If you’ve ever fasted during Lent, then you will probably have heard about fasting as a means of spiritual discipline. And rightly so! It’s a very obvious detour from our normal day-to-day living, creating an opportunity for us to practice fruitful self-denial and repentance so that we may make space for the riches of grace to renew our hearts. While a beautiful spiritual opportunity, fasting may bring about some dread due to the physically challenging nature of it. And for some, this challenging aspect may be heightened by a lack of “metabolic preparation” due to nutrition practices in our day-to-day life. Read on as we discuss several practical tips you can start doing to make fasting physically doable (but not necessarily a cake walk!) so that you can open yourself up to that deeper conversion of heart made possible during Lenten fasting.
Why do Catholics fast during Lent?
Scripture tells us that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert as part of a spiritual journey and overcoming temptation from the Devil. We also remember Jesus’ passion and death during Lent. While we are not obligated to fully fast for the 40 days of Lent (phew!), we are called as Catholics to participate in three activities in Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These three activities are meant to help us renew our interior life, to purify us and redirect our hearts towards the true, the good, and the beautiful.
What are the “rules” for fasting in Lent?
On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics are obligated to fast, which may include only one full meal and up to two smaller meals, and those smaller meals combined should not equal the one full meal. You can think of the smaller meals as snacks, really. Also, Catholics should refrain from eating meat on these two special days, as well as all Fridays during the Lenten season. In some parts of the world the guidance for Friday fasting applies throughout the liturgical year, not just in Lent.
Fasting should be both physically and spiritually enriching
Fasting during Lent is often discussed for its penitential nature and spiritual enrichment. On the other hand, the conversation around fasting amongst health gurus is often limited to its physical benefits. But the truth is that you should see fasting as both spiritual AND physically enriching. Preparing physically can help you make this spiritual practice a reality. While fasting isn’t supposed to be a walk in the park, for some people it can be excessively challenging. The reason may be that the body is not prepared to fast. If fasting feels excessively challenging on the body, this may be a sign of a need to support metabolic health.
What you need in order to prepare your body to fast
Our pathways of metabolism need to be prepped for fasting. If you are stuck in what may be called “sugar burning metabolism”, you’ll probably feel awful during fasting. In this case, the body is reliant on quick sources of sugar and carbs. In this type of metabolic state, the absence of those foods, like during fasting, can lead to feeling physically stressed due to blood sugar and stress hormone imbalances. However, prepping your metabolism to be flexible at using some body fat stores as an alternate source of energy during times of fasting can help keep your body in balance despite a temporary hiatus from food. When done appropriately, fasting occasionally can actually be physically restorative, through reduction in inflammation, cell repair, and more.
So you can see that fasting can be both physically and spiritually enriching. This highlights the beauty of the way God created us – that activities that truly support our bodies should also support our spirits, and vice versa.
How to prepare your body to fast during Lent (and beyond)
The way we are eating daily sets us up either for achievable or nearly impossible fasting. As a registered dietitian, I have seen so many women that I have worked with flourish not only in body but also in mind and spirit by making some foundational adjustments in their eating patterns to support better metabolic health. These also happen to be foundational nutrition principles for supporting fertility.
Here’s a simple two-step process to adjust your nutrition you can use to prepare your body to fast during Lent and beyond.
Two practical nutrition steps to take to prepare to fast
Eat enough foods rich in protein, healthy fat, and fiber at all meals. I like to call this trifecta of nutrition PFF. At the very least, prioritize protein – around 30g or more (depending on individual needs).
When eating carb-rich foods, choose whole or minimally processed carb foods and always pair them with a source of protein.
Step 1 can help you to feel full between meals, enabling you to begin doing what can be called the most basic of all fasts – fasting about four hours between meals. Being able to fast in small ways first, like four hours between meals, can help you to be able to fast for the occasional longer fast like during Lent. Step 2 is a way to moderate carbohydrate intake so as to not create spikes in blood sugar, which can lead to blood sugar crashes often accompanied by cravings, poor mood or irritability, and fatigue. Combining steps 1 and 2 together makes up a foundational nutrition strategy to help keep blood sugar in better balance, leading to steadier energy, mood, and reduced cravings. That’s a recipe for feeling great throughout the day, in body, mind and spirit.
The benefits of fasting are both physical and spiritual
Just think of how much more present and aware you could be to God’s presence if you could feel more at peace in your body. Less time and mental energy battling cravings or contemplating the next snack or fill up on coffee. More time and better mental energy to diligently carry out your daily duties. And a deeper ability to stay present to God. What a beautiful way to live!
In addition to the foundational nutrition principles stated above, getting adequate sleep and healthy stress management also support better blood sugar balance and therefore the ability to fast.
What to give up for Lent
If carrying out healthy nutrition or lifestyle practices is something you struggle with, Lent can be a time to invite the Lord in to renew these areas as part of a Lenten sacrifice. Of course Lent is not meant to be just a second chance New Year’s resolution, but fostering better physical health through prayerful action can be a beautiful way to honor the integrated nature with which God created us. Be encouraged. Fasting during Lent need not be a source of dread. Rather, it can finally be a welcome opportunity to support your physical health and spiritual health together in an integrated way. This Lent, consider how you can better prepare your body so your spirit can flourish.