“You don’t run a marathon if you haven’t trained,” says Washington nutritionist Janet Zalman. “You want to make the day so that your mind can absorb the energy and the real spiritual journey that you’re on. Not, ‘Oh my God, I’m suffering with a headache.’”
And it isn’t only the caffeine. Zalman and other nutritionists say that getting your body ready for an easy fast also means going light on sugar and drinking more water the day before Yom Kippur, which starts at sundown on Sept. 29. Thinking that a big meal beforehand will keep you full longer? Think again.
Washington nutritionist Lisa Himmelfarb says heavy coffee and tea drinkers may want to start abstaining as early as one week in advance to prevent a headache — a common symptom of caffeine withdrawal.
“You can dilute your coffee with decaf,” she suggests. “That will help substantially with the headaches.”
Himmelfarb says it is best to begin weaning yourself off refined sugars — commonly found in candy and desserts like cakes and pies — rather than go cold turkey on the Day of Atonement. She recommends fruits such as melon, because they have a delayed release of water, which helps the body to stay hydrated longer.
Himmelfarb says that many Jews eat a small breakfast and lunch in anticipation of eating a heavy dinner before Kol Nidre.
“That’s a mistake,” she says. “You will actually be hungrier as a result.”
A better choice is to eat a large breakfast full of carbohydrate-rich foods such as apples, bananas and oatmeal, she says.
For dinner, Himmelfarb recommends eating complex carbohydrates such as brown rice and quinoa or proteins such as beef and fish. Some fatty foods like avocado and olive oil are OK as well.
Debbie Amster, an Olney-based culinary and health coach, says that dinner should be the smallest of the three meals eaten before Kol Nidre.
“Even though we’re going to be fasting, it’s very hard to get a good night’s rest when you’ve stuffed yourself at night,” she says. “So in general I’d recommend the smallest meal be dinner.”
That meal should be one without thirst-causing salty foods. Avoid matzah ball soup and go for carbohydrates that release energy over a longer period of time and help steady your blood sugar levels, Zalman says.
“Sweet potato is great because it’s a slow-acting carbohydrate,” she says. “You don’t want to have white potatoes.”
Zalman said she drinks very little wine during the pre-fast dinner because alcohol, like caffeine, dehydrates the body.
Amster recommends drinking a lot of water that day to ensure that the body is hydrated — a must for any fast.
“People can go a pretty long time without eating, but not without drinking, she says.
And after the gates close at the end of Yom Kippur? What’s the healthiest way to break the fast?
Drink water, says Amster. “The first thing we do when we get into the car is to drink some bottled water,” she said.
She also recommends drinking warm tea with your break-the-fast meal to help with digestion and to progress from fruits and vegetables to more substantial foods in the post-holiday meal.
Zalman says her ideal break-the-fast meal would begin with fresh fruit and diluted orange juice, followed by the more filling items.
“What you want to do is not overload your body right away,” she says. “You don’t want to go from fasting to a bagel with whitefish salad.”
All three say that pregnant women and diabetics should use caution if they wish to fast on Yom Kippur. And Himmelfarb has a message to those recovering from eating disorders: consider not fasting.
But the most important piece of advice had less to do with nutrition than it did with making sure the lack of eating and drinking during Yom Kippur does not interfere with the holiday’s spiritual significance.
“Fasting is not a competitive sport,” Amster says. “This is an opportunity to be more mindful about how we’re nourishing our bodies.”