Why This Dietitian Wants You To Stop Giving Up Food For Lent

I’ve been a dietitian now for about 15 years. And in every one of years, someone invariably has told me around this time of the year they would give up their favorite food for Lent. Chocolate, potato chips, dessert, candy, and pop (soda for some of you) seem to be the big ones. And it’s usually the same people giving up the same things every year. Is that you? Well, I’m here to beg you: don’t give up food for Lent this year! Why am I opposed to this practice? Let’s dive in!

A cross against a light purple and pink sky, with the words "Why you should stop giving up food for Lent" written - ideas on what to give up for Lent

Now I’ll be the first to tell you, I have never been a member of any of the several Christian denominations that observe Lent. I am, however, well versed in the spirit of Lent, as well as the concept of self-deprivation and fasting for religious purposes. I believe that the spirit of Lent is easily achieved without playing into our “good food/bad food” culture. Let me explain.

As a dietitian, I find people often confess to me. No, they don’t confess their wanton desires or odious actions. But they do confess what they view as diet sins. “I was bad this week! I ate cookies for dessert!” “I was completely off my diet.” “I’m a total failure because I went to a party and ate pizza and chips instead of a salad.” I even once had someone pop into my office with a box of donuts and say, “Shhh! I’m passing out donuts, but I already know the dietitian doesn’t want any!” (For the record, I love donuts and I almost cried that day.) There are thousands of variations of this. Sound familiar?

Diet Culture

These statements are all a reflection of our current “diet culture” where we assign foods to either the “good” or “bad” group, based on certain qualities and ingredients they possess. Donuts – bad. Cookies – bad. Pizza and chips – bad. Salad – good. “I’m gonna be bad and order the pasta.” Ever say that to a server at a restaurant? I’ve heard it from people sitting at my own table.

But let me challenge you to think differently about food. You are not bad because you ate a donut. Or pizza and chips, or pasta, or anything. 

I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: EATING FOOD DOESN’T MAKE YOU BAD.

And foods themselves aren’t “good” or “bad.” Whether we derive health or illness from foods all depends on how much and how often we eat it. Eating one spinach leaf won’t make you healthy, the same way that eating a cookie for dessert won’t make you unhealthy.

All it does to think or talk like that is shame you. When we feel shame, there are few potential outcomes:

  • We shut down. We feel so discouraged that we give up. “Welp. Might as well eat the whole bag now!” Yep, I’ve said that.
  • We overindulge in isolation. We are so embarrassed about eating food we “shouldn’t” in public, that we’ll buy it secretly and eat it out of sight of everyone. A problem because we’re likely eating much more than we need, or would have otherwise. This can even lead to certain types of eating disorders.
  • We move to the other extreme, and become obsessed with weight loss or “health”. This is another prime location for eating disorder development. Sometimes eating disorders are really sneaky too, taking on the appearance of someone who looks healthy in every way, but behind closed doors is completely obsessed with only eating foods they deem as healthy without leeway.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about devouring these foods with reckless abandon just because we’re not going to call them “bad”. I’m talking about removing the shame and blame from eating them, and allowing yourself to truly enjoy them purposefully. Even scheduling them into your meals and snacks sometimes! It’s human nature to want the things you can’t have – even if it’s self-imposed. Maybe decide that on Tuesday night you are going to have a brownie from that amazing bakery down the street and fit it into your plan. Having conscious indulgences planned throughout the week can help reduce unplanned overindulgences and cravings.

Diet Culture and Lent

Now what does all that have to do with Lent? Lent is the time people give up those so-called “bad” foods. Do you know of anyone that’s given up apples for Lent? How about celery or broccoli? No. While certainly not the original intention, the things people now abstain from during Lent play directly into our mentally harmful and self-shaming diet culture. And I’m just not convinced that can help us connect better with Jesus and our faith.

Not only that, but here’s what I’ve witnessed from people giving up their favorite indulgences for Lent: They don’t generally have a plan for moderating that food after Lent. They’ve been thinking of nothing but that for 40 days, and come Easter Saturday they are eating ALL. THE. THINGS. (i.e. if you eat 40 days worth of chocolate in one day, giving it up because it’s unhealthy is moot).

What to give up for Lent: Someone cutting up a paper that reads "Hatred" "Indifference" and "Envy"

What To Give Up For Lent

On the other hand, the purpose of Lent is, in fact, to connect with the suffering and sacrifice Jesus endured during the 40 days he spent fasting and praying in the desert. So this year, I challenge you to do a little soul searching, and truly think about what will help you best achieve that purpose, without giving up any food (outside of the traditionally observed fasting and abstention from meat). Here are a few ideas of what to give up for Lent to get you started:

  • Give up thinking about foods as “good” and “bad”
  • Abstain from your favorite social media platform
  • Give up smoking or vaping
  • Go the extra mile to be kinder to everyone, especially those you might not really like
  • Abstain from your weekly mani/pedi
  • Schedule time each night with your family to read a few verses from the Bible and discuss
  • Cut out screen time outside of work
  • Give up road rage by using stress management techniques
  • Wake up 10 minutes early to start every day with an extra prayer session
  • Practice self-forgiveness, and give up being critical of yourself and others

I believe these can absolutely help bring us closer to, and connect with our faith in a better, healthier, and more fulfilling way than giving up “bad” food. What do you think? What are you giving up for Lent this year? Tell me in the comments!

If you’re looking for some healthier alternatives to some of your favorite treats, you might enjoy these recipes:

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