Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dieting with Lady Lent

(Detail: Bruegel the Elder, "The Battle between Carnival and Lent")

Dieting and Lent should really go together like peanut butter and jelly or like fish and chips, shouldn't they? In the Middle Ages Christians gave up meat and sometimes dairy products for the entire 40 days of Lent (calculated without counting Sundays), and today many people still perform some kind of synechdochic fast by giving up favorite foods. Nor are Christians alone in such penitential practices, of course: the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur requires fasting, as does Ramadan in Islam. Therefore, the weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday ought to offer Lent-observant Christians both practical opportunity and spiritual motivation to say "no" to whichever fattening foods might present particular challenges to their willpower, right? Why not hire the Middle Ages' allegorical figure Lady Lent (above, as pictured by Bruegel) as your diet coach?

Unfortunately, I'm not totally convinced it's that easy on either the religious or the dietary side. On the religious side, the potential substitution of a selfish motivation for the intended one is problematic: Lent is supposed to be about mindfully making sacrifices to prepare yourself spiritually for Easter. In a small way (a very very small way, for most of us!), a Christian is trying to emulate Christ's 40 days without food or water in the desert and to think about God when temptation comes knocking. Using Lent for dieting purposes, though, risks substituting self-interested vanity for real sacrifice and penance - the primary goal of those 40 days shouldn't be garnering post-Easter compliments for looking fitter and slimmer.

And on the dietary side, the problem is that Lenten sacrifice only lasts until Easter Sunday, when you finally get to dig into whichever foods you've been denying yourself. Lent can be useful for breaking bad habits cold turkey - once I decide to give up a certain food as of Ash Wednesday, that's an effective way to stop eating something I've otherwise had trouble resisting on a daily basis. But then Easter eventually arrives and the motivation provided by Lent disappears: the psychology inherent in observing a fixed period of penance doesn't create a lifestyle change. Instead, seeing Lent as a diet reinforces the most dangerous temptation built into dieting, the trap of (mis)understanding a diet as a period of self-denial you suffer through until you hit your target weight, at which point you can and definitely do celebrate - and then you fall back into all your old eating habits and soon you're searching your closet for the larger-sized clothes you thought you'd never have to wear again.

So, after all this pondering, what am I doing this Lent? I did give up unhealthy salty snacks like pretzels, potato chips, etc., in an effort to at least break the habit of putting them into the shopping cart and reaching for a handful or two most nights. Likewise cookies, though on my office bookshelf there's an unopened box of Girl Scout cookies I bought from a coworker's daughter, which I suspect won't last long on the Monday after Easter. It does take effort to do this, but I can't deny that they're really dietarily-motivated "sacrifices" more than anything else; I'm using Lent as a willpower supplement to stop scarfing down fatty calories that go straight to my midriff.

On the other hand, I also gave up meat this year, sticking to vegetarian and fish/seafood meals the way my grandparents and great-grandparents would have done in pre-Vatican II days. For me that mainly entails giving up chicken and turkey, which are not only fairly healthful but are also a big part of my regular diet - it's a Lenten decision that narrows my eating options, especially in restaurants, and it does force me to be mindful without yielding the obvious dietary benefits of giving up potato chips and Oreos. Who knows? Perhaps some spiritual benefits will turn up instead.

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