Feasting and Fasting

Feasting and fasting seem to be a natural human rhythm. Sometimes they are part of a ritual structure (Lent, Ramadan). Feasting and fasting are also simply the logical consequence of an uncertain food supply (berries in season, successful hunt — or not).

Today, there is tempting food all around us, pretty much all the time. When we add

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Raclette feast with my wonderful neighbors!

celebratory holiday feasts, we can quickly tip into excess. Restoring the “fasting” element can put us back into balance.

By fasting I mean any kind of limitation, like “no meat on Fridays,” not necessarily water-only fasting (and definitely not going without both food and water all day, which I highly respect observant Muslims for doing, but which is not medically recommended!).

Typical holiday weight gain is sometimes exaggerated; this study suggests it is likely only one pound on average. But if you’re hoping to go in the other direction, building up some “fasting powers” to counteract your holiday indulgences can make all the difference.

What fasting powers are you ready to develop?  Here are a few to consider:

The power to choose and stick to your choices. What do you most look forward to enjoying? What are you willing to let go? What do you need to limit? If this is a problem area for you (if you often resolve to avoid or limit a particular item but cave anyway), start small and build your powers gradually. For instance, you might have one dessert-free night this week, or avoid one tempting item at a party. Find something that is easy enough that you’ll definitely do it, and take that confidence forward into the next step!

The power to say “no, thank you.”  Especially during the holidays, there is a lot of social pressure to eat and drink things that we don’t think are right for us. If you were highly allergic to the item (peanuts? shellfish?), or if you hated the taste (liver? cilantro?) you would easily and politely refuse it. Stand up for your own health priorities in the same way. If a smiling “no, thank you” isn’t enough, try the recommendation of Susan Peirce Thompson of Bright Line Eating: “I’m feeling really content right now.” Susan also recommends focusing on the people at an event, not the food/drink. Reaching out and learning interesting things about other guests, with a glass of sparkling water in your hand, is also a fasting power!

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Bedtime snack: water and a little Himalayan pink salt (a gift from my friend Amber, thanks Amber!)

The power to close your “eating window” and “Don’t eat within three hours of going to bed” is standard health advice. With 8 hours spent sleeping, that adds up to 12 hours. For instance, you might close your eating window at 8 pm and open it at 8 am, only consuming water, herb tea and similar while your “window” is closed. During that time, your digestive system gets some rest, your insulin levels go down, your body carries out repair processes, and you burn stored fat for fuel (notice that you’re probably not ravenously hungry right when you wake up, even after going without food all night). Once you can comfortably go for 12 hours, you might experiment with keeping your “eating window” closed a bit longer and see if it works for you (see important cautions below).

The power to reduce calories some days. There are many options for doing this in a healthful way that feels good. Some ideas to consider to replace typical meals are homemade soups, bone broth, salad with protein, green juices, green smoothies, or high-quality protein shakes. There’s evidence that this works better than restricting calories day after day (and it certainly seems more in line with our biological heritage). In this very exciting study, medically supervised patients who had only one meal plus fluids three days a week, while eating normally on the other days, were not only able to lose weight but actually reversed their type 2 diabetes, while reporting that they felt good during the process. We don’t have to go that far to see some of the benefits! (Consult your health practitioner before significantly changing your eating plan, and please read the guidelines below.)

The power to take on a longer challenge. How about “Dry January” with no alcohol? A month without added sugar? A no-caffeine challenge? Or even a “Whole 30″? What challenge will make you feel fierce, healthy and in control? This will be my topic for next week, as we all move toward a fresh start for 2019!

And now, lots of important cautionary guidelines 🙂

  1. If you have any underlying health conditions or are taking medications, check with your health practitioner before making significant changes to your eating plan.
  2. No matter what you’re trying, always stay well-hydrated, and monitor how you’re feeling. Healthy living feels good! If something doesn’t feel right, stop.
  3. Whenever you significantly change your eating plan, monitor yourself carefully for any troubling thoughts or symptoms (bingeing, obsession with food, significant anxiety about eating the “wrong” foods). If you experience any of this, you are not on the right path. Stop what you’re doing and consult a specialist. If you have an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia), ask your health practitioner to supervise any dietary changes you make, and if you’ve had one of these conditions in the past, also consult with your practitioner about your planned changes, and do not try unsupervised water fasts.
  4. Any time you reduce calories, you need to pack more nutrition into the remaining meals. Be sure to get an average of at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day (extras on feasting days if you have fewer on other days) , and definitely more than the recommended minimum of 1/3 gram of protein per pound of your bodyweight (so if you weigh 180 pounds, the absolute minimum is 60 grams); here is a good guide to the protein in servings of typical healthy foods).
  5. Reduce overall weekly calories by only a modest, sustainable percentage (maybe 20% at most).
  6. If you’ve gone a while without eating, ease back in gently, maybe with a soup, salad or green juice rather than a big plate of ribs from Rudy’s Barbecue in Laredo, Texas  — that was me after 16 hours of fasting; I went from feeling lousy because I hadn’t eaten to feeling lousy in a different way :-/ .

With your fasting powers, enjoy your holiday feasts without guilt!