We’re less than a week into Lent and I’m already so done with fasting. Specifically, with people who can’t stop rubbing their fasts in everyone else’s faces, who lament that the Church has become “too lenient” with the fasts She prescribes, who think that the more extreme something is, the better, and who try to justify it appealing to health.
Far be it from me to condemn fasting or penance in general. But I want to talk in this post to all those people who’ve discerned that this practice isn’t what God’s asking from them, so they don’t feel like they’re worse Catholics or “lenient”.
Distracting from God
One of the main purposes of fasting is to remove things that distract you from God. Does food distract you from God? Or, on the contrary, it’s something that takes you closer to Him, an instrument to grow towards Him?
I think that’s why it’s good that there aren’t so many prescribed fasts anymore, not to do less sacrifices, but as an opportunity to broaden the meaning of this word, taking it beyond food, to which I believe sometimes an excessive emphasis is given. What’s the thing that, even if it’s licit in itself, is distracting you from God? That’s what you should fast from.
There are people who say it’s also to have more mental clarity and therefore meditate about the divine things better. Certainly, when I have the best mental clarity is when I eat, when my mind has energy to work properly. The brain requires a constant supply of glucose, which comes from the digestion of carbohydrates.
In periods of starvation, the liver generates ketone bodies from the fatty acids, which serve to partially replace glucose as fuel for your brain. But it’s not the preferred source, nor the most effective one, nor a sustainable one . Of course, you might feel so elevated, that’s a common feeling with prolonged fasting, feeling as if you were high basically, but in fact you’re keeping certain functions below minimum, and it’s just your body trying to keep you alert as a mechanism for survival and so you can get food. I don’t feel my mind “muddled” when I eat and swift when I don’t, but all the opposite: wake, agile… good.
Moreover, it’s important to pay attention to what I’ve said about the liver, since fasting, contrary to the popular belief that it “cleanses” the organism, what does is overworking the liver loading it with metabolic toxins produced by the processes fasting induces to obtain energy; at the same time, it decreases its ability to destroy and excrete those.
In fact, if something’s clear is that fasting ends up causing brain shrinkage and an impairment of cognitive functions, such as processing information, thinking, reasoning with a certain complexity and even having your feelings and emotions in order. This happens with anorexia, which at the end of the day is a fasting in its physical sense. Your intention for fasting doesn’t matter, the physical outcomes are going to be the same. You can even develop a chronic memory loss syndrome called Korsakoff syndrome. The only way to prevent this is by eating enough so as to maintain a weight that’s healthy for you, regularly.
And if you thinks that cognitive deficits only happen in very extreme cases of very prolonged fasts such as with anorexia… maybe that’s not true. There are studies that start to show these brain problems with short fasts. Others don’t, granted —most likely, because each person is different and reacts in a different way—, but certainly none of them shows an increase of cognitive faculties that could justify this belief.
Temperance and moderation
Of course, we need to eat only the amounts we really need, and most people tend to eat more than they should during the year and therefore it’s good for them to use this season to reduce their intake… Then Lent is a fabulous time to fight a vice and take responsibility of the Temple of your body. But, if you practice temperance and see you’re eating just what you need because you’re maintaining your weight, why would you use this time to break a virtue —it seems as if temperance could only be broken by excess, but that’s false…— and demolish your Temple?
And, anyway, even in the first case, losing weight this way should be done with great care, because it’s quite a long season so as to do extreme dieting without losing a lot of muscle mass and developing deficiencies of micronutrients.
There are people who are so in favor of the concept of “feasting & fasting”, understood as living the feasting seasons of the Church with feasts and the somber ones with fasting. It sounds nice, but it’s nothing but a way to try to christianize the disordered behavior of bingeing and restricting.
I, without a doubt, prefer to practice moderation all year long, instead of stuffing my face until it hurts some days and starve myself other days. I’d rather listen to my body and do those things naturally depending on what it’s asking, that is, for example, if there’s a feast day and I eat something special, the next day I can see whether I feel more full and therefore I don’t have to eat as much as in a normal day… or maybe I do because one day really doesn’t matter that much.
Number of meals a day
Neither do I see the point of limiting the number of meals a day to 3, a big one and 2 small ones. Again, why force yourself to eat until you’re super full at one meal, and however feel bad the rest of the day? Oh, so that’s not what you should do at the main meal… well, then you’re going to lose weight. And that’s not good or healthy for everyone.
And arbitrarily restricting food times seems absurd to me. It totally sounds like an eating disorder. There are people for whom this eating pattern works well, then amazing, keep following it. There are people who snack compulsively all day long, hey, then they might try this and see if they can give up the habit. For the rest of us, if 4, 5, 6 or whatever number of meals you eat works well for you, just keep going. That is, if your relationship with food is already in order, why would you mess it up in Lent? Work on what’s disordered in your life.
Some say that in fact that’s what our nature demands… I think they’re mixing up what we can bear and what we should do. The human body can survive to many limiting situations, it always fights to keep you alive. That doesn’t mean you have to test how far it can go.
In fact, it’s the same problem than with intermittent fasting. If it’s so natural, why setting arbitrary times? Why not trying to learn to eat intuitively instead? And some days eating one or zero meals a day if that’s what you fancy, and other days 8… Oh, so that’s not how it works, only the first instance is valid…
Well, for me, any diet that teaches you to ignore your body cues instead of to honor them must be rejected. Even if they try to christianize it. Because, even if I’m rambling at this point since it doesn’t have to do with Lent, I want to touch on this too. I’m tired of people trying to justify intermittent fasting by saying that it’s what’s been done more through History, or that it’s what the Church was deep down promoting, because She’s so wise.
To start with, I don’t know what —when— they mean by history, because that’s precisely why we humans went from Paleolithic to Neolithic, in order to have food available with more regularity, that was the natural instinct, if the fasting-hunting big animals cycle had been so good and natural, we wouldn’t have felt the need to aspire to something better. But anyway, whatever period of history they choose, I bet they’re eating things they didn’t eat back then.
And that Church stuff… I bet they don’t think the same about all the rest of the science taught by the Church through the centuries. It’s not infallible when it comes to these things, the fact that one or other saint had an opinion, or even did research about something doesn’t mean it has to be the absolute truth. And, despite all the hype around it, the truth is that serious studies about fasting and intermittent fasting say nothing special, not in humans, long-term, separated from weight loss. Although I already spoke at length about that in this post and more in this other post.
More dangers of fasting
I don’t see then why a fast (in the strict sense of food), the more prolonged and extreme the better, is what some think must be promoted in Lent. Just the fact that children, the elderly, pregnant women and sick people are exempt should give us a clue that it can’t be so good. For healthy individuals without anomalies, reducing their intake a bit might not have negative effects. Except if it makes you lose weight when you shouldn’t, of course. And if you can’t afford that, artificially changing the schedule of your meals to have less meals it’s nonsense and goes against nature.
Well, there is actually a general negative effect that people usually don’t talk about, and it’s the rapid excretion of sodium and potassium, which can cause an imbalance of electrolytes. This may provoke hypotension and even alter the heart rhythm. In fact, during periods of fasting it’s recommended to take sodium and potassium supplements, and increasing your consumption of salt in order to mitigate the losses, but that’s often silenced. And I’ve always defended that a diet that requires supplements no matter what isn’t healthy.
Other dangers are anemia, weakening of the inmune system, osteoporosis and damages in the liver, the kidneys and the intestines. So, if you’re prone to any of those things, you should be very careful.
Other ways to fast
Therefore, fasting in Lent will be healthy, basically, if you need to lose weight and you don’t even do it like crazy either. If you’re already at your set point, it might not be harmful, but I don’t quite see the point, since then in order to maintain your weight you will reduce your activity levels, and that’s more negative.
It’s much better to fast from those practices in your diet that aren’t so healthy. Learning to respect your body. Only then you’ll truly be able to say this quote that’s so trendy lately, that praying is loving God, giving alms is loving others and fasting is loving oneself.
Or you can fast from other things. There are many people who fast from social media, TV or music, but there are even more creative fasts, such as fasting from talking bad to others or from talking bad to yourself. In the end, in this case I don’t care it isn’t the traditional practice, because unlike most innovations, this one is a huge enrichment for the practices of the Church, that allows us to live much more in depth the true meaning of fasting.
Correcting disorders, removing what drives you away from God or distracts you from Him, depriving yourself from those things that consume your time or energy to devote those more fully to the Lord in a special way these days, preventing a worldly thing from becoming the center of your life, removing excessive attachments, dominating passions and impulses… All the alternative fasts are valid ways to offer a penance, and the benefits will be greater the more meaningful it’s for your life in particular. Fasting from food is only meaningful for some people.
Fasting and holiness
For all these reasons, eating as little as possible doesn’t make you a saint. Even if that was your intention, as I explained here. And, of course, pride, self-glorification and go everywhere announcing how much you’re fasting doesn’t help.
So, if people around you are fasting and belittling those who aren’t, don’t worry, don’t feel like you’re failing God or you’re not doing enough. Discern what sacrifice is going to help purify your soul and take you closer to God, really making you grow in love towards Him, others and yourself, in the right order and with the virtue of temperance.