GUEST POST: An [Aspiring] Dietician's Guide To Fasting This Lenten Season

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ash Wednesday (which falls on March 1st, 2017) is right around the corner, marking the beginning of the liturgical season Lent. Fellow Catholics, this means we’re likely going to hear all about the Lenten trifecta “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving” in this Sunday’s homily as we begin this year’s penitential journey.

Prayer and almsgiving are two of my favorite ways to give glory to God, but fasting? Now that’s something I really struggle with. As a highly active, food-loving, aspiring registered dietitian (RD) with a hearty appetite (I’ve been known to eat the leftovers in the car on the way home from the restaurant), food is my business card. I am surrounded by it 24/7. And this makes fasting really difficult for me. I’m sure it’s difficult for you, too, if you love food as much as I do.

During my teenage years and my earlier adult years, I begrudgingly obeyed the fasting rules simply because it was what I was “supposed to do” as a Roman Catholic. However, since I started avidly listening to Relevant Radio in college, I’ve learned that fasting can have immense spiritual benefits. Curious to know more about these spiritual benefits, I consulted Fr. Slavko Barbaric’s book Fast with the Heart and learned that fasting can change hearts, end wars, work miracles, and bring peace, joy, healing, humility, purity, clarity of mind, and victory over evil – and that just scratches the surface.

I’ve also learned that fasting does not have to be miserable. Rather, fasting can (and should) be a joyful experience. According to Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. in an article for the Catholic News Agency, “[fasting is] the joy of deepening our relationship with Christ, and therefore coming closer to Him. It’s the joy of loving Him more, and the more we love God, the closer we draw to Him.”

Desiring to transform my fasting from an obligatory, routine Lenten practice into a joyful and fruitful experience, I set out to apply my knowledge about food and eating behaviors in order to create the “Catholic [aspiring] Dietitian’s Guide to Lenten Fasting”.

It should be noted that the scientific literature presents mixed results about fasting for health benefits. However, fasting for one day (if you are healthy) will not hurt your health. And the Church isn’t asking us to fast for extended periods of time. Thus, these guidelines are intended for short-term (i.e. day-long) fasts and should not be used for attempting weight loss or achieving other health benefits. If you desire help in managing your weight or a disease through your diet, consult your physician and local RD.

Alas, here they are- the future RD’s tips for having a successful and transformative fast:

Know the rules

What does it mean to “fast” and “abstain”?
Fasting means eating only one “full” or “normal-sized” meal plus two “snacks” or “small meals” in a day with no other snacks in between. The two “snacks” or “small meals”, when put together, should be smaller than the size of the “normal-sized’ meal. Beverages may be consumed as often as necessary, and any beverage may be consumed. However, I limit my caffeine intake because it makes me feel shaky if I haven’t eaten much (as a graduate student, coffee is my fuel. I promise, it’s not so bad to give it up 2 days out of the year). I also don’t drink alcohol on fast days since drinking on an empty stomach is usually never a good idea.

Abstinence simply means refraining from eating meat. Abstinence laws refer to “meat” as the flesh of animals that live on land, such as chickens, cows, sheep, and pigs. While broth, sauces, and gravies made from or flavored with the flesh of these animals are technically allowed, moral theologians argue that we must avoid them on days of abstinence. However, byproducts of these animals, such as eggs, cheese, milk, and yogurt, are allowed. Because fish are technically not land animals, it is not necessary to refrain from eating them on days of abstinence. It is also not necessary to abstain from eating shellfish, saltwater and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, and shellfish. Amphibians are not my thing, but if you’re craving some frog legs on a Lenten Friday night, go for it.

As an aspiring RD, I think abstinence has health benefits in addition to spiritual benefits. A large body of scientific research shows that reducing your meat intake (especially red meat) and consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and plant-based proteins (what up tofu, edamame, lentils, and legumes?!) is great for preventing heart disease and cancer while also optimizing the health of your digestive tract. Limiting our meat intake is also good for our planet, our “common home” which Pope Francis reminds us to care for in his 2015 papal encyclical Laudato Si. I’m not saying you need to become a vegetarian. What I am saying, though, is that instead of lamenting the meatless rule with your usual cheese pizza or fish fry, embrace it by turning Lenten Friday night into a date night or family night where you prepare some new plant-based recipes together! I think you will find that being joyful in your sacrifice makes it more worthwhile.

When are we supposed to fast and abstain?
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. Fridays during Lent are also obligatory days of abstinence. Giving up meat for the entire duration of Lent is a common practice, but it is not required.

In other words, we only eat our one “normal-sized” meal plus our two “small meals” (no meat allowed) on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On the other Fridays of Lent, we are only required to abstain from meat. However, if you want to fast, too, more power to you.

Who is supposed to fast and abstain?
All Roman Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are required to follow the guidelines for fasting and abstinence. If you are older than 59 years of age and would like to fast, you are certainly welcome to as long as you are able. All Roman Catholics between ages 14 and 17 are required to follow the rules only for abstinence, but may participate in fasting if they desire and are able. Those who are excused from the fasting and abstinence rules are those whose age is outside the limits and those who are physically or mentally ill. This includes individuals suffering from chronic diseases where regular eating regularly is vital for disease management, such as in diabetes or certain eating disorders. Pregnant and lactating women are also exempted from the fasting and abstinence rules. Ultimately, the decision is left up to the individual and/or the individual’s caretaker/guardian if there is any question about fasting. The USCCB states that common sense ought to prevail when determining if fasting and abstinence are appropriate for a specific individual.

If you are unable to fast from food but still want to participate in fasting, consider “fasting” from something else that plays a role in your daily life, such as mindlessly browsing social media, listening to music in the car, or watching television. When choosing something to sacrifice, think about how fasting from it may deepen your relationship with Christ.

Get to know your normal eating patterns

Once you’ve decided if you are able to fast, you need a plan for how you’re going to do it. Before we actually get to making the “fast day” plan, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with your usual eating schedule and habits. I know it seems silly, but I promise that this is the most important step in having a successful fast. You’ve got to know what you’re working with before you make any changes. My suggestion for determining your usual eating habits is to keep a food diary for 2 days. Each day, write down everything you eat and drink, the times you eat and drink them, and how hungry you feel when you eat them. You can even keep the diary in your smart phone if carrying around a piece of paper and a pen is too troublesome. My favorite app/website for tracking what I eat is Health Watch 360. MyFitnessPal is also a popular choice. This way, you know what foods you usually eat, how many times a day you eat, and what you tend to eat when you are the hungriest. Keeping a food diary for myself was really helpful because it made me realize that I eat 4 similar-sized meals each day, and I tend to eat sugary or sweet foods when I am really hungry. Knowing these things about my eating habits helped me to come up with a “fast day” plan that worked for me.

Make a “fast day” eating plan

Now that you know your usual eating habits and patterns, you can create a “fast day” plan that incorporates your usual foods and your usual meal times. Just like people think they need to eat completely different foods (i.e. “follow a diet”) in order to lose some weight, I know a lot of people who think they need to change their eating habits completely to have a successful fast day. From working with clients and my own experiences, I know that this is simply not true. People tend to have better success with fasting when they incorporate the foods they usually eat into their “fast day” menu, just like people who want to lose weight have more success if they don’t completely eliminate all the foods that are a part of their everyday life. The key here is the amount of food you allow yourself to eat at your “normal-sized” meal and your two “small meals”

So how do you determine your “fast day” menu? Well, start by looking at your food diary and determine which meal you want to be your “normal-sized” meal. This is the meal on which you will not change any of the portion sizes. Personally, I like to pick my lunchtime meal to be my “normal-sized” meal because I don’t want to wait until the end of the day when I am starving to eat a full meal.

The next step is to eliminate everything you eat between meals so that you only have 2 meals outside of your “normal-sized” meal. Yes, I know, this is tough, but I promise you will survive without your favorite afternoon pick-me-up for 2 days out of the year.

Now that you’ve determined what your “normal-sized” meal is and eliminated the other foods you eat between meals so that you’ve got your menu narrowed down to 3 normal sized meals, the next step is to take the two meals that you did not pick to be your “normal-sized” meal and cut the serving size in half. For example, I usually eat a bowl of oatmeal with a banana and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter for breakfast every morning, so my “fast day” breakfast would be half a bowl of oatmeal with half a banana and 1 tablespoon of peanut butter. This way, I can still eat the foods that are part of my normal day, but in an amount that is appropriate for fasting.

The final step is to eliminate any meat that is left in your choices. For example, if you chose your grilled chicken dinner as your “normal-sized” meal, consider replacing the chicken with a salmon fillet or a black bean burger.

Other considerations for building your “fast day” menu include eliminating the foods that you eat when you are the hungriest, limiting sugary foods and foods high in refined carbohydrates, and consuming protein-rich foods that are filling, such as nuts, fish, and beans. Often times, eating the foods you tend to go for when you are the hungriest may make you want to eat more. That’s ok on normal days, but the hungrier you are on fast days, the more difficult it is to continue your fast. The same goes for simple carbohydrates. Simple, refined carbohydrates (like cookies, cakes, and sugary cereals) can make you hungrier, which can drive you crazy when you are trying to limit your food intake. Filling up on non-meat, protein-rich foods and vegetables can help keep you fuller between meals on your fast days while also supplying your body with all sorts of good nutrients.

If you are new to fasting or have had trouble with it in the past (like I have), I suggest eating a late dinner the night before and eating a little more than usual at that time. Despite what it has become, Fat Tuesday (more commonly known as Mardi Gras) is the day before Ash Wednesday, and it is intended to be a celebration where fattier, richer, and more filling foods are eaten before a fast begins. So take advantage of Mardi Gras and add a little extra something you like to your diet to “top off” your tank before you begin your Ash Wednesday fast.

Now that you have your “fast day” meal plan, make sure you write it down BEFORE your fast day so you know exactly what you are going to do! If you write it down, chances are you’ll actually stick to it.

Lastly, when you are ready to break your fast, try to resume your normal eating habits. While it may be tempting to “reward” yourself after fasting with a large steak dinner or a special occasion meal from your favorite restaurant, having a “reward” for your fast undermines the sacrificial meaning of your fast. With that being said, it’s important for your fast to have meaning so that it changes you and deepens your relationship with Christ. We must have greater intentions than ourselves for our fasts.

Be intentional

It’s tough to do something for the sake of doing it. Fasting is no exception. As I’ve already said, fasting is really challenging for me. However, I find that it I am more disciplined when I intentionally make a sacrifice for a cause other than myself. Discipline is important for adhering to the teachings of our faith and evangelizing in a world where Christianity is under attack. Right now, my intention when I practice fasting is my fiancĂ© and our future marriage. It is my hope that practicing making sacrifices now through fasting will strengthen my discipline for being the wife God has called me to be for my future husband. Before you begin your fast, think about “intentions” for which you would like to fast. Whether it be a family member, a friend, our world’s leaders, or a cause (e.g. the sanctity of life), know that when you fast for someone else, it makes it that much easier to say “no” to the cookie tempting you between your “normal-sized” meal and your “small meals” on your fast day.

Pair it with prayer

Like peanut butter and jelly, fasting and prayer just go together. Fasting is hard, and it’s even more difficult without prayer. When we fast, we may experience an uncomfortable physical weakness in our bodies. Prayer gives us the spiritual strength and discipline to persevere in our weakness. Although our physical strength is restored when we break our fast, our spiritual strength continues to grow if we have included it in our fast. Begin and end your fast with prayer. Not sure how to pray during a fast? Visit Live the Fast for some inspiration. Also consider attending daily mass or Eucharistic Adoration on your fast days. Praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3:00pm Central Time with Drew Mariani on Relevant Radio and the Rosary are also great options. Note that your intention from step 4 can also be a part of your fasting prayer. When you invite prayer into your fast, your fast becomes more fruitful. Your belly may be relatively empty, but your heart will be full.

It is my hope that following these 5 steps will help you have a more joyful and fruitful fasting experience this Lenten season. Even if you heed my suggestions, it may take some practice to fine-tune the details in order to make your fast your own. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it right the first couple times. Fasting takes practice. You will be physically hungry and uncomfortable during a fast, but learning to satisfy the spiritual hunger will strengthen your discipline and your relationship with Christ. After all, the sacrifice we make through fasting is merely a fraction of the sacrifice Christ made for us on the cross.

God bless,

Patty Nonnie is a devout Roman Catholic, a bride-to-be, and a nutrition and physical performance dietetic intern/2017 Master of Science candidate at Saint Louis University. Even though she’s busy wedding planning and juggling her internship responsibilities, Patty makes time to enjoy the things she loves, such as spending carefree timelessness with her fiancĂ©, cooking, riding her road bike around St. Louis, strolling through the Missouri Botanical Gardens, reading for pleasure, and listening to Relevant Radio. You may contact Patty at

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