Nourish Yourself in the New Year: Consider a Fast

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The topic of fasting may seem strange on a site dedicated to eating, but I’m going to argue that it’s apropos. Let me clarify up front, though, that I’m not offering up a fast as compensation for damage done during the holidays. Those pounds that came on during the weeks of celebration will ebb away as normal routine sets in if you’re mindful about what and how you eat (you all know me well enough to know that I don’t believe in see-sawing between extremes). Instead, I’m suggesting a fast—even for a handful of hours—part of a mindful eating practice to recalibrate yourself and enrich your awareness of how food affects you physically, mentally and emotionally.

consider a fastAs much as gathering to feast (which we’ve done a lot of in the past few weeks) feeds our souls and unites us to one another, fasting allows us to reconnect to ourselves. It moves us from the external to the internal, from ingestion to introspection. Richard Foster says in his Celebration of Discipline, “We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.” Shockingly so, I discovered.

When I’ve fasted in the past physical hunger, ironically, was a minor part of the experience. In the first few hours of fasting I was distracted, cranky and even a bit fearful (it definitely goes against natural instinct to deprive yourself of food). But as the day wore on, the chatter quieted and my mind fell into a pensive stillness. There was an awareness there that isn’t when I’m going about my daily routine. I breathed deeper, moved more deliberately, listened more acutely. I went to new places within myself and connected dots I’d never seen before. Far from being something I do as punishment, I’ve come to think of fasting as hitting pause on daily life to take a soulful solo journey.

The How-To

There are many methods of fasting, but it need not be complicated to be effective. I prefer to fast from the time I wake up throughout an entire day, breaking the fast with breakfast the next day. But you could also fast from lunch to lunch, essentially skipping dinner one night and breakfast the next morning, resuming your meal with lunch.

Whichever way feels right to you, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you’ll probably feel a bit depleted and emotional while you’re fasting. That’s normal. Don’t plan a lot of taxing activities—physical, mental or otherwise—on the day of your fast. I also like to have a journal nearby to capture the emotions and thoughts that ramble through my heart and head. In terms of physical preparation, eat light meals both before and after your fast, and be sure to drink plenty of water.

Will fasting make you healthier? Will fasting help you lose weight? The answer can be “yes” on both counts if you approach it not as a quick-fix for holiday binging, but as a way to become more mindful—long term—about the way you eat.

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Simple Udon Soup

This udon soup is simple, satisfying and comes together in about 20 minutes from broth to bowl. Mix it up as much as you like–sub spinach for the bok choy, toss in some shrimp, or add any type of roasted meat you might have on hand.

udon-soup-recipe1 tablespoon peanut oil
½ pound shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups baby bok choy (about 3 heads), cleaned and sliced (keep the stems separate from the leaves)
2 cups roasted chicken or meat, shredded (optional)
6 cups dashi
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin*
6 ounces dried udon noodles, cooked according to package directions and drained
¼ cup scallions, thinly sliced

Heat peanut oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat and sauté shiitakes and ginger for 4 minutes, until mushrooms are golden brown. Add garlic and bok choy stems, and continue cooking another 2 minutes. Stir in remaining greens and any meat.

Pour dashi into the pot;  stir in soy sauce and mirin. Bring to a boil. Divide the noodles between 4 bowls and ladle the soup on top. Sprinkle with scallions and serve.

Serves 4

* Mirin is a sweet rice wine. If you can’t find it, substitute 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon sugar.

  • Brian

    Dear Lia: First, let me congratulate you on a great looking site and informative as well. A very welcome addition to the proliferation of food writing and I really like the fact that it’s about “nourishing” and not just eating, something that I believe as a society we take for granted.

    What is the difference between a fast and a cleanse? Fasting, I know is to go without food but which do you feel is better and why?

    Thanks, Brian

    • Kurt Michael Friese

      Kim and I are on a cleanse (or a purge, as we call it) right now and it starts with a full day fast. First 3 days are challenging but are well worth the rush you get from energy returning thereafter.

      Today we can have cooked vegetables (no fat), but still no meat, grains, dairy or alcohol. In a couple of days we get to re-introduce fish, so I’ve ordered us some sablefish (aka black cod)- one of our faves – and I’ll cook it en papilotte (wrapped in a paper pouch) with garlic, herbs, vegetable julienne and a shiitake mushroom cap. Nomnomnom.

    • Lia Huber

      Good question, Brian. From what I’ve learned, the biggest difference there seems to be between a fast and a cleanse is purpose. Fasting is an ancient ritual that has, throughout the ages, been primarily spiritual in nature. “Cleansing” or detox diets are a newer phenomenon and focus more on clearing the body of toxins and, in some cases, losing weight (I’ll re-state . . . not advocating for that). They’re like a spring cleaning for our bodies. But I would also advocate that the non-physical benefits of fasting–making us more aware, more mindful, etc.–can have very positive physical ramifications for our bodies.

      We’ll have to ask Kurt about his cleanse . . . do share details, Kurt! Are you following a given regimen or making it up for yourselves? I’ve seen a number out there with mixed reviews.

  • Alison Ashton

    I once had a boss who fasted one day a week–every Monday, I think. He didn’t make a big deal about, but it made him better, more balanced, etc. He was in great health.

  • Donna Wolfe

    This is a great idea… Thank you for all you give us!

  • Lia Huber

    Alison . . . Wow, that’s cool. I’ve only fasted on the weekends. I can’t imagine doing it on a workday. Great to hear that it affected him in a positive way. And I’m glad you brought up not making a big deal of it. I think that’s an important part of the “journey,” so to speak. To not tout “look what I’m doing” for extra attention, but to really have it be about something you’re doing for you.

    Donna . . . Thank YOU for all you’ve given me! ;-) Happy New Year.

  • Colin

    Lia– thanks for this post, I find it thought provoking. In my experience, the idea of fasting is pretty controversial… while many religious traditions include fasting as a way to demonstrate penance or achieve clarity, in our modern culture it’s often confused with food issues, anorexia, yo-yo dieting, or worse. We’ve also come to associate fasting with protests, hunger strikes, etc. which have a decidedly negative tinge.

    I think feeling hunger once in a while is a reminder that we’re alive. I think not eating can profoundly affect your mood and outlook, just like not sleeping or meditating or running a marathon. So much of our relationship with food is mindless, we just follow our tastebuds and eat as a routine — it’s interesting once in a while to take a window of time and remember what happens when we don’t. I think it can also help to enlighten us about the experience of the billions of people around the world who don’t get enough to eat.

    I have never found fasting to be an effective means of weight loss… fasting sets off hormonal alarm bells in my system that urge me to eat much more after the end of the fast than I would have eaten if I had been managing my hunger all the way along. Plus your system goes into shutdown mode when you fast, so you don’t burn that many calories. But as your post points out, that’s not really the point.


  • Lia Huber

    Colin . . . Very, very well said. There are so many facets to fasting that I had a hard time reining myself in on that post. But one area that you brought up that I definitely find while fasting is a deepened compassion for the struggle much of the world’s population encounters on a daily basis. Granted, it’s no where on-par–I’m normally only fasting for 24 hours–but there’s something about feeling hunger beyond just “I’m hungry, time to eat” that makes it all more visceral. And that’s not a bad thing every once in a while for those of us who need only open a refrigerator to get food into our mouths.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

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