May 27, 2024
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Yom Kippur and the Breakfast Myth

As we prepare for the most solemn day of atonement, I would like to share some ideas about fasting, eating and hunger. The prohibition against eating and drinking is the most salient aspect of Yom Kippur. Through the 25-hour fast we work toward achieving atonement. Fasting helps us achieve atonement by providing a physical manifestation of personal discomfort that enables us to focus on our misdeeds for which we atone and helps reinforce the regret we have for those misdeeds.

Fasting is tough, especially since we don’t drink for a full day. We live in a society where three square meals a day is seen as the healthy way to eat. Thus, skipping those three meals with our Yom Kippur fast is seen as a challenge to the correct nutritional intake. For many of us, losing weight is a challenge. Eating a full, wholesome breakfast is seen as a great start to the day and a key part of regulating your food intake for the rest of the day. The idea is by obtaining satisfaction with breakfast, this would curb your appetite for the rest of the day so you will not have strong cravings to eat junk food between meals and will avoid overeating during your lunch and dinner. So the idea is that by eating a good breakfast, you will have less food craving and less overeating throughout the day. The problem with eating a full breakfast occurs when the increased calorie intake in the morning does not lead to decreased calorie intake through the rest of the day.

Another touted benefit of eating breakfast is that you will start your day with a burst of energy that will propel you to get through the day productively. This is problematic because this reinforces the idea that you need calorie intake to maintain your energy level and function. If one eats at every lull in energy, one may find themselves eating throughout the day. This is reflected in the increase in meals and snacks over the past 50 years. In the 1970s,Americans ate 2.5-3 times daily, with snacks as an occasional indulgence. Today, Americans are eating 5.5-6 times daily. It’s no wonder that decreasing from six times daily to zero on Yom Kippur is such a challenge. That is many times per day that we are used to eating that we have to do without.

Besides eating so frequently, the idea that we need to get enough energy from our food intake leads to excess food intake at meals. While ingesting calories may provide energy, some of that energy gets directed to digesting the food. In fact, heavy meals lead to increased blood flow to the stomach and intestines to help digest the food. Our blood is shunted away from the brain so there is a mental lull with an associated feeling of tiredness and mental fatigue. While this may lead to a great Shabbat nap, this is not great for helping you focus on a task that requires mental concentration.

On the other hand, with fasting we achieve mental clarity and focus. On Yom Kippur, we have the opportunity to achieve a higher level for atonement. Fasting enables us to reach this higher level. It is not just the physical deprivation that helps us attain this higher level. Rather, when fasting there is decreased blood flow to the intestines and increased blood flow to the brain. Furthermore, when your calorie intake decreases, your body will prioritize that a higher proportion of your energy will be shunted to your brain so you will continue to think clearly.

If you obtain mental clarity on Yom Kippur, would fasting on any other day help you achieve this mental clarity? The answer is yes, but I would recommend that if you did this on any other day, to include drinking water to maintain hydration. A big part of the physical struggle with fasting on any Jewish holiday is the accompanying dehydration. While adequate hydration will not guarantee that you will not feel hunger during a fast day, you will see that your energy level is maintained during a fast that includes water. There is a growing number of people who are using such fasting as a tool for improving health.

While the most obvious benefit of water fasting is weight loss, there are potentially valuable metabolic changes that can help you obtain multiple health benefits. With frequent eating, we are constantly stimulating insulin production, which leads to fat storage leading into weight gain and insulin resistance, which is the pathway to type 2 diabetes. By increasing the interval between eating, you can decrease your insulin production, which will lead to less fat storage with resulting weight loss and potentially reverse insulin resistance. For those who are overweight and those with type 2 diabetes, this type of approach can lead you on the road to great health.

There are different ways to introduce water fasting into your lifestyle. There is intermittent fasting, in which you eat for a short interval during the day, anywhere from one meal daily to two meals in four to six hours, while you do water fasting the rest of the day (18-20 hours/day). Another type of fasting is alternate-day fasting. If you get more comfortable with missing a day of food, you can extend the fast to two or three days and then a week or longer. There is a misconception that you will overeat to compensate for the missed days of food, but this rebound eating does not tend to occur. Rather, you may eat a bit more the first day, but overall you will lose weight and feel well with this approach. The other key point to know is that your body will use your fat tissue, not your muscles or organs, to provide energy during your fast. You will lose fat, not muscle, while maintaining your energy well enough to do all your work and even do your daily exercise workout regimen.

Another key benefit of water fasting is that you will learn that you do not need to eat so frequently to maintain your energy level. A twinge of hunger does not necessarily mean you have to eat right away. While eating is essential to providing us with energy, it is not essential that we eat all the time to achieve this objective. We have the ability to direct our metabolism so we can maintain our energy level without constant eating. You will feel hungry during Yom Kippur, and I hope the fast helps you achieve a great mental clarity that brings you to a high level of atonement. While you are fasting, realize that with hydration you would have both mental clarity and physical energy that will help you achieve a higher level of health.

By Warren Slaten, M.D.


Dr. Slaten is a wellness physician specializing in regenerative pain treatments and lifestyle counseling. He is certified in advanced bioidentical hormone replacement.

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