Religious fasting: Health and nutrition tips for a spiritual fast
Myriad religions and cultures observe periods of fasting—the act of refraining from eating or drinking as a means of seeking enlightenment, engaging in self-reflection, cleansing the spirit, and fostering compassion for people who experience suffering. And while going for hours without sustenance might feel emotionally and physically challenging, some simple practices can help ensure your fast is a healthy one, says Uma Naidoo, MD, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Major fasting observances include:
- Ramadan: The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan entails 30 days of fasting from dawn to dusk. Observant Muslims eat a predawn meal called suhoor before beginning the daylong fast. The fast traditionally ends at sunset with a snack of sweet dates and a sip of water. After prayers, a shared feast called iftar follows.
- Yom Kippur: Also known as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is the most sacred High Holy Day in Judaism, observed in the month of Tishrei (overlapping with September or October). During a 25-hour sundown-to-sundown fast that omits both food and drink, observers typically attend special prayer services and then gather for the evening break-fast meal, which is often meatless.
- Lent: During the 40-day spring Lenten season stretching from Ash Wednesday through Good Friday, many Christians observe various forms of fasting as a means of penance and reflection. Common customs include having just one simple meal each day, and abstaining from meat on Fridays.
Spiritual and religious fasting is practiced in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, and Jainism, and in Indigenous cultures around the world.
10 tips for a healthy religious fast
“From a medical and nutrition perspective, each of our bodies is unique,” Dr. Naidoo says. Your experience of fasting might feel much different from another person’s, so it’s best to think of these tips as a general starting point.
Before a fast
Address any medical concerns
While fasting is safe for most healthy people, going without food or drink might pose risks for people living with conditions such as diabetes, coronary artery disease, and kidney disease, Dr. Naidoo says. Consult your physician for recommendations based on your personal medical situation if you have a health condition. Fasting generally is not recommended for people who are pregnant. If you’re taking a medication that must be consumed with food, map out an appropriate dosing plan with your doctor before the fasting period gets under way.
Taper caffeine intake
If you’re a habitual coffee drinker who chugs a few cups every morning, quitting cold turkey during a fast could leave you with caffeine-withdrawal symptoms such as headache and difficulty focusing, Dr. Naidoo says. If possible, try scaling back your intake gradually in the week or two leading up to your fast to help give your body a chance to adjust.
Plan out your post-fast meal
Once fasting hours conclude, there’s a good chance you’ll be feeling ravenous—and apt to gobble any food in sight. Whether you’re intending to feast with family or have a solo supper in your kitchen, consider making a meal plan ahead of time that supports your overall wellness goals. For example, you might choose recipes, shop for ingredients, and do some kitchen prep the day before. That way, you won’t be scrambling for something good to eat when your appetite is raging. (Read below for suggestions on delicious foods you might want to include.)
During the fasting period
Step up your sleep game
During a period of fasting, many people feel more tired than they ordinarily do. Some amount of fatigue is to be expected, Dr. Naidoo says. To help keep your energy up during the day, do your best to get the widely recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Stick to a regular bedtime, and optimize your sleeping environment to get the best possible ZZZs.
Scale back your sweat sessions
Strenuous workouts definitely aren’t ideal in the absence of food or water, Dr. Naidoo says. Instead, she recommends gentler forms of movement during fasting hours, such as walking or light yoga. You may also find it useful to schedule physical activity for a time of day you feel most up to it—say, shortly after your morning meal.
Keep intent top of mind
Don’t be too hard on yourself if your grumbling tummy induces fantasies of pizza or chocolate cake. You’re only human! Try to redirect your thoughts from your appetite to your deeper reasons for engaging in the fast. Says Dr. Naidoo, “Whether [through] prayer, a meditation, a breathing exercise, or a mindful practice you enjoy, focus your attention on the meaning of what you are doing.”
Monitor how you feel
That said, be sure to pay attention to any unusual symptoms that arise during a fast. If you feel lightheaded, jittery, nauseous, or just generally unwell and not yourself, the regimen might not be safe or suitable for you. “Consult your doctor,” Dr. Naidoo says.
After fasting hours
Choose nutrient-dense foods
After long hours without sustenance, your body needs the best nourishment it can get. Filling up on a variety of veggies, fruits, whole grains, and legumes is a great way to get fibre and other nutrients. “A general healthy rule of thumb is to think of each plate as 80% plant-based,” Dr. Naidoo says. She recommends rounding out your post-fast meal with lean protein sources like salmon, chicken, and eggs to support satiety, as well as foods that contain healthy fats—such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, seeds, and nuts—to further support your wellbeing and dial up the satisfaction quotient.
Remember to hydrate
It’s easy to forget that you’re parched when your appetite is raging. If you’ve gone a full day without a beverage, be sure to sip water regularly throughout your post-fast meal and during any permissible stretches thereafter, Dr. Naidoo advises. (Note too that alcohol is dehydrating.) And those fruits and veggies we mentioned a moment ago? They can help slake your thirst, too! Oranges, apples, tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens, and cruciferous veggies like broccoli are just some picks high in water content.
The goal of a post-fast meal is to satisfy your appetite and nutrition needs without making you feel super stuffed and uncomfortable. To that end, try being “truly present when you eat,” Dr. Naidoo says. Mindful eating increases your awareness so you can consume more consciously, less automatically, and with more pleasure. Savour your food and appreciate its texture, flavour, and aroma. Sip water between bites. Dr. Naidoo suggests shutting off the TV and keeping your phone away from the table. This can help limit distractions and hold your attention at the moment.
Fiza Pirani is an Atlanta-based writer and editor, and the founder of the award-winning immigrant mental-health newsletter Foreign Bodies. Her work has appeared in Colorlines, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and YES! Magazine.