For the next 40 days, Robert Leiste is saying goodbye to snacks.
Yes, Leiste is saying adios potato chips, pretzels and daily trips to his favorite coffee shop. For the next six weeks all that is off-limits, along with anything outside of his normal three squares a day.
He hasn’t taken up the latest and greatest diet regime — a New Age craze this is not.
No, this is Lent.
It’s the season in which Christians all over the world repent and reflect. This often means the addition of more good works and the subtraction of something they really love. And in many cases, what those in observance of the season, which runs from today, Ash Wednesday, through Easter Sunday, give up is food. Not all food, mind you, but something that is particularly loved. Something that would be a sacrifice to go without.
“This year I’m giving up snacks. Usually I give up French fries. That is the hardest thing because if you go to any fast food place, it’s like French fries,” says Leiste, pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church, 2700 Lawrence Ave. “I try to pick something that reminds me of the time of Lent, so I remember why am I giving this up. It’s to remember Jesus’ death on the cross and his sacrifice. It’s just a little reminder for me as why we’re doing it.”
In truth, one observing Lent could give up anything — caffeine, Facebook, driving — so long as the sacrifice is felt. But for many, the first sacrifice that comes to mind is the one that sends tummies rumbling in reminder every day.
“Most people I know give up food,” Leiste says. “Some people give up red meat and some people give up cookies, and I think it’s probably just the enjoyable factor because you are looking for something that you do on a regular basis. And food, I guess, is something you do on a regular basis.”
And if one does sacrifice a favorite food, it is possible that come Easter morning, when the six weeks have ended, to have lost something in the process: a few pounds. Not a bad side effect on the road to spiritual clarity.
“Although six weeks is fairly short-term, one could expect to see some health benefits, including tipping the scale a few pounds,” says Jeannine Goetz, assistant professor and assistant director of weight-control research projects at the Kansas University Energy Balance Laboratory.
Changing bad habits
Yes, breaking a bad dietary habit for just six weeks can mean a few ticks down the dial on the scale. But that’s as long as a new bad habit isn’t gained along the way.
“For example, someone who typically consumes two cans of soda each day might achieve a 3- to 4-pound weight loss across the 40-day span given their commitment to give up soda consumption,” Goetz says. “The catch, however, is whether the soda is replaced by a noncaloric beverage or simply another sugary beverage. In order for the health benefits to be realized, healthier behaviors must be substituted.”
Goetz also cautions that those few pounds could reappear rapidly if six weeks of going without is replaced by six weeks’ worth of bingeing. A new habit is only as good as a true lifestyle change.
“Sustaining healthy behaviors following Lent is possible, but first, you must consider whether you desire to commit to this new behavior indefinitely,” Goetz says. “Change is difficult — setting short and long-term goals can help facilitate the change and boost motivation. Greater long-term success may be achieved by revising original goals set during Lent. Try consuming the food in moderation — less often and in smaller quantities — rather than complete restriction which often leads to preoccupation with the food and ultimately failure.”
Which is why going “cold turkey” on your favorite foods doesn’t usually work. Of course, it works during Lent because preoccupation and longing is kind of the point.
“Quitting a habit cold turkey often works during Lent given the additional spiritual implication of sacrifice. However, when those 40 days have passed, this motivating factor subsides,” says Goetz. “Kicking a habit cold turkey may work for some, but this mentality often leads to struggles and may not be the healthiest strategy.”
Gaining while losing
Whether the number on the scale changes during the next six weeks, what one can gain spiritually during Lent can be far more important than any flab lost, points out Sister Marcella Schrant of the Order of Ursuline Sisters, who is the receptionist at St. John the Evangelist, 1234 Ky.
“Some people look at Lent as a drudgery,” Schrant says. “They just think another 40 days to do something hard, but I think if we could (we should) look upon it as kind of a time of renewal, a refresher course on our spiritual journey, rather than as a drudgery kind of thing.”