During Lent, Christians traditionally fast and refrain from certain behaviors as a way to seek forgiveness for their sins and strengthen their spiritual bond with God. However, Lent can also be affected by diet culture.
Of all the Lenten practices – fasting and abstinence garner the most attention from secularism. Aspects of secularism have seeped into these practices. So much that people have forgotten what the purpose of these spiritual disciplines is for.
The start of Lent marks the start of a diet for some. But are these goals motivated by vanity or charity?
WHAT IS LENT?
Lent is a solemn season in the Christian liturgical calendar. It observes Jesus’s 40-day journey through the desert, where he was tempted by Satan, and before he began his public ministry.
The purpose of Lent is to prepare believers for the celebration of Easter. It’s an opportunity to grow closer to God through these spiritual practices:
- Fasting and abstinence
WHY DO PEOPLE FAST OR ABSTAIN DURING LENT?
During Lent, abstinence and fasting are practiced, to remember the sacrifices of Jesus. Abstinence is “doing without” and fasting is “doing with less.”
The hunger experienced is a reminder of the hunger we ought to have for God and the hunger He has for us.
Abstinence from meat is a biblical discipline. It’s common practice to abstain from meat and eat fish, a symbol of Christ, during Ash Wednesday and Fridays of Lent. Fasting is also a biblical discipline that followers practice during Ash Wednesday and Good Friday through a mini fast.
For some people, abstaining and fasting during Lent goes beyond customary practice. They may give up food deemed as “bad.”
In some cases, the exterior work of fasting or abstaining from “bad” foods becomes the main focus of Lent, rather than the interior work of drawing closer to God.
How did we get here?
There are many answers to this deep question. One answer is diet culture. In this article, we’ll look at diet culture under the guise of Lent.
WHAT IS DIET CULTURE?
Diet culture is the glorification of weight loss by any means necessary and is characterized by:
- Measurement of self-worth by weight, often in comparison to others’ bodies.
- Measurement of self-worth by how little is eaten or diet compliance.
- Advertisements for weight loss programs/products that suggest you’re “in” if you follow or look a certain way.
- Praising others for their size or weight loss regardless of how this was achieved or if even desired — as in the case of involuntary weight loss due to a medical condition, illness, or grief.
- The cycle of chasing the next diet.
- Demonizing certain foods to the point it causes anxiety or guilt if eaten.
Diet culture fails to look at health beyond the physical. It overlooks other behaviors that influence health, such as activity level, sleep, and stress. It also dismisses other factors that determine a person’s body size — factors a person has no control of, such as genetics and age.
Pitting “good” food against “bad” food also oversimplifies what it means to eat healthily. Eating one apple won’t make a person good or healthy just as eating one cookie won’t make a person bad or unhealthy.
DIET CULTURE IS NOT LENT
Carefully consider acts of sacrifice that are stricter than the norm and discuss them with a spiritual director.
Any sacrifice that hinders your well-being is contrary to God’s will.
This doesn’t mean you can’t make sensible dietary changes to improve health during Lent. Or to be glutinous and eat all the food.
But if you want to live Lent with more meaning, it’s worth digging deeper into why diet culture mentality could hinder your spiritual journey and how to avoid that.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF IF YOU’RE DIETING DURING LENT
- Am I overly focused on the restriction of food in a way that deprives my body of essential nutrients required to properly function?
- Do I entertain negative self-talk in my head? Examples:
- “I caved and ate candy, I’m a failure.”
- “I don’t look like that person, I’m not good enough or worthy of love.”
- Do I eat perfectly in public but overindulge in isolation?
- Are the changes I’m making sustainable beyond Lent?
- Would I have made these diet changes if I were a different size?
- Have I exalted body images and made Lent about molding my body?
- How is my relationship with God and the world around me better through my dieting?
LIVE LENT WITH MORE MEANING
Sometimes we forget the reason for the season.
Remember that other spiritual works during Lent help build a more intimate relationship with God.
In addition, don’t do spiritual works in misery; but with joy, understanding, and unity to Jesus’s sacrifice.
Abstain from the following
- Negative self-talk. Replace it with self-kindness and prayer. Believe that God loves you.
- TV or social media. Spend that time with your family, at church, in prayer, reading the Bible, or in service to others.
- Compulsive shopping. Tithe to your church or give to a food bank or someone in need.
- Comparison of yourself to others.
- Judgement of other people’s bodies.
Other ways to add more meaning to Lent
- Practice mindful eating through a spiritual lens. Thank God not just for the food but also for the workers at the farms, grocery stores, and restaurants. Show gratitude for what you have and for others at your table. Tune into your hunger and satiety cues.
- Examine how you treat others, even people you don’t like. Are you aware of how your anger affects you and others?
- Forgive and ask for forgiveness.
- Seek help and give up destructive habits, such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, and pornography.
- If you choose to give up a certain food or drink, layer it with spiritual work. For example, donating the money you would otherwise spend on coffee or candy.
All these ways can strengthen your connection with God, help you make sacrifices that aren’t in vain, and live a more meaningful Lenten season. We end with this Scripture verse for further reflection:
“…‘to love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” -Mark 12:33