I’ve spent about two-thirds of the Lents of the last few decades either pregnant or nursing. In other words, holding a get-out-of-fasting-free card. But since my late 40s just rolled around, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to draw that card again. Which is why I had to face the truth last Lent that I’m lousy at fasting.
My typical fast was a half English muffin in the morning, a small egg salad lunch and then a pasta and cheese dinner with some fruit and bread. In spite of plenty of fluids, there were still the headaches, the tiredness, the constant thoughts of wanting to eat. All of which was followed by the guilt about what a weak person I was—I couldn’t even skip a meal—or part of a meal!—without getting cranky and exhausted.
So how the heck does this draw people closer to God? As a Catholic, I know that fasting is an essential part of life in Christ. But all I was thinking about was food and how terrible I felt.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Not long after my fasting failures of Lent 2018, I started reading about Intermittent Fasting (IF) as a medical protocol, primarily the writing of Dr. Jason Fung. A Canadian nephrologist whose client base is largely insulin-resistant diabetics, Fung has pioneered a method of eating that addresses the hormonal roots of obesity and diabetes and their attendant maladies.
It’s simple. Don’t eat sometimes. That’s right, fast. Skip breakfast and don’t eat after dinner. Give yourself an eating window. For instance, I normally only eat between 1:30-6:00 PM each day.
Without enumerating all the health benefits that studies and personal testimony have revealed, I’d like to share what IF has taught me about hunger, because I think this information has the power to help us Catholics fast well. Yes, fasting should be and is a sacrifice. But the spiritual benefits of fasting well will outweigh the benefits of fasting poorly. For one thing, fasting poorly means we are far less likely to fast often. I can fast well now (and therefore much more often and spiritually beneficially) because I finally figured out hunger, and so can you. Know this:
1) Hunger is in your mind, not your stomach.
According to Dr. Fung and others, hunger is a conditioned response, not the result of an empty stomach. Your stomach is empty in the middle of the night, but if you wake to tend the baby, do you need to go eat a sandwich? Most of us are familiar with Pavlov’s dogs—they came to associate the man in a white coat and the bell he rang with food. Soon, whenever they perceived those stimuli they became hungry (as measured by salivation). They were not hungry because of empty stomachs but because of a bell. Our “bell” is the times of day we’re accustomed to eating; the places we’re accustomed to eating (if you always get popcorn at the theater you’ll be hungry as soon as you sit down); the sight or smell of food; and perhaps other stimuli.
2) You can break the conditioned response.
If Pavlov had wanted to break the conditioned response, he could have easily. Simply fail to ring the bell and have little girls in blue dresses bring the food one day. The next day, beat a drum and send the food in on a conveyor belt. You get the idea. Are you hungry at 7 AM every day because your stomach is empty? No, it is because you are accustomed to eating at 7 AM every day. Break that conditioned response by NOT eating then. Only eat at the table, so that you don’t feel hungry every time you get in the car, plop down to read, or watch a movie. Keep busy during the timeframe of your conditioned response. I can always find a quick job around the house to occupy my hands when I’m fasting and hunger nags. And a quick job is usually enough because—
3) Hunger is temporary; it comes in waves.
Learning this was huge for me, as was learning ways that help me ride out the wave. Yes, hunger pangs are real. But as you have probably noticed when they come at times when you can’t eat—at Mass, before a medical procedure, when you just don’t have time to eat—they go away. Try these tricks for riding them out: coffee (yay!) or tea with no sweeteners of any kind or a cold cup of water with a dash of salt (which fights dehydration).
4) What you eat affects how you feel while fasting.
You knew this was coming: the anti-carb diatribe. Eating carbs regularly makes fasting much more difficult. Why was it that the Lenten fast I described above made me miserable, but now I can eat in a window of only 4.5 hours a day, eat less, and feel great? Because what I eat now is typically high in healthy fat, moderately high in protein, and low in carbs. Before, the carbs I ate were pushing my blood sugar up so that its drop caused a natural hormonal response that felt like I needed to eat. Now, though I’m grateful to sit down to a good meal at 1:30 most days, I don’t feel starved, because my body hasn’t been yoyo-ing all day due to carb intake. And when I’m busy or it’s more convenient, I’ve found it is not difficult to postpone eating until 3:00 or later. In addition to having broken the conditioned response, this is due to what I am eating.
I’ve now come to better understand the spiritual giants who lived a life of fasting, like St. Anthony of the Desert. I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult for him, but I don’t think he felt crappy like I used to. I imagine he felt free, more like I do now. Leveraged properly, fasting can break your over-reliance on food. For someone like me who used to be afraid not to eat breakfast, it is truly freeing to know that I do not need to eat.
I started fasting for my health, but quickly realized the benefits need not be only physical. I have more time to pray and to serve others; a greater awareness of those who go without; freed up funds with which to bless the less fortunate; mental clarity and increased energy (as a result of ditching the carbs) that I can apply to prayer and to my vocation; and better health, too, since my chronic headaches have mostly disappeared and I’ve lost 20 pounds in six months—13 percent of my previous weight. (I weigh less now than I did in high school and have more energy than I’ve had in years.)
Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes I fail. Christmas cookies were a problem. But I am so much happier to give God the good gift of sacrificing things like eating whenever I want and eating things that aren’t good for me versus giving him the gift of my old fasting—a day of miserable grouchiness.
My last piece of advice: start small. But start now.
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