From my Notebook

Fasting on a Diet: Thoughts and Tips

Like many people trying to pay attention to the spiritual aspects of life, I occasionally take the opportunity to fast, meaning going without food or water for some length of time.

In my own religious tradition, fasting is typically done on the first Sunday of the month. It’s not set in stone and can change based on your personal circumstances, but knowing your entire peer group at church is fasting on the same day makes the experience a bit easier to remember and adds emphasis on thinking critically and sharing thoughts & feelings about the experience with others.

However great that all sounds (or not great, if you tend to cringe at the thought of skipping a couple meals), it adds all the more pain when you feel like you have completely failed the fast as a spiritual test by overeating afterwards or stopping halfway and attempting to consume about three days worth of calories out of fear and frustration.

And things can get really hard when you’re doing that and also (theoretically) dieting or trying to change your eating habits. My Special Attachment to Food has changed drastically, thank goodness, but in the past it made fasting quite an ordeal.

When I was at my heaviest, I experienced the sadness of feeling like I lived a healthier life on the busy work weekdays than I did on the “spiritually recharging” weekends. When fasting on a Sunday, not only was I getting less exercise and thinking constantly about food, but when the fast was over I would sometimes binge on food, trying to regain the sense of “balance” (unhealthy as it was) I had felt when I wasn’t fasting.

Doesn’t sound very spiritual, does it? While I don’t think you have to look hard to find religious people who are imperfect (like me), one of the things I know about my own religious practice is that I’m constantly being changed by it. So I credit these practices for putting me in touch with my own weaknesses and these growth opportunities in the first place.

I want to share one example of a fast day that could have gone bad, because I got overconfident. I thought I could do it on sheer willpower.

(Hint: Willpower is a joke. When people say “willpower,” please think “learned skill” instead.)

On this particular Sunday, I must have been feeling brave. “I’ve lost this much weight so far—no worries, I got this.” I dove straight into the fast without any planning. And no healthy food options for a backup.

Pretty soon, I found myself feeling desperate to stave off the binge urges I knew I would feel the moment I got back to my home.

Heading to the car from church, I ate 120 calories worth of fruit snacks (yes, my kids’ fruit snacks, out of the diaper bag) and a 40 calorie piece of chocolate that had been buried in a pocket for weeks. This was REALLY dumb. And it felt AWFUL.

The food wasn’t filling at all, of course—I blew through 160 calories like it was nothing! Instead, I could have planned a little and had a much more protein-dense food at the ready, like a protein shake. 120 calories of protein shake (about one scoop of the powder dissolved in water) fills me up way more, and for much longer, than a couple baggies of fruit snacks and a piece of chocolate.

Once at home, I knew I was in trouble. I had to act fast so that I didn’t snack on a bunch of random things and blow my calorie goal for the day…or week.

After some planning (what’s healthy, dense, relatively high in calories to about 30% of my daily allotment, or close to a normal meal, and high in protein?), things went much better:

  • One banana, 100 cal
  • Protein shake, 2.5 scoops, with 1 tbsp peanut butter mixed in, 400 cal
  • That shake was SOOOO good. Holy cow.
  • After that, I drank 16 oz. water, with a goal to drink another 16 oz. within the next half hour. (Remember that fasting usually means you’re not hydrating, either, and hydration can really help your appetite urges)
  • (I also gave myself permission to eat more if I still felt hungry)

At that point I felt REALLY full. And I still had 1150 calories left in the day. And it was just after noon. Hallelujah.

I sat down on the couch and went about my normal spiritual practices—reflecting and writing my thoughts in a journal, talking to my children about how their day went, etc. No more thoughts of food, zero hunger.

So that was a great outcome. Crisis averted.

However, it took me more than a year of monitoring my fasting practice to get to that point. I have had many failures related to fast days in the past.

For example, I have eaten, in the past, 75% of my daily allotment within an hour of arriving at home. Then more than that remaining 25%, later.

A diet involving significant weight loss is, in my opinion, a much bigger deal than keeping up with a habit of fasting, even speaking just spiritually. I think it’s OK to focus on the diet first and then improve the fasting habit later.

One idea: The fasting ladder

This may help improve your ability to fast. Pick an eating level on the scale below that seems comfortable for you, and start there. Ensure that it feels healthy and only a slight exertion.

NOTE: I AM NOT YOUR DOCTOR AND THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. CONSULT A DOCTOR

NOTE: I AM NOT YOUR GO-BETWEEN WITH THE SPIRITUAL WORLD AND THIS IS NOT SALVATION OR NIRVANA-RELATED ADVICE. CONSULT WITH A SUPREME BEING AS MUCH AS NEEDED

  1. No food, no water
  2. No food, some water
  3. No food, some drink (herbal tea, for eample)
  4. No food, lots of water or other drinks
  5. Small amounts of filling food, small amounts of drink
  6. A smaller-than-normal amount of food and drink
  7. A normal amount of food and drink
  8. A greater-than-normal amount of food and drink

While observing the guideline you picked—and please add detail or get more specific if needed—try to place special focus on activities that help you feel positively changed, spiritually speaking. That could include journaling, forgiving others, meditating, taking a walk, performing a simple act of service for someone, etc.

Repeat that over several fasting experiences. When you’re ready, try to challenge yourself to go down by one number on the “fasting ladder” scale. Only if it’s still healthy for you, of course.

As an example of how I did that, I read several blog posts about fasting. I learned that it’s easier to fast if you eat less before you start your fast. I learned that it’s easier for me to fast if I occupy my time better while I’m fasting. I learned that having a plan keeps things less open-ended for me, so I find myself worrying about it less.

I occasionally need sips of water while I’m fasting, so I can tell you with certainty that the experience is not 100% about lack of food and drink. It’s OK to need food. It’s OK to need drink. These adjustments probably won’t break you spiritually (to say the least).

Other general tips and takeaways:

  • Plan before, during, and after the day / days of your fast.
  • Pre-plan your “you” place during your fast, especially if you’ll be out in public. You’ll need a quiet place where you can plan and eat basic holdover foods. Park your car in a spot where no one else parks, or find the bathroom that no one else uses much. Or find a nearby park you can drive to for a quick break.
  • Put away tempting foods beforehand. Try to avoid making or displaying really yummy food for your break-the-fast activity.
  • Instead of forcing yourself through things, make it gradual. Little changes, one by one.
  • Change your circumstances only when you’re ready. If it’s been a hard weekend, be careful about pushing yourself. You don’t need to be perfect.
  • Nowadays Intermittent Fasting is popular as a diet aid for caloric restriction. I tried it for a very short period and I can see how it might be effective for some. I had different plans in mind (as in other approaches that would help me more) at the time so I couldn’t give it a full run. But it may be worth exploring.
  • I do aim to come close to my caloric allowance after my fast is over. This is intentional. I typically come about 200 calories under it, but if I get hungry, you can bet I will eat those 200 calories. What I don’t want to do is try to go too low and risk an overeating session. When I get to my 200 calories-left point, I will say something like, “OK, if I’m hungry after this I need to eat a pickle (5 calories). If I can’t eat a pickle I’m not hungry.” Substitute your not-so-favorite food there and see how it goes.
  • And finally: Be patient with yourself! This is a journey. You’re probably changing a lot of things at once. It will all work out, just set a wise course and you’ll be able to stick to it.