Eating Healthy During Lent
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Catholics Shouldn’t Use These 40 Days As An Excuse to Eat Poorly

I have several boot camp clients and personal training clients that are Catholic.  I, too, am Catholic.  As we approach the 40-day Lenten season which starts with Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday, many Catholics following a healthy exercise and nutritional program ponder how to eat healthy and maintain their energy.

Most Catholics choose to do something charitable or give something up for lent. Sometimes they give up a food or beverage they enjoy such as chocolate, cookies, doughnuts, coffee, soda, alcohol or ice cream. Catholics also avoid eating meat on Fridays. There are all kinds of debatable theories and stories behind this practice. There are also two days of fasting in which Catholics eat only one full meal (usually in the evening) during Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Some sects choose to fast for the entire 40 days of Lent. So, instead of eating meat, Catholics traditionally eat fish on Fridays. For most Christian religions or sects, fish is not a meat, which is why it’s the popular choice. You can also eat your favorite vegetarian meal. However, not eating meat is supposed to be a sacrifice.  Meat was traditionally eaten by farmers and the wealthy while those who were poor did not have access to a lot of meat.  So, we give up meat to identify with the poor who didn’t have that opportunity.

So, how do you eat healthy during lent and avoid all of those fatty foods such as fried fish, cheese pizza, and pasta? Simply make healthy choices and don’t use Lent as an excuse to not eat healthy. There are thousands of healthy fish and vegetarian recipes that you can surely find four or five good recipes to choose.

My 2014 update to this post: For the past few years I have had a beef (pun intended) with the church that I attend.  Like many Catholic churches, our parish hosts a fish fry on Friday evenings.  While this fish is very tasty, it is very unhealthy. It is an all-you-can eat buffet with battered deep-fried fish, mac & cheese, cheese pizza, cookies, and more.  Last year, I figured out that the average person consumes about 1,500 – 1,800 calories in this one meal!  THAT is the daily intake limit for most healthy individuals.  I have asked the church to have grilled salmon or a baked fish added to the menu, but have been turned down to the point that I have just given up even asking.  I have even offered to help organize this… but nothing!

Another local Catholic church offers grilled salmon.  While the grilled salmon is about the same amount of calories per serving, it has 0g carbohydrates and about 39g of protein compared to about 15g carbs and 13g protein for the fried fish.  The fried fish has about 500g sodium while the grilled salmon only has 85g.   And the fat in the salmon is a heathy fat (Omega-3) while the deep fried fish contains VERY unhealthy fat.   Many of my clients attend my church and these fish fries.  If they only realized that it would take about 1,000+ Burpees to undo the damage, then they might make healthier choices.

Anyway… Here are some tips I’ve found on the Internet…

  • Fast on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. Ash Wednesday is the start of the Lent season. Good Friday is the day Jesus died on the cross. In this case, fasting means eating only one full meal usually after sundown. As well as religious beliefs, there are a number of benefits to fasting. One being that fasting promotes autophagy, which is a cellular process that gets rid of old cells and old protein and uses the good ones. Another benefit is that it increases immune defence.
    Of course, children, those that are sick or need to eat regularly for health reasons are excused. Most Christian religions will not allow meat to be eaten on these days either. If you are working out, try to get your workout in as early in the morning as possible so that you are still using carbs from the night before as your energy source.
  • Speak to your bishop or your priest for the rules in your church and religion. Different sects and religions of Christianity fast every Friday, while others permit meat during Lent. Other sects consider fish (because it has a backbone) to be a meat. In most cases around Indiana, fish is okay. However, don’t make this an excuse to eat fried fish. Many Catholic Churches have a “Fish Fry” on Fridays. But they serve only fried fish. Ask them to come up with a healthy baked fish option such as cod, tilapia or salmon.
  • Go vegetarian. Vegetarian recipes tend to be healthy, with low levels of cholesterol and saturated fat. They may also feature some new and exciting flavors that you do not experience in your regular diet. Grab a vegetarian cookbook and get inventive in the kitchen. Salads with different exotic ingredients, including veggies, tropical fruits and nuts, can be filling and satisfying to your palate. Concentrate on making delicious dressings. Also investigate vegetable replacements for meats and poultry. Some soy sausage tastes just like the real thing, especially the breakfast sausages. Make a big pot of vegetable soup or meatless chili.
  • When it doubt, choose fish. Fish tends to be a foundational ingredient of Catholic meals during Lent, so take advantage of the opportunity to try out some new recipes. Ask for recommendations at the fish department of your grocery store, especially for local varieties that are more likely to be fresh. Just because it’s Lent, you don’t have to be austere. Scallops and shrimp prepared in elegant nouvelle recipes can be pleasing to your eyes as well as your stomach.
  • Make pasta dishes with meatless sauces. Cooking pasta is a good way to provide a rich and filling meal for your family while avoiding meat. And the key to pasta is the sauce. Purchase a tomato, cream or some other vegetable-based pre-made jarred sauce, or make your own large batch of sauce at home and save the leftovers for another meal during Lent. Add exciting extras to the sauce in the form of black olives, wild mushrooms, green peas, capers or tuna fish.
  • Cook as many meatless dishes in advance as possible and refrigerate or freeze meal-size portions for later use. The more meatless options you have available in your home during Lent, the less likely you will be tempted to eat meat.
    Be cheesy. Swiss, Brie, Roquefort, Cheddar…you have so many options to create flavorful meals with the addition of cheeses. You can use cheeses as snacks, for meatless cheese melts and as the base for fantastic sauces. Choose low-fat cheeses if you’re watching calories or cholesterol. Set up a potato bar with ingredients like cheese, sour cream, sunflower seeds, broccoli, chives, and green onions.
  • Visit the health food store. You can keep up your energy during Lent and get the protein you need by drinking delicious protein drinks made with whey or soy. Protein bars serve the same purpose.
  • Eat simple yet nourishing meals to symbolize solidarity with the poor and less fortunate of the world, an important value to recognize during Lent. Less extravagant meals like rice and beans, a very popular meal throughout the world, may be more appropriate for the act of fasting to encourage humility and gratitude for what you have.

Above all, don’t just use Lent as an excuse to revert back to unhealthy eating. This is also a great time to give up something unhealthy like soda or caffeine! Make sure to have a few simple, filling snacks during the fasting days to keep your energy up and metabolism firing on all cylinders. And make sure to check with your doctor if you have any health issues that may require you to change your Lenten diet. If there is a plausible health reason, I’m sure the Church and God will understand.

To your health!

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2 Responses to Eating Healthy During Lent
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  1. Tracey A says:

    Despite having been raised as a Catholic, I have never understood the concept of abstinence and fasting during the Lenten season. Especially the notion that fish isn’t meat. (Really? You mean fish isn’t flesh?) And, I don’t know a single Catholic who considers “fasting” the reduction of food intake, and eats only one meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It seems to me, if we followed these guidelines by definition, we’d all be a lot healthier. Instead, pizza, pierogies, and other fat and sugar laden entrees seem to be the most popular. I follow a mostly vegetarian diet, and this is the first article I’ve read that encourages healthy food choices during the season of Lent. Thank you for posting, it is great advice!

    • Brian Koning says:

      From my understanding, we are in a period of suffering and sacrifice and this is a form of penance. The poor did not have the means to raise animals for meat or to purchase it like the wealthy. But, fishing was very common and free for anyone that picked it up off of the rocks, baited a hook or cast a net… hence why fish is allowed… not because it isn’t meat. As to what the Church says…

      “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)”.

      Thanks for the comment!!!

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