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

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 fiancé 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

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 fiancé, 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 patricia.nonnie@gmail.com.

Ashton Kutcher’s Testimony On Child Trafficking Reminds Us Of The Damage Porn Can Do

Ashton Kutcher delivered an emotional and disturbing testimony today to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing on modern day slavery and human sex trafficking across the globe.

Kutcher is the founder and chairman of an organization called Thorn, which builds and utilizes software that works to combat child trafficking and the online distribution of child pornography throughout the world.

You can watch his testimony here.

This is an issue that’s been somewhat widely-circulated in recent years, as more celebrities and television shows have begun to draw an increased attention to sex slavery and the role that child abuse plays in the business of human trafficking.

But there’s an often overlooked issue here which desperately deserves the same negative attention and determined devotedness to its extermination—nevertheless, it does not receive it.

Pornography has been credited by both the Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing Children as significantly contributing to the problem of sex trafficking.

While it’s mostly considered normal to feel disgust and dismay at the notion of coercing a child into performing sexual acts on an adult (or another child, for that matter), viewing and/or participating in pornographic material is increasingly normalized by the same communities within our culture that normalize gender fluidity and abortion.

And the normalization of pornography occurs all across our daily lives, in areas we’d not expect it.

In mainstream books and movies—Fifty Shades of Grey is an obvious example—we see how soft porn has broken through the boundaries between erotica and romance novels, and exposed mostly women to a new type of pornography that had not been nearly as popular prior (although it did exist).

In various forms of sports media, it’s rampant. Barstool Sports, a popular blog dedicated to commentary on sports and pop culture, recently hired a retired porn star to take on a full-time role in their most popular podcast. Her career in pornographic films is now a weekly topic on the show.

These are only two examples. And to say that pornography is an isolated problem, and in no way contributes to the perversion and exploitation of sexuality in our culture is a blatant lie.

Elizabeth Smart—the woman whose story we know all too well—recently released a video on the ways that pornography severely escalated the violence of her captivity.

See for yourself here.

Pornography does damage to hearts and minds every minute of every day.

It contributes heavily to the perversion of sex, the oppression of women, and the exploitation of children at every corner of the world.

And it is a lie perpetuated, with permission, by our American culture.

In recent years, a handful of organizations have begun to pop up which actively work to combat the grip that pornography has on society.

Fight The New Drug is just one example of an organization that’s working to shed light on the close ties pornography has to the deep sufferings of human hearts, relationships, and the world as a whole.

A quick glance at Fight The New Drug’s website immediately reveals these truths: studies have shown that frequent porn use contributes to depression, anxiety, stress, and social problems. Men who’ve been exposed to pornography report less satisfaction in relationships: they’re less affectionate and desire minimal emotional involvement. And as a whole, pornography contributes to lesser empathy with victims of sexual assault, a negative attitude toward women, and increased behavioral aggression across the board. All of this is just a fraction of the negative results of frequent porn use.

We were made for more than this. Porn is not a recreational activity; it is a distortion of love that continues to erode our ability to connect with one another and with God from the inside, out.

If we want to combat modern day slavery, quitting porn is a good place to start.

VALENTINE’S DAY POST: A Reflection On The Cost Of Choosing To Love

For years, my best friend and I have often talked about the psychology of love and romantic relationships.

We’ve read books, articles, listened to podcasts, watched movies, and discussed heavily and deeply why people act the way they act, why they do the things they do, and why we, ourselves, have handled our own relationships the way we have from the time we first became friends ten years ago.

So it was nothing new that I sent her a link today to a TED talk called, “A Better Way To Talk About Love.”

She watched almost immediately and responded, saying how much she was loving the love-themed TED talks all over her newsfeed this Valentine’s Day.

In these casual and unofficial “studies” we’ve done for nearly a decade, I’ve come to a personal conclusion that I realized was reiterated, however unintentionally, as I watched these videos on love this morning.

And the conclusion was this: that love is a choice.

I saw this theme in the video I mentioned above—“A Better Way To Talk About Love.” As Mandy Len Catron describes, tongue in cheek, the ways in which we talk about love: by falling, burning, aching, yearning for the beloved—we inevitably set the tone for the way in which we experience it. These terms, all in different ways, suggest a victimhood. These metaphors imply that we are victims of love, rather than actors in a very specific, deliberate action—the act of giving and receiving love.

While Len Catron suggests in her talk that it would be advisable to consider love in a deliberate, active way—rather than the passive way we view it when we describe it using these metaphors—I’d take that one step further. Real, actual love—love that mirrors the love our Lord feels for us and more importantly, the love that our Lord IS—is an active love.

And more importantly, it is a choice.

Another TED talk, titled, “This is what enduring love looks like,” tells the story of two photographers who pursued a project on enduring love. They traveled to Vegas for what was deemed “the largest speed dating event in the world” and one of the photographers took photos while the other (a single woman who’d never been in a longterm relationship) participated in the event. They described, in a sentence or two, each encounter the female photographer had—19 in total. Then, they traveled to another event, where they photographed couples who’d been together for many, many years—some upwards of 50. When the trip was over, they concluded one similarity in both the couples who’d been long married and the singles who participated in the speed dating event: endurance. Each, regardless of the circumstances, endured frustration and sadness and difficulty, for the sake of finding or maintaining love. And again, I take that one step further: first, they chose to do so.

Love is an action. It’s something we do, not something we simply fall into. Just as the Lord gave us free will, He did not give us any real guidelines by which we choose our beloved. He did not say, “this person must subscribe to the same political beliefs,” nor did he say, “this person must also think Beyonce is great.” Rather, the guidelines He gave come into play AFTER that choice has been made—stay faithful to your spouse, for better or for worst. And this is important in that since there’s no real guidelines for choosing a beloved, there’s no guarantees that one person is easier than another.

This tells us, therefore, that it’s not about the person. It is about the choice.

So the real, moral issue here comes into play not so much in the selection of that specific person, but afterward—when we are then required to make that choice again, and again, and again—in moments when it is much less appealing to do so.

And Len Catron touches on this in a second TED talk, titled, “Falling In Love Is The Easy Part.” At the end of her talk, she refers to an article published for the Modern Love column of the New York Times, in which she wrote this statement:

“Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”

She elaborates as she recounts this statement in her talk:

“I cringe a little when I read that now, not because it isn’t true, but because, at the time, I really hadn’t considered everything that was contained in that choice. I didn’t consider how many times we would each have to make that choice, and how many times I will continue to have to make that choice, without knowing whether or not he will always choose me.”

But this is the nature and very essence of love—the vulnerability of giving it, without the guarantee that it will be reciprocated.

It is this self-sacrificing aspect of love that makes it real, and makes it true, and makes it an action. This is what makes it a choice.

While I have a very deep appreciation for those great Catholics many of us know like Jason and Crystallina Evert, Bobby Angel and Jackie Francois, I’m also very critical of them. I feel that in their mission to encourage chastity amongst young, unmarried Catholics, they’ve also inadvertently set the standard for romantic relationships impossibly high, and have left very little room for Catholic young people to be accepting of anything short of perfection in their significant other.

This is, quite simply, not the truth about love.

Love is not a conditional action based on the beloved’s worthiness. We cannot, and should not, choose not to love someone because of the mistakes they’ve made or the flaws they manifest. If this were appropriate in love, this “love” would be more self-serving than not, which negates the entire point.

Rather, love must exist without conditions for it to be real. As Mother Teresa has said, “Love, to be real, it must cost—it must hurt—it must empty us of self.”

And how do we know?

How do we know that this is what real, true love looks like? How do we know that love isn’t something innate that we’re thrust into involuntarily, or that it’s a warm, fuzzy feeling we get that eventually goes away, and so we move on to the next “beloved”?

Because the death of the Lord on the cross IS love. It is the epitome of self-sacrifice, and the example we, as Christians, look to in discovering the right way to love.

We’re taught that Christ was given this choice, and what’s more, we’re taught He was tempted, many times over the course of His earthly life, to refuse it. But He accepted this call, this action of self-giving love, with the knowledge that mankind might not choose Him back. It cost, and it hurt, and it emptied Him of self—but it brought the purpose of our existence full circle.

And now, we too, are free to love.