With the fasts of Shiva Asar B'Tamuz and Tisha B'av coming up, it’s the perfect time to discuss what to eat before and after a fast to keep you feeling good throughout the day and with as little negative experience as possible. Though you likely won’t feel energetic, and will be hungry after fasting 16-25 hours, there are better foods to choose prior to a fast that can prolong your fullness, and stave off the almost inevitable weakness and crankiness. Because we can go without food for long periods of time, it’s not necessary to totally change up what you eat leading up to the fast, so you can keep to your regular eating schedule, with some minor adjustments.
BEFORE THE FAST:
Firstly, and most importantly, is hydration. We all know that water is always important, but now that it’s summer, and hot, we need to be well hydrated even more so than before the winter fasts. But don’t just guzzle down liquid hours before the fast; our bodies are so well regulated that excess liquid will result in the kidneys working overtime, and all that fluid leaving your body. For maximum hydration, start hydrating a few days (at least) prior to the fast, so you’ll be fully hydrated at the start of the fast. When dehydrated, the body will take water out of the cells, causing them to shrink and making the kidneys work harder, effectively overworking the body and causing wear to the cells(1). Low-hydration can both trigger migraines and prolong them. Drinking enough prior to dehydration can reduce their length and intensity.
Research shows that caffeine-withdrawal headaches can be prevented by reducing caffeine intake leading up to the fast. However, a 25 hour fast (Yom Kippur was used in the research) is not sufficient time to experience caffeine withdrawal. Having some caffeine on the actual day of the fast may help prevent that headache (obviously not applicable when dealing with an overnight fast), but if you find it helpful, definitely restrict your intake leading up to the fast. Some people may develop headaches simply from the act of fasting over 16 hours, which is when fasting headaches come to play (2), and it should resolve within 72 hours of eating.
FIBRE & PROTEIN
Another cause of headaches may be reactive hypoglycemia, low blood sugar after eating (3). This can be prevented by eating foods with fibre and protein, as they slow down digestion, and are more filling (so you’re not ready to eat a couple hours into the fast). Ideally, when choosing your grains and starches, go for complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes and vegetables for their fibre content (this chickpea lentil veggie soup combines all three!). Fibre is important because it’s filling and isn’t quickly digested, so it keeps you feeling full for longer than low fibre foods (4). Chose soluble fibre, such as oats, sweet potato, beans & lentils, oranges and avocado to keep your sugar and fullness levels stable through delayed digestion. As the most filling nutrient, chose protein containing food, such as beans, fish, eggs, chicken or meat, as they take longer to digest than carbohydrates and keep us feeling full for a longer time.
AFTER THE FAST:
You'll probably be very hungry once the fast is over, but try not to go to extremes in your break-fast meal. You don’t need to fit a day’s worth of food into one meal, and if you’re really in-tune with your body’s hunger and fullness cues, you won’t be able to eat that much. Rehydrating after the fast is extremely important. Dehydration may influence mood, brain functioning, concentration and alertness and short-term memory, plus increase fatigue, confusion and anger. But, all symptoms are reversible, so drink up! Besides for water, you can include soup and fruit and vegetables which have the added bonus of electrolytes you may have depleted while fasting. (Try this spinach quiche if you're looking for a new veggie dish). As you eat, slow down, listen to your body, and eat until you’re satisfied. It may even be helpful to take a break after relieving your initial hunger, just so you can really tune into your needs.
What do you eat before and after a fast to make it easier?