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
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:
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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!