40 Days of Dieting: using Lent as an excuse to diet and why it (still) wont work
February 16, 2018
As an anti-diet advocate and ex-Catholic, the Lenten season has quickly become one of my favorite times of year to turn my BS meter on. It used to be just my Catholic and Christian friends I'd hear listing off the types of food they planned on ditching for 40 days but it seems the further I got from my Catholic school days, the popular it became for even non-Christians to join in the Lenten season in hopes of some Spring weight loss. One of my good friends recently heard her non-religious coworkers discussing their Lent abstentions (diets) on Mardis Gras and, upon being asked their reasoning behind taking part in a religious season they don’t adhere to year-round, the aforementioned coworkers said it was as good a reason as any to try to drop some lbs.
Well, at least they're honest.
As I mentioned, I was raised Catholic which included seven years of Catholic school and a reluctantly completed Confirmation. I was never sold on the whole deal, as I made clear in religion class and to my parents on numerous occasions, but it always bothered me when people gave up things like “high carb foods,” “sugar,” and “fat” for Lent. Even as a disordered-eating preteen, I knew that most food-focused Lenten promises were missing the point. Tara Isabella Burton quotes Scott McConnel in a on Vox article about Why “Secular Lent” Misses the Point saying that “Lent is not about having your best life now. Those who observe it believe they are giving up things they want in order to focus on what God wants. There’s little popular appeal in that.”
Most Lenten food promises I’ve witnessed dutifully check the box of “giving up things people want” but falls shot on the “focus on what God wants” part. Usually the focus is on how much not eating chocolate sucks, how many bagels they’re going to devour on Easter morning, or what kinds of rewards ( six-pack abs, losing two pounds) they expect to see when it’s all over. These kinds of promises seemed made not to practice the abstinence encouraged for the season but rather out of self-interest – of gaining a “healthier” lifestyle, of wanting a leaner physique, or of need approval or congratulations. The same Vox article reminds readers that Lent is “about facing the hardest elements of human existence – suffering, mortality, death” and somehow watching little Sallie complain about missing MnMs just didn’t feel like a spiritual reckoning with my existence.*
So Lenten food diets have always bothered me. Finding intuitive eating and seeing diet culture for the mind-controlling, lying sack of oppression it is just put polished my feelings. I'm not here to judge you and your relationship with god. Like I said, I don't practice. I'm here to call the these diets what they are: a diet.
Forget the spiritual fallout of Lenten diets, let's just look at the psychological and physiological penance you'll pay. Lent is 40 days long so giving up a certain food for Lent is in essence just another form of Yo-Yo Dieting in which you’re temporarily banning a certain food or food groups completely only with plans to reintroduce and likely binge due to depravation. It's becoming hard to deny the truth that restricting food and calories has the opposite effect as the one desired.
Have you ever found yourself in this scenario? You've banned carbs again – and it's going to work this time, damn it! It's day four and you've been doing great. While shopping at the local market, you stop to grab a coffee and your eyes drift over to the Everything bagels sitting in the case. You're a little bit hungry and you remember how Thursdays were always the day to treat yourself to a fancy bagel. "Nope, nope, nope!" you immediately start to warn yourself. "Don't event think about it." But the damage is done. You've already thought about it. The next thing you know, you find yourself wandering aimlessly through the bread isle staring at bags of bagels. While in the frozen foods section, you can't help but wonder about those frozen pizza bagels you'd eat as kid. You haven't craved a pizza bagel in years but suddenly you need to know. You leave the isle and come back three times before finally caving in and buying three boxes of pizza bagels.
Once we start thinking about a particular food or food group we’re not allowed to eat, we easily become fixed. It seems psychologists don’t have a full understanding of why fixation thinking occurs but one way it has been explained is by the brain’s inability to “finish” a thought. Normally the brain would consider the thought (in this case eating a bagel) and determine the required action (eat it or not eat it). When a brain can't do that, the partly processed thought (eating a bagel) becomes intrusive and then can generate unpleasant emotions and responses, like shame, guilt and even fear.^ By sending all these mixed signals about the bagel, that we want it but also don't want it might be what's stopping our brain from completing it's thought process. Being in bagel limbo might be putting your brain in limbo, too.
Another explanation looks at our bodies starvation response. When food becomes less available to our bodies, it’s the bodies natural reaction is to worry. Starvation response is also marked by fat burning, which is the dieting affect many people get excited about. That fat burning will turn to burning proteins muscle tissue when the fat is gone as well an slow the metabolic rate. Contrary to dieting beliefs, our bodies do not like being in starvation mode. If an animal is hungry, it will hunt, forage or, if domesticated, whine for food. An animals wants to be fed above all things. Just like your pet starts to associate certain situations with food, so does the body. The body takes mental notes about when it is well fed and when it is not. It remembers that awful juice diet you tried last month and when you experience guilt or confusion over what you’re eating (or not-eating in this case) it makes your body think you’re going to take that food away soon because it’s been done before. This “panic” is said to trigger the starvation response and thus a way out of that mode. This will manifest in that “food obsession." A 2010 study on eating behaviors found a direct correlations between food thought suppression and binge eating, food cravings and disordered eating.**'
So the more and more you pray to stop thinking about that bagel this Lent, the more you’re likely going to want it.
There’s so many ways diets and restriction fails and tricks our bodies behind the ones shown here. I’d encourage anyone interested for more to look up the roles of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems in food digestions, as a way of understanding how food guilt affects bodies.
When it comes to diets disguised as “Lenten promises,” the mental obsession aspect of dieting seems like enough to suggest a different kind of promise. If the true purpose of Lent is to focus on your relationship with god and it’s ability to help you face the human struggles of illness, death and suffering, obsessing over bagels, chocolate, bikini sizes and crunches probably means you're missing the mark.
And if you absolutely must diet for Lent then may I leave you with this: