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Breaking the Fast Wisely
Week 6: Re-nourishing & Collations
George Bernard Shaw once said, "Every fool can fast, but only the wise man knows how to break a fast.”
As we extend our daily fast to 19 hours this week, we have to nourish ourselves intentionally within a five-hour eating window. Eating fewer meals, it’s natural to consume less than you would have, but can’t operate in a permanent caloric deficit.
Paraphrasing Shaw, I would say that how you break your fast will determine whether you experience fasting as a joy long term.
Fundamentals of “Re-Alimentation”
I once heard a story about a pair of Buddhist monks who sat down at a restaurant, ordered their food, and then began to eat. The person who told me the story relayed the way that, after each bite, the monks would slowly lower their hands with perfect poise—from their chest down towards their stomachs—as if to consciously aid the digestive process. Was this for pacing? A mindfulness technique to slow down and appreciate each bite? We are indeed wise to slow down and savor each bite as a gift from God. Breaking a fast by scarfing down a large plate of food can put a sudden strain on the intestines.
The traditional Benedictine formula for eating One Meal a Day called for two cooked dishes and one uncooked dish. That way, if a monk was unable to eat one dish due to allergy or any other reason, they could eat the other. The one meal was also taken at dinnertime (6 pm), giving time to digest overnight, and granting the benefit of alertness during the work day.
I have tried to make dinnertime a ritual – not a rushed affair. Like the monks in the restaurant, I like to think of it as an exercise in eating meditation and gratitude. Fasting has helped me to both appreciate the food more and slow down because I know that I will be hungry later if I fill up too quickly. Paradoxically, the faster I make myself full, the sooner I feel hungry gain. It helps to start with a small plate to start rather than a heaping pile of food.
When I remember, I try to break longer fasts with a glass of water with lemon juice 20 minutes before the meal. The lemon triggers hormones like ghrelin to prepare your stomach and intestines for the uptake of nutrients. You can also sip a beverage between bites – even a glass of wine if you aren’t giving up alcohol for Lent.
Although we are gradually working out way towards One Meal a Day as the Gold Standard of ancient fasting, some people might find that they still struggle to eat enough within a 1-2 hour window. This week is a good time to experiment with an extended eating window of between two and five hours. This allows for two smaller, distinct meals. Burt Herring’s “fast five” protocol recommends starting with a smaller, followed by a larger meal later in the day. Eating smaller meals is also recommended if you have already developed insulin resistance, and want to limit the sharp insulin spike that can accompany a large meal.
Get weekly resources throughout Lent on recovering the ancient discipline of One Meal a Day fasting:
What kind of food to eat
Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” – Acts 10:13
My original version of the Benedict Challenge prescribed rules and formulas for macronutrients, limiting carbs, and getting enough protein and fat. I’ve since come to see the foolishness of this approach. Everyone has different needs and tastes—not to mention abstinences that might make additional requirements burdensome (good luck going keto without meat, dairy, or oils).
Scripture tells us that it’s not what goes into the body that defiles us, but what comes out. Therefore, I won’t tell you what to eat or what not to eat during your eating window. One of the beauties of fasting is that it largely frees us from the neurosis of obsessively tracking calories and grams of fat, carbs, and protein.
However, there is one caveat. Foods high in transfats and other highly processed ingredients have a perverse effect on the quality of our fast. Namely, they crowd out more nourishing foods, and simultaneously fuel our cravings for more junk food. This is not the right venue to expound on the danger of excessive polyunsaturated fats and seed oils, but these should also be avoided (see Cate Shanahan’s excellent book The Hateful Eight for the long version). There is a certain combination of tastes and textures in processed foods—the salty/sweet/fatty/crunchy combination—that is engineered to hook consumers into the vicious cycle of snacking and eating for pleasure.
Your core meal on OMAD should be palatable and rewarding, but not addictive or hyper-pleasurable. When it comes to fat vs. carbs, and getting enough protein, just be aware that the combination of fat and carbs together can promote weight gain and insulin resistance. Carbs spike insulin, and fat amplifies the effects of that spike since it is more calorie dense, meaning there is more energy in the bloodstream to shuttle into the cells.
I often eat higher-carb meals when eating One Meal a Day—especially during Lent, when things like bread and lentil soup are served. With these meals, I am conscious not to add cheese, oil, or sour cream—both for penitential reasons and to attenuate the effect of the insulin spike.
However, I tend to default to a lower-carb way of eating since I find fats and protein to be more satiating. The general recommendation for daily protein is about .5 - .75 grams per pound of body weight. So a 150-pound person might strive to get between 75 and 125 grams of protein per day. This is a lot for one meal. There are roughly 120 grams of protein in a pound of meat. I tend to eat less protein when eating one meal, and more on days when I eat two meals or more. There are two ideas that seem contradictory that you must hold in your head:
Protein is essential to rebuilding bodily tissues and remaining well-nourished.
You can still spare your muscle tissues while foregoing protein, and we will take up the benefits of “autophagy” in the next post.
Transfats aside, dietary fat in general has been wrongly demonized. Thankfully the tide is beginning to turn, and people are recognizing that fat is an essential nutrient and building block for our cells, and an important reserve in times of scarcity. It also enhances the flavor and satiation factor of other foods on your plate (i.e., roasting vegetables in butter or coconut oil, and adding liberal amounts of olive oil to a salad).
I also enjoy fat in the form of cultured full-fat dairy—often as sauces made of sour cream. I try to eat something fermented or cultured at each meal like sauerkraut, Kimchi, yogurt, or apple cider vinegar. These all contain enzymes that will help with digestion – breaking down food into usable energy and building blocks that nourish you following a fast.
Adalbert de Vógüe writes about collations as a kind of concession, watering down of the original Benedictine standard of One Meal a Day. From the 5th to the 8th century, monks and faithful did not eat until evening during Lent.
Today, the church allows two small collations on fasting days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as long as these “snacks” add up to less than the one meal eaten.
“For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.” – USCCB on Fasting & Abstinence
In my experience, eating just a little bit is actually more difficult than fasting completely due to “Pringles hunger,” and the effects of spiking insulin. This is especially true of sugary snacks—less so for fat and protein.
When I’m struggling on fasting days, my default collations are “bulletproof coffee”—i.e., coffee with butter or coconut oil blended in—and salted bone broth. Since neither of these contains many carbs or calories, they keep insulin signaling low and allow the body to remain in ketosis.
As I’ve grown more accustomed to eating One Meal a Day, these collations have begun to feel superfluous. They are meant to be used as crutches to ease the transition. Once you no longer need them, you should cast them aside and experience the freedom of walking on your own two feet, with God’s grace as your only support.
There is another category that doesn’t quite count as a collation in my book. These are zero or near-zero-calorie supplements like water with apple cider vinegar, or sugar-free electrolyte powders. I drink a glass of water with a splash of apple cider vinegar in my water each morning and drink electrolytes when exercising while fasting.
If you belong to a denomination like the Orthodox that abstains from certain foods, be sure to consult your spiritual mentor to make sure that you are not violating the spirit of the fast.
In the end, there is always a tension between making fasting easier through these “life hacks.” However, in easing the transition, I am of the mind that we can use all the help we can get.
Entering Week Five
As we enter the second to last week of Lent, I hope you are finding newfound joy and freedom, as the benefits of fasting begin to speak for themselves. This week, we make a leap to fasting for 19 hours, eating for just five. You can modify this if need be, or remain in the 16:8 mode for an extra week, but make sure you are following a rule, and checking in with yourself daily. It’s okay if you slip one day, but slipping two days in a row might mean you have attempted to take on too much too fast, or that you need to adjust your systems to make it through. No white-knuckling!