For God, Or for Your Bod? Some Thoughts about Fasting and Dieting

A reader writes:

    I can't figure out how to make fasting not about losing weight!  As you know as an American woman we struggle so much with eating/exercising/body fat etc.    I am going on retreat this coming weekend and was thinking of attempting a fast. But it always turns into this thing about how much will I weigh afterwards etc.

I got this note some time ago, but since Lent is coming up, it seems like an especially relevant question.  Obviously, unless we are exempt, we are required to fast according to the Church's rules on certain days, no matter what our motivation.  Here is what the Church says about required fasting

The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday [Canon 97] to the 59th Birthday [i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday] to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. Such fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk). Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast; however, they seem contrary to the spirit of doing penance.

Those who are excused from fast or abstinence Besides those outside the age limits, those of unsound mind, the sick, the frail, pregnant or nursing women according to need for meat or nourishment,  manual laborers according to need, guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without giving great offense or causing enmity and other situations of moral or physical impossibility to observe the penitential discipline.

But my reader is talking about voluntary fasting on other days.  Is it worth doing if you're thinking about your waistline?

First, I'd like to point out that even a nutritional dunce like me knows that short-term fasting is a horribly ineffective way to lose weight.  You will shrink a little at first, but then you will level off as your body struggles to survive.  As soon as you stop fasting, you'll pack those pounds right back on again.  So, there's that.

There are plenty of legitimate, non-vain, non-spiritual reasons for wanting to lose weight :  to be more appealing to our spouses; to be more attractive so we can do our jobs more effectively; to be healthier and more energetic so we can enjoy life more and serve others better.  Catholics do not disdain the flesh!  We respect our own bodies, and consider bodily health and beauty to be good things, if not the highest good.

Also, if we are slaves to food in one way or another, then self-mastery is an admirable spiritual goal.

But what if we are already reasonably healthy and attractive, and just want to lose weight to be supermodel thin, or to make our chubby co-workers feel bad, or something like that?  Obviously, we shouldn't be using fasting for that, and we probably shouldn't be striving for that kind of weight loss with any method, quasi-spiritual or not.

But assuming that, like most Americans, we can just stand to lose a few (or more than a few) extra pounds, is it really so terrible to take advantage of fasting to achieve spiritual and physical goals at the same time?  I would argue that mixed motives are not only excusable, they are inevitable.  God doesn't require us to have absolutely lily-white intentions when we make sacrifices.

Think of it this way:  I know I should be patient with my kids, but sometimes I blow it and lose my temper -- most often when we're at home.  Now, if I'm at the playground and other moms are watching, I find it a lot easier to be patient and gentle.  Not the best motivation for being a nicer mom, but it's still a good thing: The kids have more fun, it's edifying for any onlookers, and I get a little reminder that I can control myself if I want to, which may help me control myself next time, even if nobody is watching.

In the same way, God can certainly bring about all sorts of spiritual fruits from fasting, even if the person fasting has mixed motives.

Now, if you are interested in fasting as a spiritual exercise, but are concerned that vanity will blot out any benefits, there are some ways around it.  Here’s one example:  I can’t fast when I’m pregnant.  If I curtail my meals as proscribed, I would pass out (which would not be  not good for the baby I'm carrying, or for anyone in or around in the car I'm probably driving).  So instead of cutting back on the amount I eat, I will eat only according to nutritional value, and only eat foods I don't especially like.

You can get creative in a similar was if you are undergoing a voluntary fast. You know, better than anyone else, what you want to eat.  Sit down and figure out what you can cut out or replace.  You can deny yourself all sorts of pleasures without actually losing weight!

Something else to consider:  there are many, many different reasons we acquire the eating habits that make us overweight.  There are so many emotional and psychological factors that can feed into the problem.  If worries about food issues constantly occupy your thoughts, it couldn't hurt to ask a priest or spiritual director to help you untangle your thinking -- or, at very least, to pray about it.  Yes, God cares about this stuff.  For some people, overeating is harming their relationship with God; but for some people, dieting is harming their relationship with God.

Food and God and Americans -- what a mess.  Overall, my advice is that, if you're just too concerned that you're Doing It Wrong when you fast, then do something else, instead.  There are many, many penances and exercises in self-denial and self-control that we can take on, during Lent or at any time.  Lauren Gulde gives us some good tips for how to have an intentional Lent; and Nick Senger offers 101+ ideas for other types of Lenten fasts.

What do you think?  How do you find the balance between doing something for God and doing something for your bod?