Structure of a Christian cross on a hill with a background of the sun setting.

How to Avoid Diet Culture During Lent

(Published Mar. 15, 2022. Updated Feb. 12, 2024.)

During Lent, Christians traditionally fast and abstain from certain behaviors as a means to seek forgiveness for their sins and deepen their spiritual connection with God. However, it’s important to acknowledge that Lent can also intersect with diet culture influences.

Among all Lenten practices, fasting and abstinence often receive the most attention from secularism. Unfortunately, aspects of secularism have permeated these practices to the extent that some have lost sight of their true spiritual purpose.

The start of Lent marks the start of a diet for some. But are these goals motivated by vanity or charity?

Barren tree in a desert.
Photo by Ryan Cheng on Unsplash

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 [1].

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: 

  • Prayer 
  • Almsgiving 
  • Repentance 
  • Fasting and abstinence 

Why Do People Fast and Abstain During Lent?

During Lent, abstinence and fasting are practiced commemorating the sacrifices of Jesus. Abstinence involves ‘doing without,’ while fasting entails ‘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. 

Abstaining from meat is a biblical discipline observed during Lent. It’s customary to refrain from meat and consume fish, symbolizing Christ, on Ash Wednesday and Fridays throughout Lent.

Fasting, another biblical discipline, is observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday through a mini fast by followers.

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 numerous layers to unravel in response to this profound question, and one significant aspect is the influence of diet culture.

In this article, we will examine how diet culture has infiltrated Lent, masquerading under its guise.

Diet sign that says, "did I eat that?"
Photo by Jamie Matocinos on Unsplash

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 it was achieved or whether it was desired—such as 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. Remember, 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, nor does it justify indulgence in gluttony and excessive eating.

If you seek to live Lent with deeper significance, it’s valuable to delve into why the mentality of diet culture might impede your spiritual journey and explore strategies to circumvent its influence.

Street signs with the sunset or sunrise in the background.
Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Questions to Ask Yourself if You’re Dieting During Lent

As we navigate the intricate balance between spiritual devotion and dietary choices during Lent, it’s crucial to engage in thoughtful reflection on the impact of our eating habits and body perceptions on our spiritual journey.

  1. Am I overly focused on restricting food to the extent that it deprives my body of essential nutrients necessary for proper function?
  2. Do I engage in negative self-talk? For instance:
    • “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.”
  3. Do I maintain a facade of perfect eating habits in public while overindulging in isolation?
  4. Are the changes I’m implementing sustainable beyond Lent, or are they merely temporary fixes?
  5. Would I have initiated these dietary changes if I were a different size?
  6. Have I elevated certain body images, turning Lent into a period solely focused on reshaping my physique?
  7. How does my relationship with God and the world around me benefit or improve through my dietary choices?
  8. Am I incorporating self-compassion and kindness into my Lenten journey, especially concerning my relationship with food and body image?
A hand stretching out at the sun.
Photo by Todd Rhines on Unsplash

Live Lent with More Meaning

Sometimes, amidst the hustle of life, we may forget the profound significance of the Lenten season. It’s essential to remember that engaging in various spiritual practices during Lent can foster a deeper intimacy with God.

Furthermore, let us embark on these spiritual endeavors not in misery but with joy, understanding, and unity, reflecting upon the profound sacrifice of Jesus.

Practices to Abstain from During Lent

  • Negative self-talk: Replace it with self-kindness and prayer, embracing the unwavering love of God.
  • TV or social media: Dedicate that time to your family, church, prayer, Bible reading, or serving others.
  • Compulsive shopping: Redirect your resources by tithing to your church or donating to a food bank or someone in need.
  • Comparison to others: Embrace your unique journey and gifts without comparing yourself to others.
  • Judgement of other people’s bodies: Practice acceptance and compassion toward others, recognizing the inherent dignity in every individual.

Ways to Deepen Your Lenten Journey

  • Practice mindful eating through a spiritual lens. Offer gratitude not only for the food but also for the labor of those who cultivated, distributed, and prepared it. Show appreciation for the company of others at your table and attentively respond to your body’s hunger and fullness signals.
  • Reflect on how you interact with others, including those you may find challenging. Acknowledge the impact of your emotions, particularly anger, on yourself and those around you.
  • Embrace forgiveness and seek reconciliation by extending forgiveness to others and seeking it for yourself.
  • Endeavor to relinquish destructive habits such as smoking, substance abuse, and excessive consumption of alcohol or pornography. Seek support and guidance to facilitate this process.
  • Integrate your Lenten sacrifices with spiritual practices. For instance, if you choose to abstain from a particular food or beverage, consider redirecting the funds you would have spent on it toward charitable causes or initiatives aligned with your spiritual journey.
A man in an open field holding a Bible with the sun setting in the background.
Photo by Priscilla Du Perez on Unsplash

All of these practices have the power to deepen your relationship with God, imbue your sacrifices with purpose, and enrich your Lenten experience with greater significance. As we conclude, let us ponder this Scripture verse for further contemplation:

“…‘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

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