10 Tips for a Healthy Religious Fast
Today, fasting is largely considered a buzzy weight-loss method, but its roots run deep—not as a slim-down strategy, but as a time-honored religious ritual. Practiced in Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, and Jainism, and Indigenous cultures around the world, fasting involves refraining from eating or drinking as a means of seeking enlightenment, engaging in self-reflection, cleansing the spirit, and fostering compassion. Among the major fasting observances:
- 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.
No matter your religion, going hours without sustenance can pose a major emotional and physical challenge, says Uma Naidoo, MD, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Here’s how to set yourself up for fast success—mind, body, and spirit.
Before a fast
1. 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. For this reason, it’s imperative you chat with your doctor if you have any health issues so they can help you strategize safely. For example, if you’re taking a medication that must be consumed with food, they can assist in mapping out an appropriate dosing plan before the fasting period gets under way.
2. Taper caffeine intake
If your morning motto is "but first, coffee"—quitting cold turkey during a fast could leave you with caffeine-withdrawal symptoms such as headache and difficulty focusing—that double down on the difficulty of the fast itself, says Dr. Naidoo. 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.
3. Plan out your post-fast meal
Once fasting hours conclude, there’s a good chance you’ll be feeling ravenous—and apt to gobble up whatever’s 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. Choose recipes, shop for ingredients, and do some kitchen prep the day before—or pre-select your restaurant order— so you aren’t left scrambling. (Psst—read below for suggestions on yummy foods you might want to include.)
During the fast
4. Step up your sleep game
During a period of fasting, many people feel more tired than they ordinarily do, says Dr. Naidoo. (Considering the lack of food fuel, it makes sense!) To keep your energy up during the day, do your best to recharge your batteries by getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night—sticking to a regular bedtime and optimizing your sleep environment can both help make that dream a reality.
5. 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'll be most powered-up—say, right after your morning meal.
6. Keep your mind on your why
If your grumbling tummy conjures fantasies of pizza or chocolate cake, try not to judge the thoughts. (You’re human!) Instead, redirect them from your appetite to your deeper reasons for engaging in the fast—your why. 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.”
7. Monitor how you feel
While you shouldn’t expect to feel your best during a fast, you also shouldn’t expect to feel bad. Pay close attention to any unusual symptoms—if you’re lightheaded, jittery, nauseous, or just generally unwell, the fast might not be safe. Call your doctor, stat.
8. 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 fiber 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.
9. Remember to hydrate
When you’re hangry, it’s easy to forget that you’re probably parched too! If you’ve gone a full day without a drink, be sure to sip water regularly throughout your post-fast meal and during any permissible stretches thereafter, Dr. Naidoo advises. (Note: Alcohol is dehydrating, so maybe save the marg for after the entire holiday.) 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.
10. Eat mindfully
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. Savor your food and appreciate its texture, flavor, and aroma. Because gratitude translates across every culture.
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.
This article was reviewed for accuracy in July 2021 by Christi Smith, MS, CSCS, associate manager for science translation at WW. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.
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