of the weight loss that you see on the scale for the day or two after a fast is fluid that you will quickly replace.

After the fast, be careful not to gorge yourself. Since the body protects itself from starvation when you are not eating by slowing down the rate at which it burns food, the calories you take on right after a fast will stay with you a lot longer than those acquired when your metabolism is once again functioning at full speed.

These suggestions will not prevent you from experiencing the fast. If you are not eating or drinking for twenty-four to twenty-six hours, there is no chance you will forget that you are fasting. But it is important for you to be able to focus on some soul-searching and prayer, rather than on your complaining stomach.

So prepare yourself for fasting, both physically and spiritually, and in the words of one of the traditional greetings, have an easy fast!