4 Steps for an Easier Fast

I know a lot of people think it’s hard or even impossible to live a frum lifestyle and be healthy because of all our food requirements, busy and stressful lives, and confusing information that is just not relevant to a frum person! In this column, I hope to put all that to rest by providing nutrition and health information that is relevant, practical and easy to implement.

Shivah Asar B’Tammuz and Tishah B’Av are approaching, so now is a good time to discuss what is best to eat before and after a fast to keep you feeling good throughout the day, with as little negative experience as possible. Though you likely won’t feel energetic and will be hungry after fasting 16 or 25 hours, some pre-fast food choices work better than others to prolong your feeling of fullness and stave off the almost inevitable weakness and crankiness. Because we can go without food for long periods of time, it’s not necessary to eat more than usual leading up to the fast. You can keep to your regular eating schedule with some minor adjustments.

WATER

First and most important is hydration. We all know that water is always vital, but now that it’s summer, and hot, we need to be well-hydrated. Start hydrating a few days (at least) prior to the fast, so you’ll be fully hydrated at the start of the fast. Don’t just guzzle down liquid hours before the fast begins; our bodies are so well-regulated that excess liquid will result in the kidneys working overtime and all that fluid leaving the body. When dehydrated, the body takes water out of the cells, causing them to shrink and making the kidneys work harder; this effectively overworks the body and causes wear to the cells.1 Low hydration can both trigger migraines and prolong them. Drinking enough prior to dehydration can reduce their length and intensity.

CAFFEINE

Research shows that caffeine withdrawal headaches can be prevented by reducing caffeine intake leading up to the fast.2 However, a 25-hour fast (Yom Kippur was used in the research) is not sufficient time to experience caffeine withdrawal. Having some caffeine on the actual day of the fast may help prevent that headache (obviously not always applicable), but if you find it helpful, definitely restrict your intake leading up to the fast. Some people may develop headaches simply from the act of fasting over 16 hours, which is when fasting headaches come to play3; these will resolve within 72 hours of eating.

FIBER AND PROTEIN

Another cause of headaches may be reactive hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar after eating. This can be prevented by eating foods with fiber and protein, as they slow down digestion and are more filling (so you’re not ready to eat a couple of hours into the fast). Ideally, when choosing your grains and starches, go for complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, legumes and vegetables for their fiber content. Fiber is important because it’s filling and isn’t quickly digested, so it keeps you feeling full for longer than low-fiber foods.4 Choose soluble fiber, such as oats, sweet potatoes, beans and lentils, oranges and avocado to keep your sugar and fullness levels stable through delayed digestion.5 As the most filling nutrient,6 choose protein-containing foods such as beans, fish, eggs, chicken or meat, as they take longer to digest than carbohydrates and keep us feeling full for a longer time.

AFTER THE FAST

Though you’ll likely be very hungry once the fast is over, there is no need to go to extremes in your break-fast meal. You don’t need to fit a day’s worth of food into one meal, and if you’re really in tune with your body’s hunger and fullness cues, you won’t be able to eat that much. Rehydrating after the fast is extremely important. Dehydration may influence mood, brain functioning, concentration and alertness, and short-term memory; plus increase fatigue, confusion and anger. But all symptoms are reversible, so drink up! Besides water, you can include soup and fruits and vegetables (which also contain electrolytes to replenish those you lost during the fast). As you eat, slow down, listen to your body and eat until you’re satisfied. It may even be helpful to take a break after relieving your initial hunger, just so you can really tune in to your needs.


Bracha Kopstick is a Registered Dietitian in Toronto and owner of BeeKay Nutrition. She takes the “diet” out of dietitian, and wants you to take it out of your life! As a nutrition expert, Bracha promotes eating home-prepared foods more often and taking time to enjoy what you eat without any associated guilt. She is available for in-person and on-line counseling. Bracha can be reached at Bracha@beekaynutrition.com.


Footnotes:

  1. Popkin, B.M, D’Anci, K.E. & Rosenberg, I.H. (2010). Water, hydration and health. Nutrition Reviews 68(8) 439–458
  2. Torelli, P., Evangelista, A., Bini, A., Castellini, P., Lambru, G. & Manzoni, G.C. (2009). Fasting headache: A review of the literature and new hypotheses. Headache 49 744–752
  3. Torelli, P. & Manzoni, G.C. (2010). Fasting Headache. Current Pain Headache Reports 14(4) 284–291
  4. Holt, S.H., Delargy, H.J., Lawton, C.L. & Blundell, J.E. (1999). The effects of high-carbohydrate vs high-fat breakfasts on feelings of fullness and alertness, and subsequent food intake. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition 50(1) 13–28
  5. NA (2016). Facts on soluble fibre. Eatrightontario
  6. NA (2012). Protein. Nutrition.org.uk