Your Expert Guide to Fasting

Nutritionists list the dos and don'ts of fasting - before, during and after

LF Team

Several religions prescribe fasting as a means of spiritual purification and devotion to God. The fasting practices and rules may differ depending on the religious beliefs and culture of the region, but a large number of Indians observe fasting for varying time periods throughout the year. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory fasting days for Catholics wherein individuals abstain from non-vegetarian foods. Meanwhile, Hindus observe many forms of fasting for which they either entirely abstain from food and drink or avoid certain types of foods. Some people observe weekly fasting on a particular day of the week whereas others are strict observers of fasting during periods like the month of Shravan, nine days of Navratri and Karwa Chauth. Followers of Islam observe fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. Beyond religious beliefs, some people observe fasting as a way to naturally detox the body and give the digestive system a break.

No matter what your reason, if you're planning to observe fasting, it's important to keep a few things in mind so that your body doesn't react negatively to this intermittent eating. We spoke to nutritionists and health experts for a list of dos and don'ts to remember whenever you plan to observe fasting.

Should you be fasting?

Before you decide to fast, it is important to consider whether your body is fit for fasting. Niyati Likhite, a dietician at Fortis Hospital Kalyan, says, “People who should avoid fasting are children, the elderly, nursing mothers, pregnant women and those with medical conditions such as diabetes, heart diseases, cancer, tuberculosis, renal disease and other illnesses." It's also good to ensure that you are well rested, not going through a stressful period and emotionally prepared for the hunger-induced mood swings. Since blood glucose levels tend to fluctuate during fasting, it’s important that you consult your doctor about fasting.

Before Fasting

You can take a few steps before D-day to better prepare your body for the fasting. Nutritionists suggest gradually decreasing your portion sizes as your approach the day of the fast. For example, if you usually have four chapatis or one full bowl of rice, you could try bringing it down to two chapatis or a 3/4th cup of rice. Start including more fresh fruits and veggies in your diet to ensure that the fast doesn’t come as a surprise to your system.

If you will be abstaining from meat, alcohol or some of your favourite foods during the fast, you could treat yourself a week or so before the fasting begins. However, make sure you don't gorge yourself silly on the day right before the fast. Also, make sure to get rid of all the tempting foods and beverages from your kitchen before the fasting begins.

Depending on the fasting rules and keeping in mind the foods that are allowed and not allowed, nutritionists suggest planning your fasting meals in advance. Stock up on fasting essentials at least a week before the day of the fast.

During Fasting

"The first rule of fasting is to stay hydrated and maintain electrolyte levels in the body," says Bangalore-based Dr Priyanka Rohatgi, senior consultant, Nutritionist of Apollo Hospitals. Unsweetened buttermilk and coconut water will keep you hydrated. "These beverages have sodium, potassium and minimal sugar," explains Dr Rohatgi. It's best to stay away from caffeinated and sugary drinks like tea, coffee and packaged fruit juices when you are fasting. If the fasting rules allow, then make it a point to snack on water-based fruits and vegetables through the day. Dr Rohatgi also recommends snacking on dried fruits and nuts. The best options for fasting are almonds, walnuts and dates, which are rich sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids.

If you are observing a water fast in which you will only be having water, Likhte says, "Make sure you sip on some water every two hours as there are many risks involved such as muscle loss, dehydration, hypotension, low blood sugar, heartburn and constipation. In certain cases, it may increase your food craving which may lead to weight gain.”

While vrat meals, be it for Shravan, Navratri or Karva Chauth, might sound simple and nutritious, many people trick themselves into believing that they are cleansing their body when in fact they are doing it more harm. Likhite says, “During fasting, most people end up eating fried foods.” For a proper and meaningful fast, start by saying no to deep-fried vrat snacks and opt to bake, grill or roast them with a little or no oil/ghee. She suggests including vrat-friendly recipes such as roasted dosas made with rajgira, singhare, kuttu ka atta and bhagar khichdi, which help to improve gut microbiome and get rid of toxins from the body.

Since you will be going without proper nourishment for hours, it’s best to avoid strenuous physical activity and intense workouts. Diabetics should limit physical activity during fasting hours. Most importantly, make sure to get enough sleep for a successful fast.

After Fasting

Experts agree that breaking the fast is the time when people tend to make the most mistakes. By the end of the fasting duration, your body has become accustomed to a particular routine. There’s a reason the Ramadan fast is broken with dates. It's best to break your fast with a light meal. No matter how tempting, even though you’ll want to eat everything in sight once your fast is over, it’s important to go slow.

Regular meals must be reintroduced gradually or it could result in severe digestive distress and other complications. Once your appetite gets stronger, add spices, grains and pulses in addition to other non-fasting food items. Gradually move on to eating a whole meal - a balance of starchy carbohydrates as well as some protein and fat to help slow the digestion, while also helping you stay satiated for a longer duration. Throughout the day, make it a point to drink plenty of water and fresh fruits juices. If possible, steer clear from aerated and caffeine-laden beverages as they are severely dehydrating and anyway do you no good.

Avoid oily, greasy and spicy foods immediately after breaking your fast. Gorging on unhealthy food right after fasting may prove harmful to your health. Eating too much or too quickly after a fast can cause nausea and undo the cleansing process and positive effects of the fast.

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