When did Mediterranean and South Beach cease to be solely about where we take our bodies, and begin to be about what we put into them? Ketogenic, Atkins, Zone, high fat, low carb, telomeres – diet lingo swirls around my brain faster than smoothie ingredients in a supersonic Vitamix. But the new buzzword that turns many long-time recommendations on their heads is “intermittent fasting.”
Some may find this harder to digest than unmassaged kale. What ever happened to the importance of snacks, the promotion of grazing and breakfast being the most important meal of the day? I was good with that. Does it really come down to fasting, or is it just food faddism?
Of course, fasting has been around since before trends were, well, trends. Interestingly, the act of fasting on Yom Kippur is one ritual that many Jews cling to, even if they follow no other Jewish traditions the rest of the year.
What is it about the fast that attracts people who neither follow nor believe much of the doctrine behind it? And why would people who don’t have the willpower to simply cut calories jump on a bandwagon that requires total abstinence?
I wonder: could there be a commonality in the allure that fasting has in the very different spheres of religion and health?
I think that on both counts, some people are drawn to the idea of a cleanse, of a clean slate. On the dietary side, it’s manifested in the hope that a clean break from the overindulgences of the past will give one the willpower to avoid falling into old patterns of behaviour. During the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we actually greet each other with “G’mar Hatimah Tovah” – literally, wishing a good seal. And while Yom Kippur is about much more than the fast, it’s the fast that often gets the most attention. We talk much more freely about whether or not we should brush our teeth on Yom Kippur, than about what transgressions we regret, or how we might atone.
Intermittent fasting can refer to completely fasting every other day. However, there are many variations of it, including taking in a limited number of calories on fast days. A more liberal practice involves fasting for part of the day – somewhere between 12 to 23 hours – which is often referred to as “time-restricted feeding.” So, if you shut the snack drawer at 8 p.m. and have breakfast at 8 a.m., you’ve succeeded.
In Judaism, too, there are practices that are considered more liberal. However, it’s not always possible to modify the ideals that the Torah imposes on us. Is it permissible to murder only sometimes? Of course not. Is it OK to gossip just once in a while? Is it gossip to relay someone else’s good news? This is an interesting discussion for another time. The point is: how important is fasting vis-a-vis being our best selves on the hundreds of days from one Yom Kippur to the next? Similarly, how important is what you eat between fasts? Your 12 hours “off” will be far less effective if you break your fast with an icing-laden brownie. In both the diet and spiritual realms, there’s no need to choose, as the two facets are complementary.
Intermittent fasting will yield more health benefits if what you eat is nutritionally sound. I’d go so far as to say that a Yom Kippur fast without kindness, generosity and asking forgiveness of people is to true repentance what an occasional intermittent fast is to the daily grind of willpower and smart choices that lead to lasting change. Long-time eating habits are hard to give up, as are long-held religious beliefs. Maybe it’s not so much about letting anything go, as letting something new in.
If you want to know what the prophets thought was important, look no further than Yom Kippur morning’s haftarah, which is about the importance of treating the disadvantaged properly. In it, the Jewish people ask why, despite their fasting and praying, they are not forgiven. The answer is that God cares not only about the ritual fast, but also about how we treat others – the orphan, the hungry, the disadvantaged.
“Have an easy fast.” Really? I don’t want anybody fainting in their effort to repent, but is it about ease, or is it about soul searching? Is the fast an end in itself? Meaningful change is not always easy and is usually a process.
Intermittent fasting may be wearing today’s halo of health, but the devil is in the details – what we eat in between fasts. Similarly, while the Yom Kippur fast is a powerful precept with great potential, there are many deeds to be performed between fasts. So, enjoy your pre-fast meal. Stand with your community – literally – through Kol Nidrei and the long liturgy that follows. Embrace the ritual fast. But remain mindful of the complete menu. Let’s make that our steady diet.