A reader writes:
I've been on a low-carb diet for several months, and it's made a big difference in my life. But now that Lent has started, I'm in a bind. I normally observe the older rules for fasting in Lent (only one full meal each day, no snacks, and meat only at the main meal), but most of the things I've eaten in past Lents have been high-carb--lots of bread, pasta, etc. Do I need to give up my diet in order to observe Lent the way I'm accustomed to?
First of all, congratulations! As someone who has struggled with his own weight over the years, I know what a relief it is to feel like you're finally making progress. And no, you don't need to give up your diet in order to follow your normal Lenten discipline. There are, however, a few important things to keep in mind.
The most important is to recognize that dieting and fasting are different activities, with different aims. The way that you've phrased your question--"Do I need to give up my diet in order to observe Lent"--indicates that you understand this, but many people don't quite get the distinction.
Dieting is aimed at the health of the body, and while it may have spiritual benefits, those are incidental to its primary purpose. The primary aim of fasting, on the other hand, is spiritual. We fast as a form of penance, but we also fast in order to bring the body more fully under the control of the soul. One of the effects of Original Sin is to put the body at war with the soul, instead of subordinate to it. Fasting aims at restoring the proper relationship between body and soul, for the good of the entire human being. (For a deeper explanation of the purpose of fasting, see Pope Benedict's Message for Lent 2009.)
For that reason, when we fast, we shouldn't be concerned about whether we're losing weight or gaining weight--and yes, if you're the kind of person (as I am) who can benefit from a low-carb diet, it is possible to gain weight while fasting if the limited food that you do eat is high in carbs. Instead, we need to focus on the purpose of fasting. One thing that helps is simply not to weigh yourself during Lent (unless, of course, you're under a doctor's orders to do so). If you're constantly checking your weight, then you're not really fasting; you're dieting.
But that doesn't mean that your meals have to consist of bread and spaghetti and tuna noodle casserole. Laura Dolson, the About.com Guide to Low-Carb Diets, has put together a nice selection of low-carb recipes for Lent, and you can find links to them on my Lenten Recipes page.
As a spiritual practice, fasting is the voluntary renunciation of something that is good (food in general, or various types of food) for something that is better (the reintegration of body and soul). With that in mind, you can easily make the diet that you're following part of your own fasting rules.
Just don't elevate the health of the body above the health of the soul. In other words, don't subordinate your Lenten fast to your dieting, and everything will be fine.
If you have a question that you would like to have featured in our "Reader Questions" series, send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.
Resources on Fasting and Abstinence:
- Fasting: A Powerful Spiritual Tool
- Abstinence as Spiritual Discipline
- What Are the Rules for Fasting and Abstinence in the Catholic Church?
- Lenten Recipes
- Reader Question: Should We Fast on Sundays?
- Reader Question: Abstinence and the Spirit of the Law
- Reader Question: When Is a Sacrifice Not a Sacrifice?
- Reader Question: Should My Children Fast?
- Pope Benedict's Message for Lent 2009