Great Lent and Dieting

Since the fast started, I’ve lost 23 pounds. Losing weight should never be a goal of Great Lent, but it happened. And continues to happen.

The reason it happened is partially spiritual, partially physical, and partially psychological. Our Orthodox tradition requires us to limit our eating; the Ustav, oft forgotten in our days, prescribed times of fasting as well as foods from which we abstain, which is admirably preserved (restored?) in the traditional Western use of Orthodoxy. For the day, until the ninth hour (or sunset in the monasteries) a collation (what we would call a “continental breakfast”, usually a simple baked item and a drink) is all that is eaten, and a single meal should be eaten– after the day hours.

Of course, the size of the meal is never quite discussed in the canonical rule– though it is discussed often in the Fathers– whether in East or West, which has been used as a perverse loophole by many Orthodox in history, including, sadly, me.

With all the talk of obesity in this day and age, I went to the doctor a month ago (I’ve gotten to know my doctor much better in worrying about my health) and discovered I was defined as morbidly obese. I hadn’t radically altered my eating habits of late; these were, sadly long ingrained eating habits that made me a chunky kid, nullified by the onset of adolescence and the high metabolism of youth, to finally exact its final revenge in my 30’s. Now, approaching 40 years on this earth God willing, a 303-pound deacon’s visit to the doctor made me realize that it was time to confront it directly.

I was raised as a son of fairly healthy immigrant parents who had themselves grown up in relative scarcity. The motto was simple: eat everything on your plate. And some of those portions were heaping.¬† And really tasty too. My sisters could refuse– for that matter, it was almost to be expected, since they were girls. Consequently I, expert plate-finisher that I was, was given fantastic leftovers. I have to wonder whether many children of single parents, who naturally often grew up with less, grew up with similar “scarcity ethics”. (The flip side of this was the “storage ethics”, where everything was stored; this led to less fresh food being eaten and– in some cases– similar eating habits.)

Morbidly obese. My parents raised a good kid in many respects. But when it came to food, I have come to realize, I was a glutton and it didn’t bother anyone. After all, I’d work it off. Right? My father, after all, was a cook (who really deserved the title “chef”, due to his incredible skill with many varieties of food and flawless palate). And he was thin and ate a lot too!

Enter 2013, where I haven’t worked for anyone in two years and the last eight years of work were behind a desk or standing and pacing two to three hours a day. That day at the doctor’s office was a final day of reckoning. I didn’t live like my father, nor my mother. I was not active. But I sure ate like I was.

Before then I viewed the solution to the problem of the Great Fast with legalism. (Before I was Western rite it was even easier. Soy milk and cereal for breakfast, fried calamari–not fried in olive oil, of course– with a side of fries for lunch, and a vegetarian dinner– with seconds!) Consequently, the Fast was nothing more– when it came to food– than a dietary switch and a chance to try out fabulous new recipes! And I know I’m not alone in this: see here — or even worse, here. 2,000 years of Orthodoxy have produced both countless saints teaching us to limit our eating, but have also unfortunately produced hundreds of legalistic ways to deal with recipes. (As a side note, in my opinion, a proper Orthodox cookbook should probably include recipes like “how to boil beans”, and “how to use pepper”. As a side note, Western Orthodox can use oil, and there are no ridiculous debates as to whether the rule means “olive oil”. Just say what you mean, and don’t hide behind legalism. The Eastern Orthodox tradition is no oil, period.)

Modern Orthodox theological discussion, when we begin talking about fasting, overstresses– to the point of irrationality– that fasting and dieting are two different things, or at the least have two different goals. I’ve begun to question the wisdom of such a blanket assertion. Fasting should never be done for secular reasons (to “look good for the beach”, et cetera) but this is not because we aren’t supposed to have better eating habits– it’s because we are canonically not supposed to pride ourselves in our appearance. But maybe this emphasizing “this is not a diet” is why we see so many fat clergy (surprise! I’m one of them!) Maybe saying “you can eat what you want, but just follow the guidelines for abstinence” is part of the problem, because it can cover up gluttony. Maybe that’s why so many people gain weight during the fast!

So this fast, I decided to do something I haven’t done before– resist the urge for seconds, and ask myself twice if I was actually hungry before a meal or just eating because I was “supposed to”. In addition to this, my lovely Diaconissa wanted to reduce the risk of diabetes for reasons which, if she so chooses, she can explain herself. So we cut the amount of sides in our dishes (sides are almost always high in carbohydrates) opting for salads in lieu of, say, pasta. I started drinking more water. Switched out high-carb¬†beverages (regular soda, canned tea drinks, and beer– alcoholic or not– for example, are all high-carb beverages) for clear juices, et cetera. I resisted the urge to “clear the pot” (which had become the adult version of “clear everyone’s plate”). We’ve eaten soy “meat” (ugh) exactly twice this Great Lent. (And one of those times was both an accident and a disappointment). In one way the Western fast is useful for such a dietary change: it allows fish, and if I remember the tradition correctly, it allows “small fish”. Thus some whiting with a salad was permissible.

(Some argue that this is basically the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic custom. This is wholly incorrect. Roman Catholicism also allows the use of dairy, meaning the only thing you are abstaining from is meat itself. It is interesting that in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas– even over 200 years after the schism of the West from Orthodoxy– abstinence from dairy as well as meat– the Orthodox position— was considered the norm.)

After the first week of simple (but still miserable due to my habitual gluttony) changes, I looked at the scale and had lost seven pounds. Four weeks later, I don’t eat seconds unless I am hungry. For that matter, I don’t eat except the one meal unless I am hungry.

For the record, I haven’t exercised regularly in any real and sustained sense in over a decade. I am still not doing so. The weight loss is occurring simply because habitual eating can be countered with simple circumspection.

From a technical standpoint, I am still morbidly obese, at severe risk of everything from stroke to heart attack and early death. And according to the BMI, I will be for another 40 pounds. But 23 of those pounds are gone. I hope our Lord gives me the time to fix this. I have no thyroid problems. I have no diabetes. I have no excuses. If I die related to my weight, it will have been driven by a long standing greed and gluttony from which I realized too late was a sin against God. Isn’t such treatment of the body in effect a slow form of suicide, which will kill the body and the soul?

This week, my mother called, and I was complaining about fasting and cutting down on food. My mother’s response was priceless: Didn’t our Lord eat nothing during the 40 days? Don’t you have lentils? What could I say but “thanks, mom?”

As we approach the final days of Lent, leading from the sadness of Great Friday to the joy of the Resurrection, let us reflect that the changes we make in our lives each Great Lent should effect a permanent character– we must strive to be better, and each repentance we effect THIS Great Lent should bring us closer to our Lord.

If I am still here next month, God will have given me 38 years on this earth. I would hate to not make it to 40 years due to a lifetime of gluttony for which I did not repent and must do immediately.

Wednesday of Holy Week.