The Yom Kippur fast is not intended to be a picnic. But fasters pleading for repentance don’t have to make themselves sick over it either, say health and nutrition experts.
There is a plethora of advice out there for those who want to have an easier time of it come Kol Nidrei, says Shannon Gononsky, a Teaneck-based dietician who observes the Yom Kippur fast religiously.
Fasting doesn’t have to be hard on your body if you prepare properly, she says.
Indeed, as Yom Kippur approaches, thoughts turn to repentance, charity, and, the intimidating mission of abstaining from food and drink for 25 hours.
The Jewish Day of Atonement begins this year on Friday, Sept. 17, before sundown, and ends the following night after nightfall with the Neilah prayer service.
The larger issues surrounding Yom Kippur deal with the questions of forgiveness and repentance. But then there are the smaller ones – like will we survive the fast without a migraine and nausea? Will the hunger pains be manageable? Gononsky and other experts say it can be done.
But first, they have a few caveats for would-be fasters. The restrictions on eating and drinking apply only to those in good health who are over bar and bat mitzvah age. Most rabbis agree that anyone whose health could be seriously threatened by fasting should not fast. If a person has a medical condition, is pregnant, or needs to take medication, it’s best to consult a doctor and/or rabbi, medical experts advise.
Preparation for the fast should begin in the days or weeks before it starts, according to experts.
For example, if you consume several cups of coffee a day (or any other caffeinated drinks), prepare yourself for the fast by tapering off your caffeine consumption at least a week before Yom Kippur, says L’via Weisinger, a Teaneck nurse. “Don’t try to go cold turkey or else you may end up with a terrible headache.”
Also, drinking a lot of coffee before Kol Nidre is not a great idea because it will cause you to lose a lot of water before the fast, she says.
It is also important to begin hydrating yourself several days before the fast. “Don’t wait until the fast is about to start to drink a lot of water,” said Weisinger. “Drink extra water for several days before.”
A pre-fast meal should ideally consist of complex carbohydrates, such as breads and pastas, said Gononsky.
She cites the finding of a study published in the September issue of the Israel Medical Association Journal that “a protein-rich meal creates the most discomfort and side effects during a fast.”
Water is better conserved when one eats a meal high in complex carbohydrates, such as rice, pasta, beans, and other pulses. When protein breaks down, however, more water is excreted from the body, she says.
For her pre-fast meal, Gononsky cooks up a starchy potato soup, light grilled fish, couscous, and steamed squash. “The key to a good fast for us is that potato soup,” she says. “It really builds up your glycogen stores which are the way that you store up fuel as carbohydrates.”
Experts share pre-fast tips
“¢ The pre-fast meal menu should be selected carefully: Emphasize carbohydrates. Stay away from high protein and fat-filled foods. Best choices are breads, pasta, potatoes, cereal, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and rice.
“¢ Eat small meals throughout the day before the fast but do not gorge yourself ““ it will only make you feel hungrier later.
“¢ Include soup in your pre-Yom Kippur meal. It helps keep you hydrated and makes you feel full.
“¢ Avoid caffeine. Heavy coffee drinks can avoid the dreaded “withdrawal” headache by slowly tapering off coffee consumption over the week leading up to the fast day. One trick caffeine addicts can try is to brew mixtures of regular and decaffeinated coffee, increasing the proportion of decaf as you progress.
“¢ Avoid eating chocolate or drinking alcohol (these cause you to lose too much water) and try to minimize salty or spicy foods that will increase your thirst.
“¢ In addition to drinking plenty of water, Gononsky advises incorporating fruits and vegetables, which have a high water content, into your pre-fast meal.
Tips for during the fast
“¢ Spend your day in the synagogue; the refrigerator won’t tempt you, everyone else there will be fasting so they won’t distract you with thoughts of food, and you can reflect on repentance, which is the essence of the day anyway.
“¢ Try to stay in cool areas and avoid direct sunlight so you remain hydrated and don’t perspire.
“¢ Many people have a tradition of wearing white on Yom Kippur. The added benefit is that light-colored clothing helps keep you cooler.
“¢ Avoid strenuous calorie-burning exercise. While walking to synagogue, take it slow.
“¢ Do not eat too much or too quickly when you break your fast. Your stomach will not need much to feel full. And if you eat too much, you will feel sick.
“¢ The best foods to break your fast on are simple foods such as: crackers, juice or milk, and dairy foods. Drink a lot of water and avoid salty foods, since you will need to replace your fluids.