Yom Kippur, the day of repentance and forgiveness, the day when Jews cleanse themselves of their sins, is an excellent opportunity to atone for our sins against our bodies as well. To put it another way: It’s a good idea to eat healthily before and after the fast and fix bad nutritional habits. After all, if we’re already fasting on Yom Kippur, then at least our bodies, as well as our souls, should get some good out of it.
“The Yom Kippur fast usually cleanses the body only a little,” says Orit Ofir, a clinical dietitian and naturopath. “The only way to profit from it is to do some preparation beforehand. If the fast is done properly, it can help cleanse the body of toxins.”
A standard fast for ridding the body of toxins includes drinking water and even juice or a fruit and vegetable shake. These drinks encourage the excretion of toxins in the body via urine and stool. These toxins enter our blood through food, the air we breathe and our skin. They include medications, alcohol, cigarette smoke, pesticides and chemicals used in processing food such as preservatives, flavorings, fragrances and colorings. During its normal functioning, the body itself produces toxins — such as ammonia, which is created when proteins are broken down — and excretes them.
So if we want to use the complete fast that is customary on Yom Kippur to purify our bodies too, we can do so by preparing for it at least two days in advance.
“We should remember that the less balanced our day-to-day nutrition is before the fast, the more days we need to prepare for the fast so as to experience minimal difficulty and reap maximal health benefits. Over these days, we gradually increase our consumption of complete foods from the vegetable world [in their raw, natural form]: vegetables [particularly green leafy ones] and fruit with peels, whole grains such as brown rice, whole-grain breads and quinoa, and easily-digested legumes such as lentils and mung beans that have undergone a long soaking [which reduces gas and makes their minerals more available to the body],” says Ofir.
A study published in the journal Alternative Therapies in July 2002 found that vegetable-based nutrition before a fast (that includes drinking water) reduces pain and inflammatory symptoms among patients with autoimmune diseases (in which the immune system turns on itself), eases their symptoms and enables them to take less medication before the fast.
Ofir says that the reason vegetable-based foods are better before a fast is the beneficial effect of the minerals, vitamins and mainly the phytochemicals (the chemical compounds found in vegetable-based food that are believed to fight disease) and the nutritional fiber they contain. All these factors support the organs in our bodies that are responsible for neutralizing and excreting toxins. They enable the excretory system to filter toxins effectively, supporting the kidneys, bowels and liver, which detoxifies the body. Eating fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants, while preparing for a fast can also provide the liver with the nutritional components that aid in detoxification, the neutralization of toxins and provide support.
A survey published in 2001 in The Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology cited studies proving that the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis patients who fasted after eating vegetarian food were alleviated, and the diet aided their treatment.
But Ofir says that when we increase the amount of fiber in our diet as we prepare for a fast, we must drink more to avoid constipation. Fiber helps prevent constipation, but if we do not drink enough, it can have the opposite effect by drying out the stool. “Water is the recommended drink, and those who are not used to drinking water can add a little fresh-squeezed lemon juice. It’s also a good idea to drink herbal tea without caffeine such as chamomile or spearmint, which aid digestion and prevent gas,” she adds.
Ofir says that the hardest part of fasting is withdrawal. “During a fast we refrain from food and drink that are essential to us, but we also have to remember that some of the difficulty some people experience has to do with withdrawal from nonessential, addictive substances such as caffeine and simple sugars. So to get the best health benefit from the fast and experience the least possible withdrawal symptoms, it’s a good idea to gradually reduce the consumption of caffeinated drinks such as coffee or regular tea (on the day of the fast itself, which starts at sundown, it’s recommended to abstain from them completely), and processed foods and drinks that are full of sugar. On the day the fast begins it’s recommended to avoid salty foods such as sunflower seeds, which increase the feeling of thirst.”
What about the pre-fast meal?
Ofir advises avoiding a heavy, filling meal and drinking large amounts of water at the last moment. Instead, make sure to drink more throughout the day and eat small meals so as not to overburden the digestive system in a short time, and to let it rest. For example, one can eat sandwiches with rye bread and tahini (sesame paste) and vegetables, oatmeal and fruit and vegetable juices or shakes.
“At the pre-fast meal, one should avoid stuffing oneself. Instead, eat until you feel pleasantly full, like at any other meal, and give your body food that has good nutrients — things that support the body’s own cleansing process,” she says.
Focus on whole natural foods and fiber, which makes you feel full for a long time. A good suggestion is mujaddara made with whole-grain rice and lentils, or tabbouleh with whole burghul and parsley, a salad with vegetables of various colors (the pigments in the vegetables are powerful antioxidants that fight inflammation and cell death) to which mung beans can be added for increased energy and a full feeling that lasts longer. Have a fruit for dessert.
It’s also important to pay attention to the way we end a fast. Just as we enter it gradually, we need to end it the same way. This keeps us from putting too much of a burden on the digestive system after a whole day of rest.
Ofir recommends breaking a fast with water first, and then with fruit or natural fruit juice, which gives us available carbohydrates and raises the level of blood sugar and energy. Then wait 15 minutes, and have a light meal.
To keep supporting the essential processes that happen in the body during the fast, we should keep eating vegetarian food rich in antioxidants and fiber. Some suggestions: thick lentil, barley and vegetable soup with a salad of quinoa and green leafy vegetables. Ofir recommends sticking with these healthy new eating habits all year round.
In this sense, maybe it would be good for us if we kept a little bit of Yom Kippur every day of the year.
G’mar hatima tova — may we all be sealed for a good year in the Book of Life.