The Science of Abstination: Should You Keep Lent?

The 40 days of Lent are here, and millions of Catholics are giving up meat, candy, coffee, and fast food till Easter. Is Lenten fasting healthy, however? And which foods do you need to give up, anyway?

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The rules of Lent

The actual dietary regulations for the Catholic Lent are quite different from what your friends might be observing. Every Friday you are supposed to abstain from mean (including chicken and other birds), but all kinds of fish and seafood are permitted. There are only two days when real fasting is prescribed: the Ash Wednesday and the Good Friday. On those days, Catholics are allowed only one full meal (without meat) or two small meals that together are less than one full meal. Interestingly, Orthodox Christians are supposed to give up all animal products (including cheese and dairy) for the whole Lent.

So what about giving up candy, coffee, fries, carbs, etc.? Strictly speaking, there is no such rule. Some people do it because they want to feel closer to their religion, some to do a sort of a physical and psychological detox, and others simply as a good way to lose weight. However, religious Catholics stress that weight loss is not the point of Lent – rather, it is a time to give up bad habits and be caring and attentive for others.

Many faces of fasting

Fasting is an ancient tradition, and the most famous fast must be the Muslim Ramadan – a 40-day period when you can neither eat nor drink between sunrise and sunset. Fasting can be a real challenge, even just for one day, as on the Jewish Yom Kippur; but is it healthy?

Many diets are based on intermittent fasting, the most famous being the 5:2 diet: you eat normally for 5 days and then drastically reduce your intake to just 500-600 calories for two days. People who have tried it report losing as much weight as with other diets.

Proponents of fasting claim that it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, reduce “bad” cholesterol levels, and improve insulin sensitivity. Some studies even suggest that intermittent fasting strengthens the immune system and can slow down the spread of tumors!

Fast carefully

There are issues and risks associated with excessive fasting, too:

  • Dehydration: we get a lot of liquids with food, so those who fast must make sure to drink two liters of water a day; the main symptom of dehydration is headache.
  • Glucose deprivation – our brain works on glucose, so cutting out carbs fully when you fast (or fasting too intensely) can be bad for your cognitive function;
  • Ketosis – when deprived of carbs, the body switches to making urgent fuel called ketones; this is what many strive for, but in fact, ketosis is an unhealthy condition associated with high blood acidity (more info here);
  • Stress for the body – if your body believes you won’t feed it anymore, it can go into urgency mode and actually start saving fat! For this reason, scientists propose the so-called FMD (fasting-mimicking diet), which is low in protein but high in healthy fats, such as olive oil.

Eat healthy, but don’t give up food

If you feel the need to change your diet during Lent, don’t be too hard on yourself – don’t try to give up all the tasty things! It’s ok to give up meat, but make sure to include lots of protein from fish, beans, and tofu. Eat lots of veggies and fruit, whole grains, and honey. Whatever your reason for keeping Lent, don’t make your body suffer too much – instead, concentrate on being kind to others!

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