On the evening of Sept. 25, Jews around the world will begin the annual fast of Yom Kippur, abstaining from eating and drinking.
“We devote an entire 24 to 26 hours to reflecting,” says Rabbi Sander Mussman, education director emeritus for Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Ill. “How can we do that? By not being concerned with how we look, how we dress, or worrying about the food.”
Adds Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of “Read It Before You Eat It” and co-author of “Kosher By Design Lightens Up,” a registered dietitian: “We’re supposed to feel the discomfort of our ancestors, of those that suffered back in the day. And also that there are plenty of people that go hungry today.”
But for many, the idea of the fast looms large and intimidating. Last year, the Jerusalem Post ran an article asserting that the emergency medical service organization Magen David Adom in Israel was on high alert for the holiday, “with hundreds of medics and paramedics — paid and volunteer — on duty to treat people who feel unwell in synagogues and elsewhere.”
So how do you prepare for the Yom Kippur fast to get through the day in a healthy way? Here’s some advice from registered dietitians and nutritionists.
Invariably, Yom Kippur seems to be the hottest day of the year. “Be sure to drink plenty of water the day before, so that you are fully hydrated,” says Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of “The Food Is My Friend Diet.”
Taub-Dix agrees. “A lot of people don’t realize when you’re dehydrated you feel irritable, tired, lethargic — a feeling you don’t want, especially if you’re sitting in temple,” she says.
“Avoid sweetened beverages like soda or juices, as they contain added sugars and empty calories,” advises Toby Smithson, a dietitian, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of DiabetesEveryDay.com. “It will also help to avoid alcohol or large amounts of caffeine, since they can induce dehydration. The best way to stay hydrated is to drink clear fluids early and often the day before. Water is the best choice. For storing up on electrolytes, consume a variety of fruits and vegetables.”
Taub-Dix, noting that not everyone is crazy about water, suggests enhancing it with cut-up fresh produce. “Watermelon and peaches make the water taste delicious, and when you’re done drinking, you have the fruit. Cucumber is great during the meal, more refreshing, and doesn’t take away flavors, very neutral.”
How you eat the day before can affect how easy the fast may be. “People are afraid of not having food,” Taub-Dix says. “Many people really overdo the night before because they’re not going to eat all the day the next day, and when evening comes they eat enough for three meals.”
Frechman notes, “Under normal circumstances, fasting for a day will not be harmful to one’s health. There are 3,500 calories in a pound. If the average intake is 2,000 calories a day, fasting for a day will not even result in a loss of one pound.”
Still, the last meal before the fast should be carefully considered. “It is important to consume foods with protein as well as high fiber foods to help you feel fuller for longer,” says Smithson. “The day before the fast, focus on nutrient-rich foods, those foods that are packed with nutrition versus packed with calories.”
Joy Dobost, a registered dietitian and a nutrition spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adds, “It would be best to consume whole grains, lean protein, and a vegetable and fruit source for fiber to ensure adequate protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber prior to fasting.”
Good protein sources include lean meat, poultry, fish, beans — in three or four-ounce servings, notes Taub-Dix. As for carbohydrates, she says, “You want carbs that are going to last in your system the longest — whole wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa. When you have a carb that is whole grain and has fiber, it takes longer to break down, sustains you longer, as opposed to something that’s just white.”
Frechman warns that “Eating a lot of sweets may cause blood sugars to rise and then crash, resulting in more hunger.”
To fast or not to fast
“When we talk about this holiday in particular,” says Taub-Dix, “we talk about reflecting and self-examination, what your year has been like. A good question to ask is: Did I take care of my body? Am I setting a good example for my family?”
While eating and drinking properly the day before can make the fast easier, Smithson notes, “A fast will be more difficult for people who have diabetes or hypoglycemia, and actually they should not fast. People who have medical conditions are exempt from fasting as the purpose is not to make you ill.”
“If there’s a medical condition, eating is a must,” asserts Rabbi Mussman. “Life is the most important thing.” This also applies to pregnant women and those who must eat food at regular times to maintain health, or to those who take medications that need to be consumed with food. “They must do what is healthful for them, but at the same time be aware, reflect and go on from there.”
Frechman adds, “Yom Kippur is a special spiritual day. Dedicating the day to prayer and reflection and not thinking about the physical body may help.”
Still, fasting can be easier for some than for others, no matter the foods they eat beforehand, says Taub-Dix. “There are people who are just able to put food out of their minds and not think about it as much, which is not an easy thing to do. Tell yourself you ate yesterday.
“My fondest memories as a kid of Yom Kippur and fasting are the time my family sat together and played games and told stories —we just did things together,” Taub-Dix says. “That’s something to be cherished. Food is a thread that holds us all together. During this holiday, sitting in temple, being with family, that’s what you can take in as food.”