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Sep 27

Top 10 Tips for Safe & Easy Religious Fasting

This weekend marks Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for the Jewish community.  Some of my Muslim friends are currently fasting as well.  This week, I saw an article, which I hope was a joke, saying that some people use caffeine suppositories (who knew such a thing existed?) to get them through their fast.  I hope none of my readers would ever be that unwise.

Yom Kippur Prayer

Some people find spiritual nourishment in fasting for religious reasons.

Let’s be clear; I’m not normally a fan of fasting as a nutritional aid.  Intermittent fasting does work for some people for weight management, but I always found that it made me irritable, and I didn’t lose any weight doing it, so for me it was a huge waste of time. ‘Juice fasts’ and so forth are downright dangerous, and have no lasting benefits, so I would never advocate them.  However, some people fast on occasion for religious reasons and, providing the person is generally healthy, it should be safe to do so.

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If you’re fasting at the moment, or planning a short fast for religious or cultural reasons at any point in the future, there are things you can do to make the experience a little easier.  After all, the purpose of religious fasting is not primarily to suffer, but to allow yourself to become totally focused and immersed in prayer.  That’s not possible if you are suffering from a rumbling belly, dizziness or dehydration.

So, for all the occasional fasters out there, here are my top 10 tips for a safe and productive fast.

  1. Only fast if you’re fit to do so. A diabetic friend of mine used to fast for religious reasons, and then wondered why he was on the point of collapse.  This sort of behaviour can be incredibly dangerous, and is counterproductive, since not only can you not pray, but others have to stop and help you, so you are preventing them from their opportunity to do what they need to do.  If you are pregnant, diabetic, have kidney problems or are using certain medications (check with your doctor), please don’t fast.  Your health is always your priority, and any minister worth their salt will tell you the same thing.

  2. Lack of preparation may make your fasting experience more difficult.

    Lack of preparation may make your fasting experience more difficult.

    Be prepared. Fasting is a marathon for the body.  You wouldn’t dream of running a physical marathon without paying some attention to your diet, so apply the same logic to a metaphorical marathon.  Go easy on the alcohol, caffeine, sweet and salty foods in the days leading up to your fast.

  3. Last Supper. Choose the meal before your fast with care.  I would choose a good source of protein to maintain the feeling of fullness, and support the effective functioning of all body systems through the fast.  Personally, I prefer roast chicken, but others may prefer fish or pulses.  Then, I like to have a little complex carbohydrate, primarily for the fibre, and plenty of vegetables, partly for their mineral content, but mostly to help with hydration. I aim to eat a moderate amount; having a huge meal will just make you hungrier the next day.  Try some baked apple with a teaspoon of cinnamon as a dessert.  The apple contains soluble fibre, and the cinnamon may be helpful in balancing blood sugar.

  4. Jars of flavoured water

    Fluids are essential before a fast, but stay away from sugary or caffienated beverages.

    Stay Hydrated. Think about gradually increasing your intake of water and herbal teas in the lead-up to the fast.  Don’t think you can get away with drinking masses of water the day before; you will only spend lots of time in the bathroom; as with any hydration, small quantities taken frequently are better absorbed and utilised.

  5. Watch the Salt. It can be tempting to enjoy something really tasty before the fast, but watch the salt content of your chosen foods; high-salt foods can contribute to dehydration.  The hardest thing about fasting for a short period is not hunger, but thirst, so anything which can help with that will make your life far easier.

  6. Don’t keep it Simple. Comfort food seems like a great idea before a fast, but food that is primarily composed of simple carbohydrates, such as white starchy foods, cakes and sweet foods, may send your blood sugar soaring and then crashing.  Exacerbating a sugar crash on your fast day will make the experience much harder; you are likely to be hungrier, more tired and less able to concentrate.  Definitely a bad idea.

  7. Be kind to your Digestive System. If you know there are foods that are harder for you to digest, avoid these in the run-up to the fast. The last thing you need when trying to focus is a grumbling stomach, and the people around you really don’t want extra sound effects in the middle of their service.  So eat foods that are easy on your intestines; avoid large quantities of bran or pulses, unless you’re used to them.

  8. Sleeping on a cloud

    A sound sleep could help ease you through the fast.

    Sleep Well. Try to get a good night’s (or afternoon’s) sleep within your fast period, so that your body is rested, and better able to cope with the day ahead.  Observe your best bedtime routine; avoid noise, distractions and electronic devices in your bedroom as far as possible, and do a little quiet reading, or meditation if you’re into it, before bed to wind down.

  9. Be Observant. On your fast day, check in with yourself regularly that you’re doing OK. Watch out for signs like dizziness, lightheadedness, confusion and shakiness.  These are signs that you need to take it easy.  Pace yourself throughout the day; if you need a break, either take a rest, or go for a gentle walk outside.  If you need to sip some water or break the fast, do it!  Your health always comes first.

  10. Miso Soup

    Enjoy a light, but nutritious meal at the end of your fast.

    Breaking the Fast. Go gently when you break the fast. It’s tempting to stuff yourself, but it’s likely to give you a bad stomach and a disturbed sleep.  Have a small drink of water, herbal tea or soup, some protein, vegetables and a little fruit.  This is one time when I find having a small amount of simple carbohydrate useful, but don’t go overboard.

Above all, the fast should not be a trial; I like to think of it as an opportunity to exist in a completely immersive and absorbing environment for a short space of time.  Fasting may not be beneficial for the body, but if you create the right conditions and treat yourself with respect, it can certainly be of benefit to the mind and spirit.

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