With the Lenten Church Season fast approaching, I’ve had several people ask me how they can observe their religious customs without giving into the discomforts associated with them, usually translated, “I’m always hungry!” There are some who cannot maintain their commitments, while others go overboard during a fast. The question I often get is how does one balance both food and religion so that they 1) don’t break their commitments, and 2) don’t starve themselves into unhealthiness?
Every religious sect has their own customs regarding a fast. First and foremost, before you attempt to undergo fasting, consult your physician and listen to what s/he directs you to do, particularly if you have a disease like Diabetes that requires constant vigilance for blood sugar levels. Second, with this advice, consult your priest on how you may best carry out observation of the fast without harming yourself. Remember, an ill body increases the difficulty of not only maintaining a fast but also your quality of life. Your physician and your priest can help you decide how strict of a fast you ought to do. They will also help you stay firm to your commitment.
(Warning: do not go overboard with fasting. This is not a weight loss regimen. Fasts should not be done frequently for long periods of time, as they shut down your metabolism and cause lethargy. Strict fasting can also cause the observer to grow faint, to collapse, to need fluids or nutrition, and other medical help. Be mindful when you fast.)
With that said, here are some easy tips to help you handle your hunger:
1. Decide what you will cut out of your diet beforehand. It may be one thing, or more than one thing. Stick to those commitments, and do not try to add more. Also, remember that fasting is not always about food. If you struggle in other areas of your life, trying giving “the problem” or “distraction” up instead. (I have friends who give up Facebook.)
2. Try out recipes that incorporate the foods you can eat. The Internet offers a million options out there. If possible, cook some of those you find interesting before the fast begins to see if you will like them. Disregard, tweak, or keep as you see fit.
3. For those who give up meat, substitute soy, legumes and bean products in their place. If you do not give up all animal products, eat an egg or a few slices of cheese, which studies say helps reduce hunger cravings. If you’ve decided you need meat but don’t want the usual products, try eating fish once or twice a week for a healthy alternative.
4. If you do decide to give up all animal products, make sure you get a small amount of healthy fat into your diet. Nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, ghee or similar fats are good sources, but remember: a little goes a long way.
5. Many times, there are celebration days within the fasting season–enjoy them! Do not restrict yourself more than absolutely necessary. They are called feast days for a reason.
6. Schedule small meals throughout the day. Make them rich with vegetables, fruit, legumes and beans, and complex carbohydrates to help keep you full. If you have a snack, eat nuts and dried fruit, cheese and crackers (a personal favorite), or a whole fruit or vegetable. The fiber from plants not only helps keep you full, it aids in elimination.
7. Should your fast dictate stricter meal planning, consult your physician as how to best accomplish this. Your body needs sustenance to function properly.
8. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. These help keep hunger signals at bay. (Try drinking a glass of water when you get hungry and wait 20 minutes. If the hunger is still there, then eat.)
9. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, exercise is a great natural way of suppressing appetite and stress, which leads to binging. Continue to do a moderate amount (for you) but be careful not to get carried away. Fasts can use up more energy than we’re accustomed to feeling due to our busy lifestyles.
10. Get plenty of sleep. This helps combat stress and therefore makes you less prone to hunt down that late-night snack when you’re tired, overworked, or suffering from a negative mood swing.
I hope that you find great peace in your journey, whatever faith you choose to practice. Eating is a symbolic way we express ourselves, and fasting a way we express our faithfulness. Always, always be mindful when you take part in a fast. Seek the advice of doctors and religious authorities, but listen to the queues your body gives you most of all. If you’re trembling, feeling ill, suffering from frequent headaches, lethargy, or negative mood swings, these may be signs that your physical self cannot cope with the stresses you are exerting upon your body. Do not fret. Fasting is a discipline. What you cannot do this time, you may be able to do the next time, but remember: it is the willingness of the heart that matters most, not the outward display of piety.