Yom Kippur gives us an opportunity to reflect and repent, but for many of us the fasting element of the holiday can be very difficult. The most common problems include extreme hunger pains, headaches from caffeine withdrawal, and shakiness from low blood sugar (also known as hypoglycemia). Personally, I’ve dealt with all three of these issues in the past, and I’ve seen friends and family deal with a combination of them as well. Over the years through trial and error along with my nutrition education, I’ve come up with a list of tips to help get through the fast with ease:
Prep for the big day, and don’t supersize it! For a few days leading up to the fast, eat normal-sized portions at every meal. If you tend to overeat, be aware of how your stomach is feeling, eat slowly so your brain gets the signal you are full, and stop when you are satiated. Preparing for the fast in this way will greatly help control hunger pains.
Wean yourself off caffeine. Withdrawal from caffeine can cause terrible headaches, so begin cutting down on your caffeine consumption about a week before the fast. On Days 1-3, start drinking less regular coffee (or caffeinated soda). On Days 4-6, drink half regular and half decaf, slowly working your way to a full cup of decaf (or caffeine-free soda). On Day 7 (the day before the fast), do not drink any caffeine whatsoever. Reach for a glass of water any time you feel a caffeine craving come on.
Plan ahead and go slow. Make sure that you won’t be rushing through your last meal, known as the Seudah Mafseket, on Erev Yom Kippur. Leave adequate time to finish your meal so you can eat slowly. If you’re a fast eater and have trouble slowing down, consider putting the fork in your opposite hand or using chopsticks. Slowing down the pace of your meal is better for digestion and allows time for your brain to get the signal that you are full so that you don’t overeat.
Skip salty foods. Foods high in sodium not only cause water retention in our bodies, but they also make us very thirsty, which can make fasting extra difficult. Avoid packaged and processed foods, pickled items, cured meats, bouillon cubes, chips, pretzels, and other salty foods. Cut down on salt when cooking and instead use sodium-free flavor enhancers such as herbs, spices, and lemon juice in your pre-fast meal. Don’t forget to remove salt from the table at the final meal so no one is tempted to sprinkle any on their food.
Don’t fill up on starters. At the Seudah Mafseket, don’t fill up too much on soups, salads, and vegetable side dishes. Though on any other day I encourage filling up on these low-calorie nutrient-dense foods, on a fast day it is better to fill up on foods that will keep you full as long as possible. Vegetables contain fiber – which helps us feel full longer– and it’s definitely good to eat them, but try to have more carbohydrates and protein at this pre-fast meal.
Go for complex carbohydrates. Whole grain foods not only provide fiber but lasting energy, as they are broken down more slowly than simple carbohydrates (like white rice and pasta). Complex carbs also fight off hypoglycemia by stabilizing our blood sugar. Examples of great sources of complex carbohydrates include brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, and beans.
Easy on the heavy meats. Meat takes longer to break down in the gut than some other foods, which can be a plus when fasting, but choosing lighter meats like poultry or well-cooked meat can ensure a more comfortable fast. Also consider making a more environmentally conscious choice by eating meat that was grass-fed.
**Hydrate but don’t overdo it.* Beverages can fill up your stomach, so it’s best to drink any fluids at least 30 minutes before your meal so that you have as much room in your belly for food, which will keep you satiated. Make sure to stay hydrated throughout the day up until dinner. Avoid sugary caffeinated beverages, which will only dehydrate you.
Don’t stuff yourself. It’s tempting to overeat at the Seudah Mafseket, but it actually makes fasting harder. Overeating can cause stomach upset and heartburn, which are the last things you want to be dealing with when you’re trying to focus in shul! Eat a normal sized meal and eat until you feel full to ensure an easy and comfortable fast.
Once the fast is over, consider incorporating some of these tips you used to prep for the fast back into your daily life. Look at the fast as an opportunity to re-evaluate your diet: are there certain foods you can add more of or certain things you can cut out? Consider the holiday as a start to a new and healthier you. After all, the Torah commands us to take great care of our bodies!
Wishing you a meaningful and easy fast!
Jackie Topol is a certified holistic health counselor and is a Masters candidate in Clinical Nutrition at NYU. She is currently completing her dietetic residency at NY-Presbyterian Hospital and will be a Registered Dietitian in the very near future. Jackie also has been teaching health-focused cooking classes at the JCC in Manhattan for the past 4 years. Her career has been greatly inspired by her experiences at Adamah, where she was a Fellow in 2007.